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 Pink Floyd Connection

It’s been almost thirty years since I first wrote about Pink Floyd. To be honest, I never felt compelled until last Thursday, when my friend Dave, who co-teaches my English 11 class with me, mentioned Pink Floyd while we reviewed the words for a vocabulary test. More on that later, but for now, let me take you back to 1989.

I’m in seventh grade, reading about Pink Floyd for a report for school. I listen to a lot of their music, not the deepest cuts, but the best stuff. The Dark Side of the Moon. The Wall. Wish You Were Here. And more recently, I’ve bought the live album Delicate Sound of Thunder on cassette, which fascinates me with its pictures and liner notes. I’m also learning to play guitar, which is mostly due to my love of David Gilmour, the lead guitarist from Pink Floyd. Naturally, when Mrs. O’Connor, my English teacher, assigns a report, I pick my favorite band, and she lets it ride. I find an article or two and complete my outline. Soon I’m writing the essay, and when it’s done, I slip it into a blue folder, decorating the front with a couple pictures and blazing the band’s name neatly across the top. I can still remember walking into class with that report in hand.

Thoreau in the Dark Side of the Moon Album Cover

Here’s the reason that story’s important. After publishing last week’s post about Walden, I thought I had finished with Henry David Thoreau for a while, but then the Pink Floyd connection surfaced. We’re reviewing the vocabulary for our Transcendentalism test, discussing the word fritter, which means to waste money and time on inconsequential things—a thoroughly Thoreau theme—and Dave, who often surprises me, brings up the lyrics of “Time” from The Dark Side of the Moon. Boom! There it is, in the opening lyrics no less, and I’d never made the connection. Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. And with that revelation, I get nostalgic about that essay I wrote so long ago, when I was listening to Pink Floyd almost every day. It’s not déjà vu, but some other feeling, suggesting the hidden connectedness of our actions. Maybe a happy coincidence, though I’d like to think of it as more than that.

Later I keep digging. I’m reading the lyrics to “Time” when I make another connection: Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. It just keeps getting better; I mean this is surely a direct allusion to Thoreau’s famous line in Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Soon I’m Googling keywords, digging for more confirmation, and I’m beside myself when I find an entire essay comparing the themes of Thoreau to The Dark Side of the Moon. I’m scrolling pages, looking at blog posts mentioning the same thing, too. I even learn that Thoreau’s famous aphorism about “quiet desperation” may be not entirely original. It’s all good, though, and pretty soon, I’m up in my attic, digging through boxes, looking for that old report. I still have it after thirty years.

So where does it all begin? Was it with the mention of the word fritter? Was it the moment I chose to include the word on that vocabulary list several years ago? Or was it when I heard The Wall for the first time, playing through my father’s car stereo? I’m not sure, but there’s this line from Walden that comes to mind. “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us . . . There is more day to dawn.” It’s from the final paragraph of the book, and suggests the end is really not the end, but perhaps only a beginning. There’s something more to see, more to understand, more to connect. Maybe we’re just on the dark side of the moon.

From the Raven to the Muskrat

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting at a desk in the back of my classroom. My students sat quietly, each working to complete the test before them, and it was one of those rare moments where I could just relax, observing everything around me. I took a deep breath. I’m a high school English teacher. This is my classroom. It’s a Tuesday.

And as I looked around, I noticed all the birds. It’s been organic, I might say, but I’ve collected quite a few over the years. My oldest is a large drawing of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the book cover with a ball of string and the tree’s knot hole. I also have a smaller mockingbird picture, more recently given to me. There’s a scarlet ibis, often mistaken for a flamingo, that one of my students painted for me after reading the story by James Hurst. Of course, I have a few ravens. One is a cardboard prop I made long ago, and every year while teaching “The Raven,” I run across the floor, jump as high as I can, and slap it to the wall above my door. Sometimes it stays there all year. A couple years ago a student painted me a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe with a raven superimposed on his face, so that’s up there on my front wall too. That’s a total of five birds, but there’s more. This year, I finally learned how to string the origami cranes that I make with my students as part of their study of Hiroshima by John Hersey, and some of those hang from the ceiling.

All this gets me thinking about animals in literature. In addition to those already mentioned, we read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and “To Build a Fire” almost every year. Sometimes we read The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, which uses lots of bird symbolism. There’s Of Mice and Men, too, where Steinbeck describes the death of Candy’s old dog at the hands of Carlson. And of course, when I think about epic stories and animals, Moby Dick rises to the surface.

The raven, however, might be the most recognizable of these literary creatures. After all, only one sports team, the Baltimore Ravens, is named for a poem about a fictional animal. I find this very satisfying, and I think Poe would be honored. That bird, most indeed, refused to fly away, and never-nevermore did Poe find a better symbol for despair that just doesn’t quit.

Henry B. Kane's woodcut image of a muskrat

But there’s another favorite of mine, Henry David Thoreau’s muskrat.

In recent years, this muskrat has become more sentimental to me than ever. It’s found a home with me alongside the other animals. And whereas my last post about Thoreau focused on a passage from the beginning of Walden, the relevant passage here comes from the last few paragraphs of the book. Thoreau writes, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.” I just love this passage, especially for its stark contrast to the raven.

Whereas Poe’s raven is all about hopelessness, the narrator’s failed attempt to recover from the despair caused by a dead lover, Thoreau’s muskrat is a symbol of hope. He says “the life in us is like water in the river,” trying to make us understand there’s always more, always greater possibilities within the confines of our lives. And those pesky habits, those troubles we’ve come to live alongside like varmints in our house, those “muskrats” so to speak—well, Thoreau says, yes, we can get rid of those. To me, that’s so hopeful. Perhaps that’s the most powerful lesson in all of Thoreau, one which Poe’s biography, to the best of my understanding, suggests he never seemed to learn. We can change our lives. We can drown our muskrats.

The picture included with this week’s post is located at the end of a 1951 edition of Walden published by W. W. Norton & Company, which was illustrated by Henry B. Kane. He is known for his nature drawings. The muskrat seems to be afloat, at least for the moment, while the flood waters rise.

I Would Fish Deeper

It’s almost that time again when I teach Thoreau’s Walden.  For me, it’s become a perennial favorite, and as we all grow more and more connected to our phones and other digital devices, reading some Henry David Thoreau may serve as an antidote. At least that’s what I hope for my students. I suffer no illusions, however, for at best, it’s barely a scratch in the surface of their worlds.

Nevertheless, Thoreau comforts me.  At its heart, Walden is about recognizing the superficial lives we all too often accept.  Yet it’s easy to misinterpret his words about living “deliberately” in the woods, as my students often do, as a call to live life to the fullest. I try to set them straight. Thoreau didn’t want us to gorge ourselves on experience, to drink in everything without measure, but rather to slow down, to simplify, and to live a deeper life.

Walden is filled with metaphors for this deeper life, and every year I find more. One of these has both challenged and plagued me so much that I’d like to spend a few minutes discussing it.  Many readers will probably recognize the familiar line. “Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in.” It’s just perfect—ready to be ripped from the page and plastered on a shirt or a hat.  My father-in-law, in fact, has a decorative metal sign with those words neatly set against the backdrop of a man fishing in a stream.

Fishing on the Meshoppen Creek in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania

But here’s the rub, for as I understand it, Thoreau draws this metaphor to describe our shallow and superficial lives.  I admit—I was taken in by the turn of phrase, too, and it took me a long time, years really, to understand that what comes after that line is ever more important. He actually writes, “Time is but a stream I go a fishing-in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.  Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.  I cannot count one.”  There’s still more to that paragraph, but this should suffice my purpose here.

With greater context, the true meaning of these words takes shape.  The first sentence is really just a prelude, and a contrasting metaphor, for the imagery of the second half, which contains the point of his message.  Indeed, Thoreau proposes something more from life than just a stream.  He uses the familiar metaphor of time passing like a river but changes the direction.  He turns it vertical, reflecting upon the shallow nature of the water before him. The march of time seems weak, too, as Thoreau reduces the river to merely a “stream” and a “thin current” for the fisherman.

“I would drink deeper,” Thoreau says.  And that’s the important part.

Thoreau wanted a deeper understanding of life. He wanted to strip away superfluity to better explore what lies at the core of our experience. He wants to “fish in the sky,” because in contrast to the stream, there is no bottom, but rather an infinite deepness. And for him that’s exciting. The stars in the sky are so far away, so very deep, that they become foreign and unaccountable. The deepness actually confounds him, which as I have said, Thoreau finds thrilling.

And in the end, it’s all quite beautiful.  It gets the job done, so to speak, but only when the reader realizes the first line is only scratching the surface of the message. I think it’s interesting, too, that the structure of the passage even mimics Thoreau’s theme. That sentence that starts the paragraph with a familiar metaphor seems to suggest the way we lead our lives, looking for meaning at the top of our paragraphs rather than taking time to read through the whole thing.  We skim along the surface, taking the easy way, avoiding complexity, because it takes time and patience to understand the world. Once in a while, we get lucky. We catch the meaning, but most of time we need to fish deeper.

Thanks to Bill Kern from the Countryside Conservancy for providing the picture of Meshoppen Creek in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.