The walls of the world’s hall of shame are covered with millions of portraits of mostly men who have committed heinous crimes against individuals and humanity, sometimes their own children. Most of these men had the misfortune of being raised by one or more abusive parents. John Muir had all the qualifications to end up on the wall. His father, Daniel Muir, was a harsh, religious zealot who whipped (mostly his sons) with a leather belt, almost on a daily basis. John was required to memorize nearly three quarters of The Holy Bible before the age of 11.
When Daniel moved his family to “Hickory Hill Farm” in Wisconsin, there was no water available. Because his 17-year-old son John was the strongest, he was assigned the task of digging a well. The well site was selected and the three-ft.-diameter bore was begun. After a few feet of soil and mixed stones were removed, John encountered mostly uninterrupted sandstone that had to be chipped into chunks using mason’s hammers and chisels. The work began at dawn each day and continued until dark. Daniel and John’s brother David would come to the well at noon and together they would raise the tailings to the surface, extract John and go to the house for “dinner.” Then it was back down into the well until nightfall. Muir later wrote that the project took several months to complete. One of Muir’s neighbors was quoted as saying, “Daniel Muir treats his animals better than his sons.”
Although the progress was painstakingly slow, he eventually chipped his way down to a depth of 80 feet. Then one morning, disaster struck. Daniel Muir had been warned about the danger of “choke-damp,” but elected to ignore the warnings. Often, when water trickles into caves or wells, carbonic acid gas accumulates. Sometimes the gas includes carbon monoxide, which can be instantly fatal to breath and sometimes the oxygen in a well can be purged out by heavier carbon dioxide gas, which then becomes indirectly toxic. One day, when Daniel and David lowered John down to the bottom of the well, he was overtaken by choke-damp and slumped over against the wall of the well. Nearly unconsciousness, he feebly murmured, “Take me out!” But when Daniel began to crank the windlass, he could tell immediately that his son was not in the bucket. In wild exasperation he shouted, “Get in! Get in the bucket and hold on.” Fortunately, Daniel and David were able to retrieve a badly gasping John.
At that time, choke-damp was purged from wells by placing a 5-lb stone in a gunny sack. The sack was then filled with straw and the open end gathered and tied with a 100-foot rope. When the sack was dropped into the well it would plummet to the bottom. By the process of “drafting,” fresh air was sucked down into the well and the toxic air was purged out. When the sack was rapidly retrieved, the process was reversed. Toxic air was “drafted” up and fresh air replaced it in the shaft. This process was repeated several times to make the well safe.
From that point on, Daniel and both sons took time to purge the well of toxic gas every morning and at noon before John reentered the well.
Several years later, and after countless Nature-induced epiphanies at Yosemite, John Muir described his near-death experience in the well as poignant metaphor for the dangers of the “galling harness of civilization.” I suspect that he regarded people being seduced by comfort, luxury and materialism as nothing less than Greek sailors foundering at sea due to the lethal attraction of the Sirens.
Yosemite cured Muir of many of the emotional scars that his father so cruelly inflicted. Perhaps ironically, he knew St. Matthew’s Beatitudes by heart and experienced first hand that; “man does not live by bread alone.” Little wonder he regarded himself as a modern John the Baptist who came down from Yosemite proclaiming: “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”
Fortunately, over our 50-year marriage, my wife and I were rarely “down in the well” at the same time. When one of us was “down” the other could rally as a spiritual cheerleader and exclaim, “Get in the bucket and hold on.” It became one of the most important lessons of our life.