With Thoreau in the bean field (Walden 108)

“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?

This new chapter is titled, “The Bean Field,” so it’s a safe guess that he’s going to explain himself. More about that in upcoming posts. For now, one thing to consider is the difference between work that you choose to do and work that you are compelled to do by some obligation. While the beans are a cash crop, Henry is undertaking it as an experiment. It isn’t the type of crushing obligation he wrote about in the “Economy” chapter.

And by thinking of as an experiment and a self-chosen endeavor, the work simply looks different to him than it might under other circumstances. A generation later, Mark Twain would brilliantly explore the concepts of work and leisure in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in the famous chapter in which Tom cleverly re-frames the whitewashing of a fence into a privilege for which his friends are soon willing to pay. Thoreau doesn’t come up with anything so fiendishly brilliant, but perhaps he recognized the truth of what Twain wrote immediately following the success of Tom’s whitewashing scheme:

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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