The Bean-Field

Summary The Bean-Field

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.