- Thoreau's "The Bean-Field"
Every year, like many college teachers, I am invited to student graduation parties. As a gift, I often bring a book, and in this book I often inscribe a quote from Thoreau. I was originally inspired to do this by The Dead Poets Society, which I saw in the theater in 1989, when I was 23 and just about to start my first semester as a graduate teaching assistant. Especially that scene in the cave when the boys are huddled with flashlights, and their doomed young leader, Neil Perry, reads this inscription in a professor's old book of poetry. "I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all of the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived."
This is a jumbled-up version of those inspiring lines from the second chapter in Walden, "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," and it is also not what I inscribe in books given to my students in Omaha, Nebraska. Instead, they confront this question: "What shall I learn from beans or beans of me?"
This is a quote from the seventh chapter in Walden, "The Bean-Field," and I don't imagine it has ever served as the ritualistic opening to any secret literary society. Nevertheless, many of my students will be familiar with it, because when I am forced to choose one chapter from Walden to include on my syllabus, this is it. Why? Nostalgia, partly. My introduction to Thoreau came relatively late, during my first semester of graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1988, in an American literature class. I was a recent refugee from the sciences and had barely been accepted into the English MA program. During that first semester, I was still savoring the romantic haze of the newly converted artist, and had yet to view reading as an actual discipline—as in something you had [End Page 195] to do every day in order to pass graduate classes. So when I was assigned a long and unfamiliar book in a literary seminar, I tended to skip through it for relevant information, as I'd done with my chemistry textbooks. In the case of Walden, I gleaned the chapter titles—"Economy," "Sounds," "Visitors"—all of which seemed pretty bland, until I landed on "The Bean-Field."
As someone born and raised in central Iowa, beans were something I was familiar with, something I could talk about in class to deceive my professor into thinking I had read the entire book. I had a personal history with beans, had feelings about them. I had, as Thoreau put it, "an eye to them." During my youth, I spent summers "walking beans" for area farmers, which required slogging miles of soybean rows, pulling up weeds, which were defined as anything not soybean—a hot, muddy, back-wrenching job now almost entirely replaced by mechanized chemical applicators and genetic engineering. Even so, I liked beans. At home, my grandfather grew green beans in his garden and I ate them fresh off the vine. In high school, I ate them (not so fresh) off the lunch trays of those at my table who refused to eat them, prompting some of them to dub me "Lil' Sprout," after the character in the canned vegetable commercials. We were, in fact, all living "down in the valley of the Jolly Green Giant," in one giant bean field, in a state with less than one-tenth of one percent of its native habitats remaining. The most altered state in the union.
But that was an environmental perspective I hadn't arrived at in high school or even during that initial semester of grad school, when I first read "The Bean-Field." What originally stood out for me in that chapter, besides the beans, was this statement about farmers: "Ancient poetry and mythology suggests that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being...