Cultivating a Relationship with Nature

If we learn anything in “The Bean Field” it is that Thoreau is a much better philosopher than a farmer. But at least he tackles the job of growing beans as enthusiastically as he tackles life itself:

What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day's work. It is a fine broad leaf to look on. My auxiliaries are the dews and rains which water this dry soil, and what fertility is in the soil itself, which for the most part is lean and effete. My enemies are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks. The last have nibbled for me a quarter of an acre clean. But what right had I to oust johnswort and the rest, and break up their ancient herb garden?

At least he, unlike most modern farmers, takes the pests philosophically for he concedes to his worst enemies, the woodchucks, their right to the land he is claiming for his crops. That’s the same philosophy I take in my own garden, where I grow twice as many blueberries and blackberries as I need so that I can share half of them with the robins that were here when I moved in. When I planted my crops I figured it was only fair that, since I was taking their land, that I planted extra for them, too. Unfortunately, commercial farmers don’t seem to take the same attitude.

Thoreau doesn’t seem too fond of manual labor, but again he is philosophical about it:

But labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness. It has a constant and imperishable moral, and to the scholar it yields a classic result

I’m not quite sure what the “classic result” is for Thoreau, but for me it’s usually a sore back. Hoeing is hard work that every person should have to endure at some point in his life to appreciate just how precious food really is.

Thoreau’s observation of the nighthawk’s flight reveals that he was a much better naturalist, and poet, than he was a farmer:

The nighthawk circled overhead in the sunny afternoons -- for I sometimes made a day of it -- like a mote in the eye, or in heaven's eye, falling from time to time with a swoop and a sound as if the heavens were rent, torn at last to very rags and tatters, and yet a seamless cope remained; small imps that fill the air and lay their eggs on the ground on bare sand or rocks on the tops of hills, where few have found them; graceful and slender like ripples caught up from the pond, as leaves are raised by the wind to float in the heavens; such kindredship is in nature. The hawk is aerial brother of the wave which he sails over and surveys, those his perfect air-inflated wings answering to the elemental unfledged pinions of the sea. Or sometimes I watched a pair of hen-hawks circling high in the sky, alternately soaring and descending, approaching, and leaving one another, as if they were the embodiment of my own thoughts. Or I was attracted by the passage of wild pigeons from this wood to that, with a slight quivering winnowing sound and carrier haste; or from under a rotten stump my hoe turned up a sluggish portentous and outlandish spotted salamander, a trace of Egypt and the Nile, yet our contemporary. When I paused to lean on my hoe, these sounds and sights I heard and saw anywhere in the row, a part of the inexhaustible entertainment which the country offers.

Although he may not be much of a farmer, it turns out that Thoreau was a better farmer than he was salesman:

It was a singular experience that long acquaintance which I cultivated with beans, what with planting, and hoeing, and harvesting, and threshing, and picking over and selling them -- the last was the hardest of all -- I might add eating, for I did taste. I was determined to know beans.

That should come as little surprise to anyone who has read the previous section on visitors. It’s doubtful that Thoreau would have the “gift of gab” that any true salesman must have. You have to want to talk to your customers to sell them something.

Half-jokingly, Thoreau suggests that it is easier to cultivate beans than it is to cultivate the human soul:

This further experience also I gained: I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops. Alas! I said this to myself; but now another summer is gone, and another, and another, and I am obliged to say to you, Reader, that the seeds which I planted, if indeed they were the seeds of those virtues, were wormeaten or had lost their vitality, and so did not come up.

Though Thoreau obviously has several of these traits, his point is well taken. It’s certainly as hard to change oneself as it is to grow a crop.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog entry, the only time in my lifetime I did not have a garden was the two years I was in the army and the year after the army before I had bought my own home. Thus, I tend to agree with Thoreau when he says:

Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely

Maintaining our family vegetable garden was a very different experience than the experience I had commercially picking walnuts in California or strawberries on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound. Despite the hard work, I was always proud to work in our family garden. My two experiences in working on commercial farms were diametrically opposed to this; both of these seemed like demeaning experiences, ones where I felt that I had been cheated by the farmers.

If Thoreau felt this way in 1850:

By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber.

Can you imagine what he would feel like today? Today’s mega-farms would probably shock anyone from the 1850’s. Certainly they do not remind us of the Jeffersonian ideal that would have appealed to the transcendentalists and others concerned with the welfare of democracy.

To Thoreau, and hopefully to most home gardeners, gardening was simply another means to stay in touch with Nature:

Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer's barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.

Luckily, unlike commercial farmers, our crops are a luxury, not a necessity. In a good year we have the pleasure of indulging in fresh tomatoes off the vine and corn taken from stalk to microwave in less than three minutes. We have an intimacy with nature that is never dreamt of by those who have never been closer to a farm than their nearest Safeway.

What do you think?