Thoreau plants two and a half acres of beans, along with smaller amounts of potatoes, turnips, and peas, and farms them throughout the summer months. Working barefoot, he lays out his plot, pausing at times to observe the wildlife around him. He hoes his beans each day and settles into the daily routine of the farm worker. The rains that come help his crops, but the woodchucks destroy a significant portion of them. Thoreau, anticipating that the soil of his bean plot will be rich, discovers that “an extinct nation had anciently dwelt here and planted corn and beans ere white men came to clear the land, and so, to some extent, had exhausted the soil for this very crop.” Thoreau finds evidence of this previous occupation everywhere, excavating arrowheads, shards of pottery, and other artifacts among the “ashes of unchronicled nations” while digging.
Thoreau often leans on his hoe and enjoys the “inexhaustible entertainment” of his environment, the sights and sounds of nature. But he also hears military exercises echoing from the nearby town, resounding across the bean-field. Thoreau says he finds himself reassured on such days, confident that his liberties would be defended in the event of a conflict. Thoreau says that, on hearing the gunfire, “I felt as if I could spit a Mexican with a good relish … and looked around for a woodchuck or a skunk to exercise my chivalry upon.” In his rural enclave, however, he feels distant from the necessity of war.
In all, Thoreau spends just under fifteen dollars on his crops, earning almost twenty-four dollars and making a profit of almost nine dollars. No great eater of beans himself, he barters most of his crop for rice, keeping the turnips and peas for his own sustenance. In providing advice on husbandry, Thoreau recommends fresh soil, vigilance against pests, and an early harvest that beats the first frost. But despite the profit he makes, Thoreau states that his purpose in cultivating crops is not so much to earn money but to develop self-discipline. He says that it is the cultivation of the farmer, and not the crop, that makes husbandry a worthwhile pursuit. Thoreau marvels that people care so intently about the success of their farms and so little about the state of the “crop” of men.
Thoreau reflects that nature does not care whether the year’s crop succeeds or fails, as the sun shines on plowed and fallow ground alike. Thoreau maintains that part of any crop is meant as a sacrifice to the woodchuck. Although the field infested with weeds is a curse to the hungry farmer, Thoreau says it is a blessing to the hungry bird. In such a world, Thoreau concludes, the farmer should not feel anxious, but should simply accept the blessings that nature bestows upon him.
The mythical side of Thoreau’s Walden venture is clearly evident in the imagery he borrows from classical mythology to describe his bean cultivation. Downplaying or even ignoring the pragmatic aspect of farming or its actual results (the harvest), Thoreau makes agriculture into a symbolic and transcendent activity. It has a “constant and imperishable moral,” as if it were an exercise in morality rather than a pursuit of material sustenance. He remarks that manual labor “to the scholar yields a classic result,” dubbing himself an industrious farmer, or agricola laboriosus, in Latin. We feel that Thoreau is more interested in the classical role he is playing than in the actual beans he will one day reap. Similarly, when Thoreau refers to his hard work in hoeing the fields, he compares himself to the Greek mythological figure of a North African giant who wrestled with Hercules. He remarks that “[m]y beans … attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus,” emphasizing the sheer vitality rather than the material productivity of his endeavors.
Thoreau compares farming to art as well, repeatedly referring to the music produced by his hoe as it strikes the earth rather than to the agricultural benefits of hoeing. He states that “my hoe played the Ranz des Vaches,” a French folk song, with the beans as his audience. Similarly, he describes himself as “dabbling like a plastic artist in the dewy and crumbling sand.” The point of all these references to myth and art is that they emphasize the impracticality of Thoreau’s agricultural efforts and by extension his whole stay at Walden Pond.
The religious symbolism of his farming is equally apparent. Unlike the typical subsistence farmer, who would clearly understand the end result of his work, Thoreau claims not even to know the point or final goal of all his labor. He asks, “Why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows.” In acknowledging that God alone knows why he is engaged in bean cultivation, Thoreau is ignoring the material side of farming and transforming it into an almost biblical parable about the mysteries of human endeavor on earth: we cannot claim to know why we live, for only God knows. Like the Book of Ecclesiastes, which says that for every human life there is a time to reap and a time to sow, the emphasis here is on the mystical and symbolic process of agriculture rather than on the market value of its saleable products. Thus the careful calculations found in the first chapter, “Economy,” and later in this chapter (reporting that a hoe costs fifty-four cents), seem less important when he says he does not even know why he is farming: calculations do not matter when the end result is not important. In fact he claims that in the future he will not sow beans at all but will rather practice an agriculture of morals, sowing “such seeds … as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like.” In short, although Thoreau’s mythical bean-field allusions majestically enhance the spiritual and philosophical side of his Walden project and of the work we are reading, it also undermines Thoreau’s frequent attempts to portray his ideas as the simple and practical-minded thoughts of any common field worker close to nature. Inspirational and thought-provoking as his literary work is, it is certainly not the product of the mind of an ordinary New England small farmer.
Thoreau’s discovery that his bean-fields are on the site of ancient Native American plots gives an interesting, multicultural touch to this chapter, which is full of Greek, Roman, and biblical allusions from Western culture. But he does not claim that the land belongs to the original inhabitants any more than it belongs to the invading westerners. The soil he cultivates is full of Native American artifacts, but they mingle with “bits of pottery and glass brought hither by the recent cultivators.” The land, in other words, is a mixed bag of traces of different cultures, a mosaic of different origins. He thus shows little interest in claiming it belongs purely and singly to any culture, native or European. This apathy implies a non-possessive attitude. Unlike many American settlers who claimed an absolute right to their conquered homesteads, Thoreau views himself as an interloper in territories that are not his own: “I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens.” He is not quite apologizing for intruding upon alien lands, but is at least registering that he is disturbing the spirits (or at least the remains) of others who came before him. Since many early Americans believed that white people brought culture to a virgin land, Thoreau shows a forward-thinking fairness in acknowledging that he is only one in a long line of people who have lived on this land since “primeval years.” His focus is on living in harmony with the land rather than on asserting some idea of cultural ownership over it.