Thoughts on “The Bean-Field”

“The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not.”

In “The Bean-Field”, Thoreau distinguishes the art of husbandry from the profession of farming. He discusses the experience of creating a small garden, turning it into a passionate journey of discovering the earth. While he covers the minute details of his labor, it is apparent that the process is about more than growing beans for a profit. Of his beans, Thoreau states “they attached me to the earth.”

As he continues, we see that connecting to the land is the main priority, and in doing so, he will learn more of himself, becoming a more complete man. Introspection through working the land is the essence of husbandry that Thoreau advocates for. “Why concern ourselves so much about our beans for seed, and not be concerned at all about a new generation of men?” That he spent so much time and effort growing the beans, and makes a statement such as this, displays Thoreau’s hatred of farming for profit. Indeed in the chapter “Economy”, he notes of men born to farmers “Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?” For, according to Thoreau, farming for profit, is not real life.

Farmers work against the land, while a husbandman attempts to understand and appreciate all aspects of the earth. A husbandman succeeds if he has learned about himself by spending time studying his small plot, while a farmer may only succeed if he turns a profit. Where the farmer exhausts his land, the husbandman learns to be “brave”, creatively attempting to revitalize his soil.

Thoreau describes husbandry much better than he practices it. He only focuses on beans, and then hypocritically proceeds to sell them. While my knowledge of the topic is minimal, I think of a recent interaction I had with what I believe is a great example of husbandry. While travelling in Zambia, I stayed at a lodge in Shiwa Ngandu, a remote location with natural hot springs. Although on the other end of the world, I could not help but think of Shiwa as I read “The Bean-Field.” The owners of Shiwa seem to capture the essence of husbandry even more than Thoreau is able to. Where Thoreau sells his beans, the Shiwa garden provides food year round for all who stay, work, or pass through the lodge.

Is this self sustaining model of a small, organic, diverse garden, that does not need to be taken to market for trade, one that Thoreau would admire? A plot that is efficient enough to stand on its own in providing food for those who live there. I cannot speak on whether those in Shiwa discover themselves as they care for their land, however from many conversations I can attest to their great care and appreciation for what they are provided by the earth. Despite Thoreau’s great romanticism of his beans, the relationship that those of Shiwa have with their garden seems to be a much more intimate connection with the earth.

One thought on “Thoughts on “The Bean-Field”

  1. Good focus on husbandry–you will see this is a key concept for Wendell Berry, where the issue is about smaller scale and local and domestic. I wonder if you see this focus on the domestic in the chapter at odds with Thoreau’s interest in the wild, living free and uncommitted.

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