Navigating the naturalist’s neighborhood

Photo of Slabsides by Julie O’Connor.

It isn’t easy locating Slabsides, the log cabin built by literary naturalist John Burroughs in 1895. Owned and maintained by the John Burroughs Association (JBA), which was founded in 1922, the year after the writer died, to preserve the property, Slabsides resides in the 200-acre John Burroughs Sanctuary: land that was acquired by the JBA in the 1960s after it was threatened by logging and development.

A small sign indicates the turnoff on Route 9W in the Town of Esopus hamlet of West Park, and one guesses that the historic site is likely up John Burroughs Road. Traveling up the steep hill, it’s easy to miss the grassy turnoff and the small, barely decipherable sign, which seems placed in the clearing like an afterthought. There is an open gate leading to a dirt road, which traverses a steep hill, the forest swooping down on the right, rocky cliffs closing in on the left.

It’s precipitous terrain, and when one finally comes to the cabin, which looks like new – the JBA recently restored the log slab siding and roof – one may wonder at Burroughs’ choice of site. His rustic abode faces and sits below a stupendous wooded cliff, scattered with boulders: what he referred to in his essay Wild Life about My Cabin as “the great granite bowl that holds my three acres of prairie soil,” upon whose rocky rim, he informs us, he would often sit in the evening twilight, listening to the “bird voices that rise up from the forest below me.”

If it seems odd that the naturalist, who in his lifetime was a household name – he was friends with John Muir, Walt Whitman and Theodore Roosevelt, all of whom visited the cabin, and was required reading for schoolchildren – picked the base of a mountain rather than a bluff overlooking the Hudson River as the site for his Shangri-La, well, he acknowledged as such himself in the opening paragraphs of Wild Life about My Cabin. River views grow wearisome to “a countryman like myself,” who “longs for something more homely, private and secluded,” Burroughs wrote.

A century or so later, it is remarkable how rugged and secluded those woodland environs remain – how one can effortlessly summon up the spirit of Burroughs retracing his path to the spring where he obtained his water and tramping along the same land that he described so beautifully, in all its varieties of birdsong and seasons. You will likely have it all to yourself: Twice a year, the JBA holds an Open House, where Burroughs fans can visit the cabin and hear readings of his writings. However, the John Burroughs Sanctuary, as the surrounding preserve is called, is open year-round to the public – a fact that is not widely known. Now, however, a just-completed expansion of its network of trails and new signage is designed to make the Sanctuary most accessible to the public.

This year, after obtaining a $50,000 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, matched by $12,500 raised by the organization, JBA hired Edward Walsh, manager of Tahawus Trails, LLC, to construct three new trails and refurbish two of the four existing trails. The new trails provide access to the southern portion of the property, which abuts the 600-acre Black Creek State Forest. Designated as such by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation last December, the Forest, which was previously owned by Scenic Hudson, has its own set of trails, which will connect with the John Burroughs Sanctuary.

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