The Curious Case of Thoreau’s Bean Field

Gardening is a strange pleasure. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau describes his experience in the bean field as a “small Herculean labor” and a long battle, the Trojans taking the form of worms, weeds, and woodchucks. For a weapon, he recounts leveling his enemy with his long-handled hoe, turning dirt and dust over the weeds that fought for water and sun with his rows and rows of beans. When reading Thoreau’s story of his bean-field, which I’ve done several times in the past few weeks, it’s almost always this image of Thoreau, fighting against worms, weeds, and woodchucks, that stands out to me. It may have been a battle, but clearly, he enjoyed this “curious labor,” as he describes being out there all summer in the early morning dew, barefoot in the field, until noon, and sometimes, staying there all day to see the evening birds overhead. There’s a certain magnetism in the earth, he says at one point, and I tend to agree.

Like Thoreau, I have my bean field that I’ve planted behind my barn year after year. At times, it seems to be more trouble than worth. The hidden calculus at the back of my mind tells me I must be losing on time and money. Surely, I’d be better off just making a trip to the grocery store, where I’ll ultimately end up buying my lettuce because my stalks in the garden have gone to flower. And yet I continue my little gardening enterprise year after year, knowing, like Thoreau, that there’s something more to be harvested than beans.

Thoreau standing in my garden

Over the life of my garden plot, I’ve tried many things to satisfy that strange pleasure of gardening—far too many to list here. And usually, I take several pictures over the course of the summer, a kind of photographic journal. There’s a picture, for instance, of the garden’s infancy, our first summer at the house, when the farmer up the road brought his tractor down to break ground for us, creating a rather large plot of land. My work even included a scare crow, but the garden proved unmanageable. In another photo several summers later, the garden includes a discarded snow fence I used to keep out the deer that tarry our plants—no woodchucks that nibble our leaves like Thoreau, but rather deer that feast upon them, leaving nothing but bare branches and curses in their wake. Indeed, I’ve never liked the idea of using that green garden fencing, which reminds me of working in a cage, but I found the red vertical slats that comprise snow fencing to be a rather pleasing aesthetic. Then there’s pictures of raised beds some years, large mounds in others. It’s always changing.

This year was no different, as I enlarged the garden dimensions and rearranged to make room for raised beds, which I had done away with only a couple years ago after seeing a friend’s garden. Maybe I’m fickle. This time around I drew inspiration from some pictures from an article in This Old House Magazine, an issue that I’d tucked away for safekeeping because, well, one day I wanted to build a garden like the one featured in that issue, or at least, to build something similar. No, I couldn’t do it exactly the same. So that was my project at the beginning of the summer, using two-by-fours for the beds instead of scrap hardwood flooring, using red as my color palette instead of green, and using brown mulch instead of pea gravel for the paths. And like most of my projects, it’s about 80% finished at this point, but the plants are in the ground and growing. Tomatoes, basil, lettuce, peppers—lots and lots of them in several varieties—potatoes, squash, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and cilantro. My tastes are a little more diverse than Thoreau, but my son did throw some beans in a patch of dirt as almost an afterthought, and ironically, it was the only thing that didn’t come up, the seeds having been leftovers from previous years.

The garden is better than last summer, for sure, but there’s always something that could be better. Thoreau gets this, too, for about halfway through his chapter about his beans, he discusses the desire to change things next time, opining that we all too often do the same thing year after year in both our gardens as well as our principles and actions. For Thoreau, change is good, and to me, that’s also one of the strange pleasures of working the soil. Gardening is about returning to the same place day after day, always looking for little ways to improve, to do things differently. I have plants on my property, for instance, that I have moved a half dozen times, hoping to find the best location. Another small flower garden went through a huge transformation a few years ago, as I hauled away a stone border, installed a decorative fence, and carefully placed a few very large rocks. Of course, there were some new plants, too. I’m happier with this garden, too, but I’m always tinkering with improvements.

That’s the difference between gardening and farming. According to Thoreau, the farmer is concerned with the product whereas the gardener is concerned with the process. The gardener realizes there’s more to be gained from working the soil than the harvest and the feast, which brings us back to Thoreau spending so much time hoeing his rows of beans. There are times he relates just standing there, listening to sounds in the distance or watching the nighthawk in the sky above. People stopped by, seeing him there with his beans, to offer advice for a better harvest in the fall, but Thoreau wasn’t farming. In fact, he describes farmers as robbing nature. No, instead, he was gardening. It should be noted, however, that Thoreau preferred the term husbandry when describing his own activities, a term which today seems almost obsolete. For Thoreau, husbandry was a “sacred art,” an activity that connected us to the earth more as stewards rather than owners, cultivating rather than reaping. The word also denotes a kind of management or conservation of resources, too, that anticipates, perhaps, that nature is not an infinite bounty, but something that could slip into a wasteland. Indeed, the land around Walden Pond in the 1840s was not as we see it today, but more desolate, much of it having been timbered and stripped to the ground. The beans were planted, in part, because other crops wouldn’t grow in such poor soil. It’s no wonder then that Thoreau might see himself as husbandman rather than a farmer. And unlike the farmer, the husbandman carries less anxiety, worrying much less about whether he should lose the rewards of his labor. Instead, the labor is the reward, and again, the strange pleasure.

As for me, I’m all right with words like garden, gardening, and gardener. Much better than worms, woodchucks, and weeds, for sure. But it’s that idea of change, I think, that becomes the key to understanding the difference between the gardener and the farmer. For me, gardens are experiments, little places where change is welcome, even encouraged, as the necessary ingredient to the process. It’s a place where possibility dwells, a place where the imagined comes to life. The words maybe next time and what if grow alongside the cabbage and broccoli. That’s what I like about it, and perhaps, that’s what Thoreau loved about it. This past week, on a trip to Creekside Gardens in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, that fact was highlighted for me. As my wife and I admired the plants, we struck up a conversation with one of the owners, discussing a miniature garden decorated with fairy houses and little sprites going about their gossamer business. And even as we admired the beautiful little garden, she told us what needed to be changed. “That’s what we’re always doing with our gardens,” she said. I think Thoreau would agree. The pleasure is in the process.

The First Fourth of July in Montrose, Pennsylvania

Over the past few months, I’ve delved deeper into the history of Montrose, Pennsylvania, than ever before. I’ve always been interested in writing about places, and for a long time, this small town where I live has provided plenty of inspiration. One of my writing projects has been a collection of poems about Montrose that I’ve finally decided to publish, and of course, that’s when doubt really starts to creep into my thoughts. Here I am, writing about my adopted hometown, but what did I really know? I had the overwhelming feeling that I was only skimming along the surface. I’d written about a few notable people and specific places, even a poem about our Fourth of July celebration, but I needed more details, more history. So now, several months later, having scrutinized old maps, read old newspapers, and seen hundreds of old photographs, I’m rediscovering the place I’ve called home for the past fifteen years.

Published in 1873, Emily Blackman’s History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania contains a wealth of information, including much about the founding of Montrose. She’s considered to be the area’s first historian, so naturally, I’ve been reading her book, scanning the index and picking relevant topics. One story that stands out, especially at the beginning of this month, recalls the first Fourth of July celebration, only a short year after Captain Bartlet Hinds built a small log cabin that became the town’s first settlement in 1800.

Just like our modern fireworks, these early settlers wanted something grandiose, something with a great boom. If we take Blackman at her words, Captain Hinds must have been a clever woodsman, besides a soldier. Hoping to recreate the fusillade of cannon fire, Hinds felled thirteen trees in quick succession, choosing trees and notching them in such a way to fall like dominoes. Has anyone ever heard of such a feat? The noise must have been marvelous, as each tree crashed into the next and into the next on down the line. As the boom resounded in the woods, and the last tree fell to the ground, I can only imagine the few settlers gathered about clapping and cheering such a spectacular show.

Felling of the Trees by Colleen Caterson
Felling of the Trees by Colleen Caterson (from Montrose Through the Years, 1976)

Somewhere off in the woods nearby at least one other person heard the flurry of the captain’s wooden cannons. Reportedly, Jason Torrey, while out surveying land, followed the great boom to its source and soon discovered the little party in the midst of their merry making. They gave him food and drink, and according to Blackman, Captain Hinds offered up a toast on the nation’s birthday, saying, “The United States! May their fertile soil yield olive for peace, laurel for victory, and hemp for treason!”

Although we can’t give credit to Hinds for composing these words, as this was a familiar toast at the time, his fighting spirit is certainly embodied in them. Hinds was a soldier, after all, having fought for liberty or death against the British. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote The Declaration of Independence, was the newly inaugurated President of the United States in 1801, and George Washington had only died a couple years earlier.

So goes the first of many celebrations in The Hinds Settlement, later renamed Montrose, Pennsylvania. While researching the details of this event, I did come across at least one person who asked, Why thirteen trees? Indeed, I don’t want to take anything for granted, so let us remember the thirteen stripes on our flag represent the original thirteen colonies who banded together to fight for independence. By the day Hinds brought thirteen trees crashing to the ground, the number of states in the union had grown to sixteen, but thirteen had already become sacred. So strange, that today, we associate the number with bad luck and trouble. It seems to me, however, that Captain Hinds most certainly had those original colonies in mind when planning his “fireworks” for the Fourth of July.

It’s interesting to note, too, that one of the mottos of our new nation, e pluribus unum—a Latin phrase meaning “out of many, one”—was even comprised of thirteen letters. As an English teacher and student of language, I’ve always found this detail about the motto fascinating, but the phrase becomes even more poignant as I think about the beginnings of Montrose taking shape. When the Hinds family and Jason Torrey came together, they were parts that joined as one to create something greater, much like our country, much like our small town, much like our annual celebration, and much like those thirteen trees, so many years ago, crashing together into one great echoing sound heard deep in the woods.

All of this makes me reflect on things that bring us closer, that pull us together rather than apart. The Fourth of July in our town, unlike many of our other holidays, is unique in that respect. Whether we gather along the parade route, visit the vendors on The Green, or sit together to watch the fireworks at the end of the day, we celebrate together. My parents, for instance, will travel two hours to be here. Many others are coming from much farther to visit close friends and family, often using this event to return to their roots. It’s estimated that our town swells to nearly 20,000 people on this one day of the year. Although they will not hear the thunderous roar of those thirteen trees described by Emily Blackman in her book, it’s clear that our tradition of bringing people together, especially in Montrose, is still strong.