“This Affliction has Driven me to the Sweet Fields”
Second in a series exploring the work of John Muir.
Reading Time: 15 Minutes
Compulsive Productivity & Inventiveness
“Circumstances over which I have no control almost compel me to abandon the profession of my choice and to take up the business of an inventor… unless things change so, I shall turn my whole mind into that channel.” 1John Muir
Muir was in his early 20’s when the American Civil War broke out. He went north to Canada where he sought to avoid not only the war but the world’s vocational pressures. But Muir carried with him an “almost obsessional inventiveness” and “more than a little of the world’s culture”. 2 When the war ended and Muir – now 28 years old – returned to the American mid-west, he remained preoccupied with productivity and perfecting his work in the mills and factories that employed him.
Muir felt he needed to suppress his longing for the natural world, that its exploration and study was a luxury he could no longer afford. Whereas his sketchbook had previously been filled with drawings of plants, it was now covered with sketches of prospective inventions. His mind was so preoccupied with plans for inventions, he wrote, that he was fit for little else, and that – day and night – the problems of design gave him no rest. 3 Muir struggled to accept that he was fated to spend his working life in the mill and factory.
Muir’s employers were delighted with his dedication and ingenuity and recognized that in Muir they had no ordinary laborer. His new employer in Indianapolis was amazed by how Muir perfected designs for the factory’s new machines: “He set them in operation, and they worked famously”. Muir’s American boss was as enthusiastic about Muir as his Canadian employers had been, and called him “a real live inventive, designing mechanic” whom he was fortunate to have as an employee.
Despite his worldly success, Muir felt oppressed by internal conflict:
“…while professing an acceptance (that he was fated to live the life of mechanic and inventor, Muir) also railed against it, as if the force of culture were a person or thing that bullied him into a way of life he would not otherwise have chosen. He admitted to his love of solitude but also the presence of a strange drive that brought him to the factory floor.” 4
When, in the Spring of 1866, Muir’s brother sent him a package of ferns from their home in Wisconsin, Muir was driven wild with longing and memories of the Wisconsin countryside in which he was raised. Muir felt impelled to quit his work and become a fern gatherer. But then a felt sense of necessity caused him to pivot in the opposite direction: “I mean now … to give my whole attention to machines because I must.”
In letters to his brother Muir described the remnants of that great forest that had not long ago covered the noisy commercial center of Indianapolis in which he felt doomed to live. It was there, “among the beautiful flowers and trees of God’s own garden, so pure and chaste and lovely, he could not help “shedding tears of joy.” There were also tears of sadness, for his nature studies, that “profession” he longed to follow, had become a hobby. His life was circumscribed by factory work. The brief morning visits to the fields and woods were hours stolen out of a life that seemed to be running him.
When the Spring flowers bloomed, Muir was poignantly reminded of how estranged he was from the wild world of his dreams. He fantasized about taking a botanical excursion, a long journey that would take him far from this world in which he functioned so smoothly. But the greater portion of his time and thought were taken up with the work of the factory. He wrote to his family that he could not write more often because he had too much to do. 5
Muir as Manager and Prospective Factory Owner
Muir’s employers in Indianapolis were determined to keep him through progressive inducements. Muir was offered the position of foreman, and then the possibility of partnership in the very prosperous firm, should all go well. He was commissioned by the shops owners to make a time-and-motion study of work in the shop to determine how productivity might be increased.
Muir produced “a curious document, (reflecting a combination of) wit, mechanical talent, and a shrewd grasp of managerial detail.” Studying the operations of the shop, Muir discovered much wasted motion, unnecessary delays, fruitless consultations between workers, and a general lack of coordination. Muir lectured his employers on their wastefulness, much of which he thought could easily be prevented. Although he had no formal training, Muir had “grasped the vision of the total factory as a machine in itself, where laborers, machines, and products were interchangeable smoothly functioning parts.” 6
Muir’s vision of the factory and its workers as a machine was uninformed by human concerns. Efficiency of production was paramount, and much else was sacrificed to this. Standardization and interchangeability were the revolutionizing concepts, and the fact that this tended to rob workers of their humanity and the products of their individuality was not considered.
The cold detachment reflected in Muir’s study might be surprising to find in one who had personally experienced the hardship of repetitive labor. As his biographer put it, the study was yet another indication that Muir was “almost fatally good” at work that was opposed to his truest inclinations, and that he could be “an outstanding success at it.” 7
Yet Muir’s sense that work reflected a spiritual endeavor was a deep seated aspect of Muir’s world view, even if he remained deeply ambivalent about the type of work he felt compelled to perform. Muir graphically depicted the irregular spurts of productivity he observed with the appearance of overseers in the shop and referred to them as “shameful angular projections”. The fact that the intensity with which one worked might diminish when not being observed – and the implication that one worked hard only when one was being observed by managerial authority – impressed Muir as deeply immoral. Although the shop’s owners may have been less inclined than Muir to see the impact of the “managerial eye” on productivity as reflective of profound moral failing in their workers, they were “pleased with the clarity and precision of their man’s vision.” 8
Providing the World with Cheaper Broom Handles
But in the midst of this triumph Muir faced a naggingly familiar question: “was this to be how he would spend his little time on earth?” The broom handles whose manufacture he had optimized mocked him with their dull and common utility. He tried to console himself in a letter by claiming that cleanliness was a great virtue, and so in his small way he had contributed to the world’s welfare by turning out cheaper broom handles. The world would perhaps be better swept now.
It was nonsense, and Muir knew it. In a letter he described inventing a machine for
making the various parts of rakes, adding disconsolately, “I sometimes feel as
though I (am) losing time here.” 9
“My Eyes are Gone, Closed Forever on all God’s Beauty“
On the evening of March 6, 1866, Muir worked late. In order to tighten a loosened belt, Muir accidentally thrust a file into his right eye. An assistant present at the scene recorded Muir as he recoiled in horror: “My right eye is gone, closed forever on all God’s beauty.” Hours later Muir’s left eye failed also. He was a blind man. He wrote to his mother that he was “condemned by the doctor to a dark room for some weeks…I am surprised that from apparently so small a shock my whole system should be so completely stunned.”
To his friend Jeanne Carr he confided that he would gladly have died on the spot “because (he) did not feel that (he) could have the heart to look at any flower again.” 10
“A Nameless Casualty of this Age of Machines”
During his illness and incapacitation, the factory owners visited Muir in his dark room and told him that they were building a new shop and he would have charge of it. But the injury had begun to catalyze a change in Muir, and he was less excited by the offer as he might otherwise have been:
“In these dark hours, forced by injury to think back on his life and the way he was leading it, (he began to realize) that he had still not found his place, his work. In the moment of the accident perhaps he had seen that clearly for the first time. (Although his vision was badly compromised), the eye within suddenly, paradoxically, opened on the flaring truth that he was still not there, busy commercial center and ascending career or no. Then in those first grim afterdays as the shock ebbed a deeper one intruded: that he would simply be another nameless casualty of this age of machines, rendered forever useless by his injury, and never to have really experienced the fullness of the natural god-made world. Here lay the inmost, shuddering horror of the accident.” 11
Muir’s injury pitched him into a more authentic way of being: He suddenly realized that his days were finite and that his time was severely limited.
Illness and injury had the same impact on Muir as it has had on countless others: it can add depth to life because it allows the sufferer to grasp the brute finitude of our existence. As Oliver Burkeman observes, it isn’t that severe illness or injury or any other encounter with death is somehow good, desirable, or “worth it”. But however unwelcome such experiences are, they often appear to leave those who undergo them in a new and more honest relationship with time. 12
This fact of having limited time isn’t just one among various other things we have to cope with; it defines us. Muir’s injury precipitated the recognition not only that Muir had still not found his work, but that he was radically limited in what he could do with his time, and that living a truly authentic life meant facing up to this fact. Muir began to realize that his preoccupation with productivity and invention was more than just a harmless distraction; it had rather prevented him from living an authentic life from which he himself was unable to derive any meaning. For the first time Muir fully grasped the implications of spending a life in pursuit of goals that he did not deem worth pursuing.
According to Burkeman, confronting the brute fact of our finitude – as Muir did – is the only way to experience the world as it truly is: “Rather than taking ownership of our lives, we seek out distractions, or lose ourselves in busyness and the daily grind, so as to try to forget our real predicament.” Muir’s injury – and the period of separation from the workplace that it compelled – helped him realize “that time is always already running out…it’s not merely a matter of spending each day ‘as if’ it (was his) last, as the cliché has it. The point (was) that it always might
Fear of a “Life Spent in the Shadows of Civilization’s Defrauding Duties”
“Most people have, or have known someone who has, goneJenny Odell 14
through some period of ‘removal’ that fundamentally changed
their attitude to the world they returned to. Sometimes that’s
occasioned by something terrible, like illness or loss… that
pause in time is often the only thing that can precipitate change
on a certain scale.”
To his inexpressible joy, Muir found that with the return of Spring his sight was also gradually returning. Soon, he said, “I wish to try some cloudy day to walk to the woods where I am sure some of Spring’s fresh born is waiting.” In his letters to his friends and family there was no talk of factory responsibilities.
Lying in bed and slowly recovering, he began thinking not of returning to his career in the factory, but of a final escape. The blinds had been raised, little by little, admitting more and more light into his eyes and into his mind. He managed to read an illustrated brochure of California’s Yosemite Valley and wondered if he might someday travel there.
The slow regeneration of sight was wonderful, but also mysterious. Who knew whether the eyes might fail again? He feared not only future blindness, but also the prospect of a life amid what he called the “shadows of civilization’s defrauding ‘duties’.” 15
Muir’s first excursion into April’s fields decided him: his work was not in the factory. With what remained of his sight he would escape into nature and there store up enough of flowers and sunlight and wild landscapes to last him the remainder of his life, whatever might happen.
To the surprise and dismay of his employers he resigned from his job, put his affairs in order, and completed his recovery among family and friends. Then he would be gone, into the wilderness.
Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.Rumi 16
What does a period of illness, injury and recovery imply relative to the crucial question of choosing what to do with one’s time? If one suddenly grasps the fact that it is a great gift to have been granted any time at all – if one begins to sense that one’s whole life is, in fact, “borrowed time” – then it makes more sense to speak not of having to make choices, but of getting to make them. Each moment of decision becomes an opportunity to select from an enticing menu of possibilities, as one might just as easily never been presented with the menu to begin with:
“In this state of mind, you can embrace the fact that you’re … neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any time to expect.” 17
In this situation, making a choice becomes an affirmation. It’s a positive commitment to spend a given portion of time doing one thing instead of an infinite number of other things because this, you’ve decided, is what counts most right now.
After Muir recovered his vision, he travelled through the center of Illinois, testing his eye on the flowering remnants of those grand prairies that once had covered the central region of North America. He “drenched himself in their spring life with relish of one redeemed from darkness.” He expressed joy in his reviving powers of sight, writing of the inexhaustible glories to be discovered in the smallest area of the natural world. It seemed that the finitude of one human life – his life – contrasted sharply with the “immortal, shoreless, fathomless ocean of God’s beauty”. The smallest plot of ground, he wrote, is in reality “ten thousand-fold too great for our comprehension, and we are at length lost, bewildered, overwhelmed in the immortal, shoreless, fathomless ocean of God’s beauty”.
Then in August it was time to go, and he had the distinct sense that this would be his real leave-taking. His life was taking a critical turn. When he took leave from his family, his father admonished him with the notion that his nature studies were a species of sin. Muir retorted that that in the fields and woods he was a good deal closer to God than his father was. 19
Muir now saw himself impelled into the wilderness rather than imprisoned by the noisy commercial center he was in the act of leaving. Muir’s work injury allowed “some tidal impulse” that had long been active in Muir to “overcome all impediments.” Muir had the sense of having just escaped. Some inclinations, he wrote, are
“constant and cumulative in action until its power is sufficient to overmaster all impediments, and to accomplish the full measure of its demands. … Many influences have tended to blunt or bury this constant longing, but it has outlived and overpowered them all.” 20
“Who Shall Read the Teaching of These Sylvan Pages?”
Muir would travel through the American south where he would unwittingly follow the tracks of men whose motives for exploration were foreign to him and whose vision of the New World was radically exploitative and predatory. Boone, De Soto, Ponce de Leon – legends in the history of the nation – had been after other things than the flowers, birds, and mysteries of nature that inspired Muir.
While walking through Kentucky Muir met an informant who told him about the Mammoth Cave: while the cave was only a few miles from where the man lived, he had never bothered to visit this natural marvel and considered it nothing more than a big hole in the ground. Here was one of those “useful, practical” men such as Muir had until recently supposed himself to be and was in flight from becoming, one “too wise to waste precious time with weeds, caverns, fossils, or anything else that he could not eat.”
“Muir would meet this attitude again and again. It would begin to seem something almost native to the culture, a mental and spiritual habit that could not have been less than astonishing to him: for Americans to be in daily contact with their magnificent landscape and not be touched by it or even mildly interested in its most spectacular features. What had gone wrong, or where was the reason for this slothful insensitivity? For all of Muir’s life he was to remain mystified by the phenomenon.” 21
In the last inhabited house Muir found before venturing into the mountains of North Carolina, a blacksmith inquired of Muir what his business was, and Muir told him he was a plant gatherer, here on a visit to get acquainted with an many of the southern species as he could. The man was aghast: what would a man as gifted as Muir be doing gathering plants? This was not real work in any times, but it seemed especially strange in a country recently devastated by war, where real work was required of every able person. Muir cited Scripture and was able to convince the blacksmith that flower gathering had some kind of legitimacy.
Taking leave of the Blacksmith, Muir ventured out into the North Carolina wilderness. Looking out onto the majestic Smoky Mountains, Muir saw perfection and divinity, and he asked in his journal: “Who shall read the teaching of these sylvan pages?” 22 Muir may have already begun to develop an answer. Perhaps it was he, John Muir, who was meant to be such a reader. Perhaps this was to be his life’s work.
1-11. Turner, Frederick. John Muir: Rediscovering America. Perseus Publishing,
Cambridge MA. 1985.
12. Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York. 2021.
14. Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House, 2020.
15. Turner. John Muir: Rediscovering America.
16. Rumi. Selected Poems. Translated by Coleman Banks. Penguin Books, London/New York. 1995.
17. Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks.
18-22. Turner. John Muir: Rediscovering America.
Another wonderful essay, Andrew. I like how turned the idea of separation from work (generally something we org shrinks try to discourage) into something with a real silver (Sylvan??) lining!
In our work trying to get leaders to sit still, I came across this – and think it applies here:
‘Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.’ Pascal
Thank you, Daven! Pascal got it right – yet again. And yes, being out of work is so often accompanied by misery and suffering – and very poor
outcomes longer term – yet Muir’s experience exemplifies the fact that it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.
Yes, as I reflected on how he differs – he never stopped seeing himself as a worker. He was going to act on the world, impact it, DESPITE a very disabling injury. And boy did he!