13 September 2014

Why Beans?

I have been thinking again of Thoreau’s bean field. I was intrigued at Thoreau’s question at the opening of the chapter: “But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows!” On the one hand he seems to be seeing “why beans?” Acknowledging that he also planted corn and potatoes, the largest part of his garden (the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted”), Thoreau asks, why did I plant beans? ”Not that I wanted beans to eat, for I am by nature a Pythagorean, so far as beans are concerned, whether they mean porridge or voting”), though he did eat some of them. Nor did he grow his beans as a source of steady income. By his own accounting he made very little profit from harvest of beans, corn and potato, and before the harvest the woodchucks had “nibbled for me a quarter to an acre clean.” It was not the yield Thoreau sought.
But on the other hand, his question asks something else: why did I do anything? He concedes that he loves his beans, that the work with them attaches him to the earth, and that he gains strength from what he refers to as his “curious” labor.
Why grow beans? Was it that he just needed something to do? Thoreau never lacks for activity; and his garden contains only beans, potatoes and corn, the former he prefers not to eat and the latter produce insufficient variety for even Thoreau. I am not certain that Thoreau ever provides a clear answer to this question But why should I raise them . . . What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” But perhaps the answer to the question is contained within it: that in the activity he would come to learn something he could not know in the absence of the activity. Why beans? Who knows? It is a curious activity. It seems appropriate to Thoreau’s life at Walden to plant and sow, but I do not think that the beans have any intimate connection to Thoreau’s life at Walden, though perhaps the bean-field does have such connection! It is the planting and care of beans, in the activity, that Thoreau discovers great merit. “I was determined to know beans,” and his activity in their planting, growth and harvest occupies him, though it is clear that at times he, as do we all, resented the work.  It is, after all, a battle against the weeds, “those Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on their side.” Thoreau plays Achilles in conflict with the crest-waving Hector weeds.
The answer to why he should raise them is that working in the bean-field is consistent with where he lived and what he lived for. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practices resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” Heaven only knows why he planted beans: but he planted them as part of his experiment, and they offered him something to learn. “This further experience also I gained. I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer . . .” That is, in his desire to confront only  the essential facts of life he had to learn in what labors to engage. But first he had to engage in the labor! And if he was going to learn what was life and what wasn’t, then he had to commit completely to the labor at hand. And though he doesn’t consume his beans, “I came to love my rows, me beans, though so many more than I wanted.” It was the labor and not the result.
But while he labors, ah, he thinks. There is not much information concerning beans per se in the chapter, though in his work with the beans Thoreau learns a great deal. He planted beans “perchance, as some must work in fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day.” And isn’t Walden, ah, not exactly a parable, but the record of a life lived consciously every minute even in its disappointments. Everything Thoreau does offers the opportunity for thought. s in an earlier chapter, “Solitude,” Thoreau says, “We are the subject of an experiment which is not a little interesting to me.” His life at Walden was part of his experiment, and the bean-field was important to that life.
Thoreau does not realize his dream, I think he would acknowledge that no one finally can do so. Else what are dreams for? John Dewey will say that an experiment that turns out exactly as expected was hardly an experiment from which anything cold be learned. But Thoreau will say that if we march in the direction of our dreams we will realize a success unimagined in our daily lives. And perhaps our bean-fields are an aspect of that experiment in our lives. “Most men I do not meet at all, for they seem not to have time; they are busy about their beans.” And in the life devoted to getting, Thoreau suggests, they are losing the time.

Why beans? Why anything? Because there must be something!


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