Henry David Thoreau, a writer during the nineteenth century of Transcendentalism, characteristically wrote lengthy chapters of his time spent at Walden Pond, a pond near Concord, Massachusetts. During his time at Walden, Thoreau reflected on this environment around him and the majesty in the way it lives through the seasons. One particular chapter within Walden titled “The Bean-Field” is seemingly just a chapter detailing Thoreau’s experience growing and caring for his bean crop during his time at Walden. At a closer glance, the chapter dives into the need to treat your environment with care and serves as a warning for those who spend their time caught up in the materialistic way of life, ignoring and trashing the living environment around them.
Today, we live in a world caught up in materialistic values, savoring the trendy way of life rather than the forces behind life itself. We overconsume and underappreciate. Supermarkets are laden with hundreds of varieties of a single item and landfills are filling up with the waste trailing behind us. The world is becoming a landfill and the environment we are throwing the trash in is dealing with the consequences of our actions. Recently, more efforts have arisen to combat the environmental impact humans have left to attempt to save our home before it is too late. However, back in the nineteenth century, Thoreau was already campaigning for humanity to treat the environment better. He more than likely would have never thought humanity would go this far and cause this much damage, but he would no doubt agree that changes must be implemented if we are going to save our planet.
In “The Bean-Field”, Thoreau points out that man “knows Nature but as a robber” (page 180). Humanity knows not the environment as the plentiful gift bestowed upon us but rather as a commodity to capitalize upon. We see profits and projects, not the majesty of Nature’s greatest works of art. This line from Walden was very much true then as it was written at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and it still rings true centuries later. Thoreau could not have known the damage that such a revolution would cause but even at the brink of it, he still warned humanity because as he witnessed the growing changes not only in the behavior of humanity but also at the innovativeness of humanity, he knew there was something unnatural about it and this could only negatively impact us and our environment.
As Thoreau details his work with his bean field, it is clear the care he has for his crop. He labors over it with extreme care and consideration, treating it as more of a friend and gift. The language he uses is descriptive and light, describing his symphony of yard work: “When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.” (page 172). This was a labor of love to Thoreau and instead of treating his farming endeavor as a means of getting by, he treated it like a privilege that reaped more benefits than just a crop to eat. His ideology was that “there is kindredship in Nature” and the crops which we yield are not just the product of labor; they are a gift given to us after we have treated the environment around us with special care (page 173). Thoreau was very adamant on his stance that Nature was a friend of humanity, not the property of man; every gift that was given to us must be appreciated and taken sparingly, not something we should make a profit on and abuse.
To further prove that Thoreau thought of his bean field as a friend, he details coming to the rescue of the field when penetrating weeds threaten its survival: “Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with the weedy dead.” (page 175) He does not describe the laborious work of weeding his bean field as many farmers would characteristically do, detailing the sweaty work required and lamenting on how weeds are the bane of their existence. Thoreau does not have this mindset. As he has in several of the chapters throughout Walden, he describes this act as a war. He dons his weapons and aids his comrades, ensuring their success and lives with his efforts.
There are a few lessons peppered throughout this chapter in Walden and one that rings across the chapter quite strongly is that humanity tends to look at its predecessors for examples on how to live and function and if the wrong example is set, then we must either forge our own way or follow the bad example. Thoreau states that “Commonly men will only be brave as their fathers were brave, or timid…But why should not the New Englander try new adventures…raise other crops than these? Why concern ourselves so much about our beans for seed, and not be concerned at all about a new generation of men?” (page 178) Humanity is more focused on the product rather than what it produces. We teach men to get by and do not focus on the trail we leave behind, or rather the waste we leave behind. Nothing is truer than in our current society where we are now dealing with the impact of several generations, including our own, leaving behind so much waste that it is now piling up and causing last consequences. In a way, humanity was concerned with teaching the new generation of men how to inherit the earth, but we taught them the wrong lessons. We taught them to produce and innovate, take over the world with our intelligence. While this was a great decision, we should have been innovating and inventing ways to move humanity forward while also maintaining that glorious environment surrounding us. Due to that aspect being ignored, humanity may be in a losing battle with the environment in today’s society.
Even during the nineteenth century, Thoreau held a great deal of discontent for humanity during his time. There is a portion in this chapter in Walden where Thoreau is describing the anniversary of the Battle of Concord and the celebration commencing in town. He remarks that “This was one of the great days; though the sky had from my clearing only the same everlastingly great look that it wears daily, and I saw no difference in it.” (page 175) It goes back to the transcendentalism stance that man does not look upon nature with that pleasing eye unless something opens that eye for him such as a grand event or a grateful experience. Only in these moments does man look upon the splendor that constantly surrounds him. Transcendentalists constantly recognize and appreciate the splendor that surrounds them, and this is what sets them apart from the rest of society.
We constantly worship and appreciate the wrong things in life and Thoreau did not favor the path that man was set upon. His set of values is arguably what humanity needed to correctly launch itself into the future. If more thought as Thoreau did, we may not have cut such a deep gash into the earth’s surface that may be unamendable. While describing going to war against the weeds within his field, Thoreau states that he is “levelling whole ranks of one species, and sedulously cultivating another.” (page 175) Here he is detailing the weeding in his field, but this can be applied to the way humanity launched itself in the twentieth and the twenty-first century. We cultivated one crop and leveled several other ranks of species; intelligence and innovation over habitats and ecosystems. Humanity very well launched itself into the future but in the process, it doomed itself as well.
Philip Cafaro remarked that “The Bean-Field” is one of the first pieces of environmental writing in American literature. A chapter that seemingly just details Thoreau’s endeavors in planting and cultivating his bean crop opened the door for environmentalists to peer into the future. A reader has to look closely at the way Thoreau details the care he showed for his crop and how this can be applied to the pitfalls of humanity and how we deal with our own “crop”. In recent years, we have realized that our crop has failed, and we have failed future generations and their chance to live in a thriving environment. If we showed the environment as much care and respect as Thoreau showed his bean field, humanity would be better off than it currently is. Due to the lack of respect we showed for the world around us, the world around us has begun to die and if Thoreau were alive today, he would no doubt be heartbroken to see the path humanity has taken.
This reality is far-reaching from the warnings he gave two hundred years ago. While we are well past the point of repair for certain cases in the environmental crisis, these lessons learned in a bean field could be the difference between mass extinction for species and a dying planet and a reality where we have learned from our mistakes and turned this crisis around. Thoreau was a leading voice in this topic and even today, his lessons could show us how to fix the catastrophic mistakes we and our ancestors made. It is time we looked at our bean field and cultivated it, cared for it, and respected it.
Thoreau, Henry David. “The Bean-Field.” Walden, Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 168–181.