“Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely.” — Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean Field,” Walden
Remember that Thoreau’s beans were strictly a cash crop — he wasn’t really trying to live off the land; it was just a way to make some money. So don’t read Henry as being opposed to commerce. He’s saying that it should also be something more. Otherwise, he warns,
“By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber.”
Is it possible to make a living off the land, feed a hungry world, and also find the harmony that Henry insisted upon? We’re still struggling with that question. Since his day, agriculture has become more successful in the sense that we squeeze ever more food from less land. That’s good. But is it sustainable?
For example, I live in the Missouri-Mississippi River basin, the vast and highly-productive agricultural heartland of the United States. Farmers use an enormous amount of fertilizers and pesticides to produce astonishing harvests… but the runoff flows downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, which for a number of years has had a hypoxic “Dead Zone” which is currently the size of Connecticut. (Granted, lawn chemicals and other runoff also contributes to this; also, be aware that the dead zone is a result of nitrogen and phosphorus; the Gulf’s oil spills are another matter.)
In a world of hunger and technological prowess, Thoreau’s insistence that we find the ‘sacredness’ in agriculture seems quaint. But I think he would advise us that it is a prerequisite to finding a sustainable balance.
(About “A Year in Walden”)