Rejoicing among the weeds (Walden 116)

“Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer’s barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.”

— Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean Field,” Walden

What a patient man! Working without pesticides (which hadn’t been invented yet), Thoreau spent hours in his bean field chopping weeds. You’d think he’d be cursing weeds by now, but he sees a larger picture.

Granted, this is one of those places in Walden in which Henry sounds unrealistic, or like a hobby farmer. He wasn’t counting on that crop to pay the mortgage. He didn’t have hungry kids to feed, or the threat of being thrown off the land. During his second year at Walden Pond a late frost killed his crop (this isn’t in the book). He didn’t go hungry because of it. Easy for him to say that farmers shouldn’t worry. Would he have said the same to Irish farmers during the great potato famine, which roughly coincided with his stay at Walden? I think not.

But I think what Thoreau is trying to emphasize is that we aren’t the only ones here. Let’s skip back a bit to what he says just before the words I quoted:

“We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction. They all reflect and absorb his rays alike, and the former make but a small part of the glorious picture which he beholds in his daily course. In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden. …These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly?”

I reversed the order of the quoted material because I wanted to deal with potential objections first, before getting to the main point. This is really an astonishing thing for a man of Henry’s generation to say. Even more than today, people of Henry’s times, as for many generations before, believed that the earth had been created for humans, and that its value was judged solely by how it served humans.

But Henry sees himself and his fellow humans as part of a larger ecological community. I don’t think he would have willingly gone hungry so that a woodchuck could eat, but he seemed to recognize that in the long run, all life on Earth is related, and what affects one affects all. Nature, in this view, cannot been seen simply as a resource to be mined.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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