The Bucket and Mr. Muir
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012
John Muir’s father was unsatisfied and had visions of expansion. He moved the family from Fountain Lake Farm, Wisconsin, to a larger tract of land on nearby Hickory Hill. The new land was without accessible water and John’s domineering father had determined a well must be dug and young John would do the digging. The well would be ninety feet deep with all but the first ten feet or so in granite-like, finely grained sandstone. Each morning, after being lowered into the well in a wooden water bucket, John would sit cramped in a space about three feet in diameter and chip away at the sandstone with a mason chisel. It was painfully slow and tedious work.
One night, when the well was about eighty feet deep, it filled with deadly carbonic acid gas. The next morning, John was lowered into the well and immediately began to sway back and forth from the effects of the poison. He was about to lean back against the well wall, fall asleep, and die, when he chanced to look up and see the overhanging branch of a bur oak tree. The oak reminded him of life outside the well. He feebly cried out to his father “Take me out.” As his father began to crank on the windlass, he quickly realized John was not in the bucket. He shouted out in wild alarm, “Get in! Get in the bucket and hold on! Hold on!”
Somehow, Muir did not remember how, he managed to crawl into the bucket. He was dragged out of the well, violently 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 had protested the move, saying if people lived on smaller tracts of land, they would be less likely to sacrifice happiness for the sake of money. Although he argued “living is more important than getting a living,” his opinion carried little weight, and his family moved to the larger farm and began working the land and themselves tirelessly.
Muir was a hard worker his entire life. He valued focus and dedication. But to Muir, hard work was different than over-industry. Whereas hard work can lead one toward a full and flourishing life, over-industry represents a mindless pursuit that is categorically counter to good living. Muir later recalled: In those days … it often seemed to me that our fierce, over industrious way of getting the grain from the ground was closely connected with grave digging. The staff of life, naturally beautiful, oftentimes suggested the grave digger’s spade. Men and boys, and in those days even women and girls, were cut down while cutting the wheat. . . . We were all made slaves through the vice of over-industry.
Muir’s choice of the image of slavery is telling. Slavery as a metaphor indicates his belief of the insidiousness of over-industry’s effect on freedom. Muir believed the grip of over-industry can be so tight that one can even forget there are other choices. He tended to believe that we—and this is where the metaphor with slavery ends, of course—are not so much oppressed by others as victimized by our own inclinations to conform to societal norms. In this sense, to extend Muir’s metaphor, over-industry fosters a situation where the self is both slave and slave owner.
Some things we learn so slowly. And after having lived fairly free in the mountains of California for some years, Muir returned to an over-industrious life. This time the choice was not in the hands of his father. At the age of 42, Muir chose to marry, raise a family and, for the better part of a decade, work relentlessly though ambivalently cultivating a fruit orchard in Martinez, California.
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 the Overland Monthly magazine asked Muir to write an article about the Sierra. Muir responded: I am lost & choked in agricultural needs & am almost beyond the memory even of literary work so that much as I should like to give you the article you want I am not able or nearly able to do so. Work is coming upon me from near & far & at present I cannot see how I am to escape its degrading vicious effects. Get someone to write an article on the vice of overindustry, it is greatly needed in these times of horticultural storms.
In 1883, his friend from Alaska and former trekking buddy, 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. I, who have breathed the mountain air—who have really loved a life of freedom—condemned to penal servitude with these miserable little bald-heads! (holding up a bunch of cherries). Boxing them up; putting them in prison! And for money! Mon! I’m like to die of the shame of it.
In a letter to his brother David in August 1887, Muir wrote, “I am all nerve-shaken and lean as a crow loaded with care, work, and worry.” Muir wanted to marry and raise children. He found great joy in it. Letters to his daughter Wanda reveal a highly sensitive and even doting father, filled with conviction and love for his family.
But Muir was inundated by what he saw as the trivial, oppressive, and (most worrisome of all) distracting details of farm life. For example, he bemoaned the need to choose between which of a dozen different grape varieties would be best to cultivate. He didn’t see such choices, to paraphrase William James, as a difference that makes a difference.
Muir’s attitude speaks to the relationship between autonomy and freedom of choice described by Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. Sen distinguishes the importance of choices in our lives from the functional role they play. He suggests that instead of upholding freedom of choice per se as a good, we might ask whether it nourishes or deprives us, makes us more mobile or hems us in, enhances self-respect or diminishes it. In short, do the choices available to us better our lives? Not all choices enhance freedom. In fact, some may impair freedom by taking time and energy we’d be better off devoting to other matters.
Even though choice has a clear instrumental value, in that it helps us get what we want, an over-abundance of choices can have, paradoxically, the opposite effect. Too many choices become time consuming and even burdensome; this is especially true, in a situation like Muir’s, where the choices do not advance a deeper value or help one move toward a flourishing life. Today one can choose from thirty distinct styles of blue jeans or 6000 different TV stations, but passing the afternoon deciding about pants or watching television doesn’t necessarily make our lives better. The essential question for Muir, as it is for us today, is how much of what we might call “life” is exchanged for considering all the options and resisting the inherent temptations.
A good life is not the same as a complex life; and for John Muir, a man who walked from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico with only a comb, change of underwear, couple of books, and a plant press in his pack, simplicity was a deeply seated value. Farming life took a toll on John Muir’s physical and spiritual health. It was his wife Louise Wanda who finally released him from the “penal servitude.” Believing the family had ample money, she prepared to sell or lease much of their ranch. In a touching letter, she explained to John that she had seen a devoted husband and father give too much of himself. She urged him to give more of himself to Nature in order to feel strong and at peace and to devote himself to his Nature writing. She ended the letter saying: A ranch that needs and takes the sacrifice of a noble life, or work, ought to be flung away beyond all reach and power for harm. . . . The Alaska book and the Yosemite book, dear John, must be written, and 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 Louise’s urging, John hit the trail. He visited Lake Tahoe and mounts Shasta and Rainier with his good friend William Keith. During their excursion Muir affirmed his commitment to wilderness preservation. When he saw rampant “commercialism and destruction,” he was appalled to realize that this was happening while he was too consumed with “money-grubbing” to protest.
Camping at the base of Mount Rainier, feeling unwell, unfit, and unprepared, the fifty-year old Muir had no intention of climbing 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.”
Muir was inspired and invigorated. In the years that followed, he would become the leading voice for the protection of wild places; he would found the Sierra Club and help establish the National Park Service. Galen Rowell once asked Rheinhold Messner, perhaps the world’s most accomplished mountain climber, why the most beautiful mountains and valleys of the European Alps are so highly developed?
“How is it that we Americans have managed to preserve our mountain areas while you Europeans have trashed yours?”
Messner explained the difference in three words, “You had Muir.”
In the 1980’s, the California Historical Society voted Muir the “greatest Californian in the state’s history” (besting President Reagan). In order to be free to dedicate himself to wilderness protection he first had to be free from the vice of over-industry. Later in his life, while wandering in the Sierra, Muir recalled the childhood situation of digging the well on his father’s farm. In his notebook, he scribbled this warning: Once I was let down into a deep well into which chokedamp had settled, and nearly lost my life. What I recall is this. The horror was this. The deeper I was immersed in the invisible poison, the less capable I became of willing measures of escape from it. And in just this condition are those who toil or dawdle or dissipate in the crowded towns, in the sinks of commerce or pleasure.
What saved Muir’s life in this allegory was 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 rile himself and escape the poison. When stuck, one often forgets there are other options.
The well story is more than a metaphor for the role of Nature in living a good life. It is an allegory for the condition of being so enmeshed in toxicity that one can’t even muster the energy to make a decision about getting free. Muir would return to these themes for the rest of his life, exploring and developing them through his writing. The basic formulation 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
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