When John Muir, the son of an emigrant from East Lothian to southern Wisconsin, was 16, in 1855, his father lowered him daily down a well shaft on their new farm at Hickory Hill. John cut with chisel and hammer through fine-grained sandstone until he struck 'a fine, hearty gush of water'. By then he had dinted his way through eighty feet of rock, working alone from dawn till dark. When he was overcome with choke-damp at the start of work one day, he was hauled up unconscious - and resumed after a day or two once water had been thrown down the shaft 'to absorb the gas' and a bundle of brushwood had been dropped on a rope 'to carry down pure air and stir up the poison'. This was only the most spectacular, and symbolically oppressive, of the Herculean ordeals which ingrained in Muir an extraordinary hardihood and helped to make him the finest field naturalist and most eloquent wilderness writer of his age. As eldest son he did most of the ploughing and stump-digging on the family's virgin land and split a hundred fencing rails a day from their knotty oak timber: 'I was proud of my skill and tried to believe that I was as tough as the timber I mauled, though this and other heavy jobs stunted my growth and earned for me the title "runt of the family".'
LRB 17 July 1997 | PDF Download