Sunday, March 26, 2017

John Muir and the Bucket

The Merced River flows through Yosemite Valley
This post is dedicated to David Hinton who has encouraged me to keep this space alive in the face of the tidal wave of work washing over me. He let me know it's OK to post once in a while. And I agreed that abandoning it 100% seems like a big waste. Today's post is from the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, Fresno CA of which I am a member. I heavily edited it for brevity.

"living is more important than getting a living"

John Muir’s father had visions of expansion. He moved the family from their small acreage in Wisconsin to a much larger one nearby that didn't have  water. John’s father determined that a well must be dug and that young John would do the digging. 

The well would be ninety feet deep. Eighty feet of it would be in the beautiful Wisconsin granite-like, finely grained sandstone. Each morning, after being lowered into the well in a large water bucket, John would sit in the cramped space and  chip  away  at  the  sandstone  with  a  chisel.  It  was  painfully  slow  and  tedious work. 

One  night, unbeknownst to the family,  when  there was only about ten feet left to go,  the well  filled  with  deadly  carbonic  acid  gas.  The  next  morning, when John was lowered into the well he was immediately overcome by the gas. He was about  to  lose consciousness  and  die  when  he  happened  to  look  up  and  see  the  overhanging branch of a bur oak tree above the hole. The image jolted him awake and he  cried weakly to his father  “get me  out.”  As  his  father  began  to  crank  on  the  windlass  he  realized  John  was  not  in  the  bucket. He shouted out in alarm, “Get in! Get in the bucket and hold on!” Somehow, Muir managed to crawl into the bucket and he was drawn out of the well gasping for breath. 

Muir says the family’s move to the larger farm and associated need for a new well was the consequence of his father’s “vice of over-industry.” John didn't want to move, saying if people lived on smaller tracts of land, they would be less likely to sacrifice happiness for the sake of material wealth. He argued “living is more important than getting a living,” but his opinion was overruled. His family moved to the larger farm and began working themselves to exhaustion. 

John Muir was a hard worker his whole life. He valued focus and dedication. But Muir saw a difference between hard work and over-industry. To him hard work was a virtue leading one toward a full life, whereas over-industry was a mindless pursuit that made slaves of the people who were engaged in it. 

Muir’s choice of the image of slavery is telling. Slavery as a metaphor showed what being overly industrious did to freedom. He realized the grip could become so tight that one could actually  forget  there  were  other  choices.  As  Emerson  and  Thoreau  before  him,  Muir  believed  that  free  persons  are  not  so  much  oppressed  by  others  as  victimized  by  their  own  inclinations  to  conform  to  societal  norms. In this sense over-industry fosters a situation where one is both the enslaved and the slave owner. 

Some  things  we  learn  so  slowly.  After  having  lived  free  in  the  mountains  of  California  for  years, Muir returned to the over-industrious life. And for good reasons. At the age of 42, Muir chose to marry, raise a family and, for the better part of a decade, worked steadfastly cultivating a fruit orchard in Martinez, CA. The record of this time is thin and Muir’s previously lavish journal entries praising nature became sparse. Instead, we read of a husband and father often under great stress.
During  these  days  of  full-time  farm  management,  the  editor  of  a  magazine  asked  Muir to write an article about the Sierra. Muir responded, “I am choked in agricultural needs and am beyond the memory of literary work so that, much as I should like to give you the article you want, I am not able. Work  is  coming  upon  me  from  near  and far and at  present  I  cannot  see  how  I  am  to  escape  its  vicious effects. Get someone to write an article on the vice of over-industry. It is greatly needed in these times of horticultural storms.” 

In  1883,  a  friend  from  Alaska  and  former  hiking  buddy,  the Reverend  S.  Hall  Young,  came  to  the  Martinez  ranch  for  a  visit.  Young  says  Muir  broke  into  a  “passionate”  voicing  of  his  discontent.  “I  am  losing  precious days!” Muir told Young. “I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news!”

Five years later Young again visited Muir and found him still lamenting his situation. “I am a horrible example," he said. "I, who have breathed the mountain air—who have really loved a life of freedom—am condemned to servitude with these miserable little bald-heads! (he holds up a bunch of cherries). Boxing them up! Putting them in prison! And for money!  I’d like to die for the shame of it.” 

Muir wanted to marry and raise children and he found great joy in it. Letters to his daughter Wanda reveal a highly sensitive and doting father, filled with love for his family. But Muir was overwhelmed by  what  he  saw  as  the  trivial,  oppressive,  and  distracting  details  of  farm  life. For example, he grumbled at the need to choose which grape variety would be best to cultivate. He didn’t see it as a choice that makes a difference.

Muir’s attitude is echoed by Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. Amartya talks about the importance of choices in our lives from the functional role they play. He suggests that,  instead of upholding freedom of choice in and of itself as the ultimate that we might instead ask whether "does this choice nourish or deprive me?  Does it makes me more mobile or does it hem me in? Does it enhance self-respect  or  diminish  it?  In  short,  do  the  choices  available  make  life better?  Not  all  choices  enhance  freedom.  In  fact,  some  may  impair  freedom  by  taking  time  and  energy  that we’d  be  better  off  devoting  to  other  matters." 

Choice  has  a  clear  instrumental  value.  It  helps  us  get  what  we  want. However,  an  over-abundance of choice can have the opposite effect. Too many choices can become time consuming and  burdensome.  This  is  especially  true where  the  choice  does  not promote  a  deeper value or help one move toward a flourishing life. We can choose from 30 styles of blue jeans  or  6000 TV  stations  but  passing  the  time doing that  doesn’t make our lives better, does it? The essential question for Muir, as it is for us today, is how much of real life is exchanged for considering all the options and resisting all the temptations? A good life is not the same as a complicated life and for John Muir, a man who walked from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico with only a comb, a change of underwear, a couple of books, and a plant press in his pack, simplicity was a deeply seated value.
Farming life took a toll on Muir’s health. It was his wife Louie who finally released him. She saw that the family had plenty of money so  she sold or leased most of their ranch to other people who would work it. In a letter,  she explained to John that she had seen a devoted husband and father give too much. She urged him to go back to Nature  to get strong again and to devote himself to his nature writing. She ended the letter saying, “A ranch that takes the sacrifice of a noble life ought to be flung away beyond all reach and power for harm. As for the Alaska book and the Yosemite book, dear John, you need to be your own self, well and strong, to make them worthy of you. There is nothing that has a right to be considered beside this except the welfare of our children.”

At Louie’s urging, John went back to the mountains. He went Lake Tahoe and Mount Shasta and Mount Rainer. During that time Muir affirmed his commitment to wilderness preservation. When he saw the “commercialism and destruction,” that was going on he was appalled to realize that this had been happening while he was consumed with “money-grubbing”. 

Camping at the base of Mt. Rainer, feeling unwell, unfit, and unprepared, the fifty-year-old Muir had no plan to climb  the  mountain.  Encouraged  by  a  group  of  much  younger  men,  Muir  found  himself  overcome by enthusiasm. He wrote to his wife, “Did not mean to climb it but got excited and was on top.”  In  the  years  that  followed, he  moved  away  from  the  vice  of  over-industry  and  toward  the  virtue  of  hard  work.  He  would  become  the  leading  voice  for  the  protection  of  wild  places and he would found the Sierra Club and help establish the National Park Service. Now he was happy.

Later in his life, while wandering in the Sierra, Muir recalled the digging of the well on his father’s farm. In his notebook, he scribbled this warning:“Once I was let down into a well into which choke-damp had settled and nearly lost my life. The horror was this: the deeper I was immersed in the invisible poison, the less capable I became of willing measures to escape from it. And in just this condition are those who toil in the crowded towns, in the sinks of commerce or pleasure.”

Muir’s life was saved by his vision of nature. If the “branch of the blessed bur oak” had  not  reminded  him  that  there  was life  above,  he  would  not  have  been  able  to  rouse  himself  and  escape  the  poison. The story is an allegory for the condition of being so enmeshed in toxicity that one can’t even muster the energy to get free. Muir would return to these themes for the rest of his life, exploring and developing them through his  writing.  The  basic  formula  is  this:  There  is  an  inspired  life  to  be  lived  if  we  can  brush  off  apathy  and  inertia, energize ourselves and each other, and allow nature to remind us of callings above and beyond.