“Mine was, as it were, 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.” —Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean Field,” Walden
Thoreau has an amazing ability to re-frame just about anything. Imagine his skills in the hands of a marketing executive or shady politician!
Instead of a poorly-weeded garden, he has the missing link between nature and agriculture! With his poet’s eye he’s become so adept at looking at things in a new way that it becomes a form of play, fuel for his dry sense of humor.
“But labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness. It has a constant and imperishable moral, and to the scholar it yields a classic result.”
—Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean-Field,” Walden
Do you find this is true? You get stuck on a creative project, put it away and do some household task, or work in the yard — something physical and relatively mindless — and you come back and your mind works better somehow.
Walden shoreline in fall. Taken near hiking trail and former site of Thoreau’s cabin. Wikimedia Commons
It’s a privilege to do what’s described below: to live with a place you’ve known from childhood, or to return to such a place and have it still be there. For many people the places they once knew are inaccessible or altered almost beyond recognition. Continue reading →
“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. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows. This was my curious labor all summer — to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work.” —Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean Field,” Walden
Henry is hoeing beans. Without herbicides, he has to chop weeds with his hoe, hour after hour under the summer sun. In earlier chapters of Walden he talked about avoiding work. That’s why he lives so simply, after all, to avoid having to work so much. But here he is, standing in his little field, doing hot, hard, mindless work. Isn’t this the sort of backbreaking toil that distracts a person from the “higher” things that Henry is always rhapsodizing about? How does he find satisfaction in such a task? Continue reading →
Some of Thoreau’s many visitors thought it was dangerous for him to live alone in the woods:
“The old, infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger — what danger is there if you don’t think of any? — and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment’s warning. To them the village was literally a community, a league for mutual defence, and you would suppose that they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest. The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs.”
That last sentence is what really sticks with me. As a general thing we do a lousy job of risk assessment. We tend to worry about small but spectacular risks while ignoring the quiet but more likely and more deadly ones. (The US has built an entire “national security” policy on this bias.)
As Henry saw it, the biggest and most obvious risk for most of us came from a lack of attention, lack of imagination, or maybe — as he suggests here — from fear. The danger is that you’ll miss your own life as it sneaks past while you’re worrying about other things.
Oak Valley Wildlife Management Area, near Battle Creek, Nebraska.
“I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors. Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not.”
Though he says little about it, Thoreau mentions in passing, “One real runaway slave, among the rest, whom I helped to forward toward the north star.” Whether or not his cabin at Walden Pond sheltered runaway slaves has been disputed for years. It seems unlikely that a fugitive would know to seek Thoreau out in the woods, and of course the little house provided no concealment. It seems more likely that any assistance Henry would have given would have happened with the collaboration of people in town—perhaps, according to some sources, at the Thoreau family home.
Stories like this tended to be exaggerated in later years after the war; Thoreau’s claim here is modest. Still, writing in 1854 he was making a point. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 strengthened existing laws and subjected anyone convicted of helping a runaway slave to a six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine (about $28,000 in today’s dollars). Henry had left the pond before that law took effect, but his statement here can be taken as a raised middle finger to any government that would enforce such an unjust law, which he clearly intends to violate if given the chance.. His famous essay “Civil Disobedience” (aka “Resistance to Civil Government”) is an extended argument for such resistance. He also writes about the issue in “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Continue reading →