|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.