| June Burn|
author of Living High
Faculty of Creative Writing of U of WA.
celebrating National Book Week 12 Nov. 1944.
Original photo from archives of S.P.H.S.©
This estimate raced across the top of my coffee cup as June Burn and I had coffee in a restaurant the other morning. June Burn is the author of Living High, a different kind of book, published recently by Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, New York.
It was with the first sip of coffee that I made the mental reservation 'pixilated.'
By the time I'd reached the bottom of my coffee I was convinced June Burn is the most thoroughly refreshing, fascinating, absolutely free soul, I've ever met. Here is a woman who outwardly seems haphazard in her living but who truly has not one whit of irresponsibility in her soul––perhaps her early Methodist training, plus the advent of two sons, put a stabilizing strain in her whimsicality, and yet never wore that whimsicality threadbare.
There she sat across the restaurant table from me, her blue eyes looking like huge drops of the Puget Sound she loves so well; the sighing of the big firs and the rumble of stormy waters in her marvelous voice. Somehow she didn't belong there in the restaurant having ocffee. Rather she belonged to the great outdoors and I had the feeling she is a captive soul the minute four walls close in on her.
'You just come up to my island, Waldron Island,' I'll make you the finest hoecake you've ever tasted––it's made from whole wheat I grind by hand. And cook over the fireplace. Sure, I've got a kitchen in my cabin, and a kitchen range, too, but I like to cook over the open fireplace.'
Philosophy of Life Given
'You've got to get your wants down if you want to be happy. There are so many riches in the world that are not covered by economic security. I've had little cash but lots of color in my life. Queer, too, how I love to be alone in the woods and yet I adore people . . .no, that's not queer, either, for people are a great deal like trees––when they're real people.' And then she told me in chronological order of her life, as revealed in Living High, An Unconventional Autobiograhpy.
June Burn was born in Alabama, and her father was a Methodist circuit-rider preacher. She finished college at the Oklahoma A & M and then went to New York. She got a job on McCall's Magazine (she describes herself at that time as a 'wide-eyed, green kid'). Later, she decided she'd become a short-story writer so she went to live in a Maryland cabin, not so far from WA., D. C. with another girl. There she wrote and there she met Farrar Burn, an ensign in the Navy. They knew each other a month and then married. Farrar leaving the Navy for civilian life.
Their dream was an island. The atlas showed them the myriad of Puget Sound islands, so it was Westward-Ho! for the Burns. They homesteaded on Sentinel Island; there they followed out their own homespun philosophy, 'enjoy life first and settle down later,' They called their little island, one of the San Juans, the Gum Drop, it was so lush and green looking.
The Burns' life on Sentinel Island is a book within a book. In fact, Mrs. Burn admitted that 'their life had been a series of Islands––first Sentinel, then St. Lawrence Island in Alaska, then the present Waldron Island,' where she now makes her home.
'I wonder why everybody doesn't do their retiring first,' Mrs. Burn writes in Living High, 'while they have the zest for everything and settle down later on when they don't feel like doing anything but work, anyhow.'
The second part of her book is called The Pale Green Year, and that was the year that the Burns spent in AK on the Aleutian Islands, specifically on St. Lawrence Island, teaching school with the natives as their pupils. There they met an eccentric old man who thought he was Christ come to save the world, and he offered them many thousands of dollars to take him across the Bering Sea to Russia and around the world. They flipped a coin to see whether they'd go around the world or come back to Puget Sound and raise a family.
They flipped a coin, they came back to Sentinel Island, they had a son, North, who arrived in a terrible storm. The baby was born with Mr. Burn and a neighbor woman attending, who in lieu of a doctor––he could not reach the island on account of the storm––read instructions from a government bulletin directing her husband and the neighbor woman on childbirth procedure.
Then came a trip from St. Louis to WA., D. C. by donkey cart. Then a conventional business venture, which netted the Burns $8,000 annually––she wrote advertising and lectured, he ran a public market in Sacramento. But the open road called and soon the four Burns (Bob, a son, had joined the family before the California adventure) piled into a specially constructed automobile and started across country. They called it Burn's Ballad Bungalow, this touring theatre, which had a collapsible stage at the rear of the automobile, where the four Burns sang Farrar's self-composed songs to the tune of his guitar.
After this whirl around the country, they went back to Bellingham and there bought some land and built a cabin. Mrs. Burn wrote a daily column for the The Bellingham Herald. It was called Puget Sounding and in it she wrote of everything from life in logging camps to stories of the Indians.
Then came the depression and back to Waldron Island went the Burns––they had by this time purchased 44 acres on Waldron, also one of the San Juan group. There the four of them lived for 26 months on $200.
After that they founded a weekly paper, The Puget Sounder. It was first published in Bellingham, then Seattle. It was a literary success but a financial failure. Then came the time when Farrar had to go to New York, where he did lecturing and radio work. June and Bob, the younger son, hitchhiked to California. Later they joined Farrar in New York and there they lived in an 'undiscovered' New York. Mrs. Burn returned to write her book on Waldron Island and she's still there. North is attending the University of WA. Bob is a student at Bellingham HS. Farrar is making recordings for NBC in New York, and lecturing. Right now Mrs. Burn is trying to decide if she is going to New York or on an eastern lecture tour.
You find all this and much more in Living High. You find the beauty of nature served up as only June Burn can serve it up. There's philosophy, too, served up a la Burn. Here's a pinch of philosophy from Living High:
'Washdays were fun. We had learned from the Eskimos that if you don't live as you go, you don't live at all. Since occupations fill most of our time, they must be made interesting, lively, delightful. They have got to be, or at least seem, important. Farrar and I had determined that we would never again do anything that wasn't rewarding in the doing. We had a theory that a good life, right and true and independent, could be lived on that principle. The Eskimos loved all the everyday activities of their lives. What could be more fun than hunting seals? What's more fun than gathering boot grass in summer? Yet their economy was as complicated as ours.'
Farrar and the instinct for economy of effort, which we so patly call laziness. He loved large leisure for trying out new tunes, new word combinations, new ideas. His more gracious attack on everyday living was hard work to me at first, for I cared for white clothes and immaculate houses, clean corners and tidiness.
'''Don't you see,' he kept at me, 'that energy margin, time-margin left over from doing washing is more important than getting the clothes to a certain degree of whiteness? If I'd wanted a housekeeping wife I'd have married a servant and gone out for friendship and companionship.'
Then some of her touches of 'high living close to nature,' She speaks on sleeping on the ground and comments:
'You sink down into a sleep that is like a rebirth, and awaken refreshed, and healed.'
And then of Puget Sound:
'Suddenly you round a curve or top a hill and there is Puget Sound before you, glittering in the sunshine or misty gray in the rain. There are ships coming and going in eery direction, sidestepping the myriad green islands that pattern the Sound. Behind you are the mountains you have crossed, snowy white, and another range to the south, another to the north. You are encircled by snow-capped ranges. You have come home!'
June Burn can speak of salmon leaping below a sturdy bluff, lighthouses throwing their long beams down a starlit channel, long-remembered hours by glowing campfires, cooking at fireplaces and ––well, we who are shackled to desks, immediately start straining at the bonds.'
June calls this zest for living 'the technique of living.' Right now she's living all alone in her cabin on Waldron Island. She's working on a juvenile walking book, which gives most of the walking trails in the US (recently, with another woman, she hitch-hiked from New York). Farrar Burn will be back on Waldron Island in the spring.
New York PartiesMrs. Burn also tells you of:
Catching and hauling a half-ton of dogfish to her Waldron home, where she planted this dogfish for fertilizer in her garden.
Liking to give lectures but not liking all 'the palaver that follows the lectures.'
Keeping up a correspondence with more than 100 persons, including letters to Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt––'My biggest creative job these days is writing letters,' says June Burn. 'They say if I keep up I'll make a third-class post office out of Waldron, which is now just a fourth class, as I receive so much mail.'
Giving parties in New York off the docks, when they caught eels out of the Hudson River, and living near an old blacksmith shop in Chelsea––'We found a New York that few people know and I called my lectures on this subject 'The New York that Nobody Knows.'
And as you talk to this woman, who first appears to be pixilated and then convinces you––she's just natural, however, and doesn't for one moment try to impress or convince you––that she is 'dern smart' you know that she just told you a partial truth in the closing line of her book, 'From now on everything is gravy.' You know that June Burn's life 'always has been all gravy'...because she made it that way!
Above text by Virginia Boren for The Seattle Times, 1941,
A re-issue of June Burn's Living High, an unconventional autobiography was published in 1999.
LIVING HIGH book search––
LIVING HIGH book search––