Tuesday, November 05, 2013

A Favorite Reverie - Redux

Bean-fields and Memories

Notes on Walden, III
"seeds of simplicity"

"A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again."
-  From “Return” by Robinson Jeffers

While reading the chapter of Walden entitled “The Bean-Field” my memories of summer days long ago that I spent in southern Wisconsin interrupted my reading. My personal experience with the slight cornucopia that our backyard garden produced came to mind. Specifically, it was the image of sitting in the back porch of our home with my grandmother that appeared to me;  a pail of just-picked string beans ripe from the garden between us as we snapped the ends off those beans. They would soon be part of dinner along with the leaf lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini and more from the garden. Fresh light fare that was our delight on a summer evening as the day began to cool. This is not a scene that I had thought of for many years but the image is in my mind as clear as if it happened last week – yet last week,  and again yesterday,  and today I was reading the thoughts of Thoreau about his bean-field and their meaning in his life. “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.” (p 155) 
I was in the pre-Antaeus stage of my life as I snapped beans with my grandmother, but the memories of field, family, and community from those days are part of my inner being to this day. 
Thoreau's bean-field and other crops were of more import as he describes them becoming “the connecting link between wild and cultivated fields; as some states are civilized, and others half-civilized, and others savage or barbarous, so my field was, though not in a bad sense, a half-cultivated field.” (p 156)
Again, living where I did when I was too young to appreciate such things our flourishing vegetable garden, situated as it was in our backyard, that was the last vestige of civilization (little though we had in our small town) before the lines of trees and acres upon acres of country fields, sometimes ripe with corn, sometimes not.

Thoreau was determined to “know” his beans, I must confess I shared neither his desire nor his determination regarding the beans of my youth, and in knowing his beans Thoreau celebrates them as he does so much of his life at Walden Pond. Beyond the “Pythagorean” experience of cultivating and selling his surplus beans Thoreau expounds on the further, deeper, more lasting experience that he 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. Commonly men will only be brave as their fathers were brave, or timid." (pp 163-64)

Just as time was "but the stream I go a-fishing in", and his head "is an organ for burrowing," (p 98) his bean-field produced beans that "have results which are not harvested by me." (p 166).  We are still reaping these results and, while there are few huts set out beside ponds, there are many people who think about the meaning of a life that is lived with the benefits of Thoreau's seeds of simplicity and thoughtfulness.

"This rain which is now watering my beans and keeping me in the house waters me too.  I needed it as much.  And what if most are not hoed!  Those who send the rain, whom I chiefly respect, will pardon me." (Journal, July 6, 1845)

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. by Tim Hunt. Stanford University Press, 2001
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 2004 (1971)
The Journal, 1837-1861 by Henry David Thoreau, ed. by Damion Searls. New York Review Books. 2009


Brian Joseph said...

Coincidentally I just finished reading Walden and have a couple of posts in the wings.

I too grew up in a rural area and think a lot about rural living and its nature. The line between "civilization" and the "wilds", and Thoreau's take on it, is indeed worth pondering.

James said...

The "seeds" of Thoreau's thought go directly to my soul. His prose is a sort of poetry of nature and his individualism at its best is an ideal to be honored. He is among my personal pantheon of thinkers to which I return for nourishment.