Thoreau’s beanfield

July 26, 2008 at 10:29 am 4 comments

In Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991), Michael Pollan mentions that Henry David Thoreau makes his beanfield “a foil” for the battlefields of the Mexican War (1846-48). This reference sent me to the pages of Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) to learn more about Thoreau’s wartime garden.

On July 4, 1845, Thoreau moved into a house he built for himself on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. For the next two years, two months, and two days (with some interruptions), he sought “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Much of his time, and much of Walden, is given over to raising and foraging food.

In his chapter on “The Beanfield,” Thoreau mused on his larger agricultural experiment. As he tended his rows of white bush beans–seven miles in total–he could hear the local militia conducting drills and bands playing. Thoreau sarcastically suggested that the sound of trumpets could inspire even him to bayonet a Mexican soldier and he “looked round for a woodchuck or a skunk to exercise my chivalry upon.” He extended the analogy to his war on weeds: “Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead.”

In July 1846, Thoreau went to Concord and was thrown in jail for non-payment of taxes. He did not want his tax money to support slavery and the Mexican War. In his famous essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” (later titled “Civil Disobedience”), Thoreau explained how government activity often failed the will of the people: “Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.” Sound familiar? The next day, his aunt settled the tax bill, and Thoreau was free to return to his pen, paper, and beanfield.

At Green Zone, scarlet runner beans (phaseolus coccineus) mingle with morning glories and gourds along the fence. Though I didn’t know it when I planted the beans in the spring, these bright red flowers, twisting vines, and long bean pods recall Henry David Thoreau and his wartime garden at Walden Pond.


Entry filed under: Civil Disobedience, food, gardens, Green Zone Garden, Mexican War, Thoreau, wartime gardens. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Morning glorious Greening Green Zone: veg, herbs, flowers

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kate  |  July 30, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I was just in Concord for a workshop on studying/teaching the Transcendentalists. There was much discussion of Thoreau’s beans. A woman named Sandra Petrulionis gave a very interesting presentation on the influence on the Thoreau’s women’s influence on his antislavery thought. Apparently, the females of the house led the way.

  • 2. Ina  |  August 9, 2008 at 9:58 am

    My friend Dyan has squash vines growing up and around the stair rails on her front steps. I was in awe when I saw them because those leaves are such a vibrant, glowing green. She has them in beautiful containers that are a sort of earthy deep metallic red. The contrast is stunning.

  • 3. frank@nycgarden  |  February 10, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Much has been made of Thoreau’s “militant” nature, and this was definitely expressed in his garden and Walden. I thought of this on the few times I’ve read Walden. I like the organized rows of veggies myself, though not likening it to military procession. More recent militarized notions in the garden refer to pesticide warfare. I thought about gardening while others are at war. Its hard to reconcile, though many have speculated that organized militias were a response to invaders on agricultural settlements. Crops as payment for those standing at the ready.

    • 4. greenzonegarden  |  February 10, 2009 at 7:41 pm

      there are a bunch of WWI and WWII posters and comics with wars on pests in the garden. For instance, my alter ego Barney Bear!


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