Thoreau On Food

During his two year stay at the pond, Thoreau grew for himself the bulk of the food he ate – beans, especially, but also a few rows of peas, corn, turnips, and potatoes. He drank water. From this experience he learned, among other things, that it ‘cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food’ and that ‘a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength.’[1] Reflecting on his first year of homesteading, Thoreau wrote that, ‘All things considered, that is, considering the importance of a man’s soul and of today, … I believe that [I] was doing better than any farmer in Concord.’[2] As well as providing for his own dietary needs, he also cultivated approximately two and half acres of beans which he later sold to meet his occasional miscellaneous expenses.[3] As for his second year:

… I did better still, for I spaded up all the land which I required, about a third of an acre, and I learned from the experience of both years, … that if one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground, and that it would be cheaper to spade up that than to use oxen to plow it, and to select a fresh spot from time to time than to manure the old, and he could do all his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours in the summer.[4]

 By simplifying his life and practicing self-reliance, Thoreau believed that he was more independent than any farmer he knew. ‘I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.’[5] This passage is significant because it shows that Thoreau’s living experiment was meeting with some real success. He had gone into the woods, after all, to confront that ‘vexed question’[6] of how to earn an honest living and still have freedom for his proper pursuits, and a life of simplicity and self-reliance was proving to be a promising response. Growing his own food, we see, was an important part of that response.

Growing his own food, however, came to be something much more than a matter of just physically sustaining himself. In a chapter of Walden entitled, ‘The Bean Field,’ we find Thoreau telling us that:

 I came to love my rows, my beans… They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antæus. 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.[7]

 Some readers may be reminded here of the passage by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which he talks with similar devotion about his own vegetable garden:

 I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.[8]

Thoreau admitted that, since he had little aid from horses, cattle, or hired labor, or from the latest farming implements, he was ‘much slower’ in his work than other farmers.[9] Nevertheless, he claimed that he became much more ‘intimate’ with his beans on this account and that his slower more personal approach yielded a ‘constant and imperishable moral.’[10] This moral, he seemed to think, was that the fastest and most efficient way of farming, that is, the way that would yield the most profit in the market, was not necessarily the best way, all things considered. As Philip Cafaro has noted, Thoreau ‘makes a point of doing most of the work himself, rather than contracting it out to more productive specialists with more elaborate tools. He does not, he tells us, bother with “imported” fertilizers. These moves would increase his productivity, but he refuses to allow that to dictate how he will farm.’[11] Furthermore, Thoreau could have hired himself out as a day labourer and for much less effort been able to buy his food at the grocers, but he chose not to. Doing so would have left him relying on others first to hire him and second to produce and then sell him his necessaries.

But Thoreau’s reasons for living simply go deeper even than securing his independence and freedom. Allowing others to grow food for him, even if it was more ‘efficient’ or ‘economic’ to do so, would also have disconnected him from the land, from direct contact with Nature, that is, from the elemental source of both his material and spiritual nourishment. And Thoreau would have no truck with that. He did not just want the beans to eat; he also wanted the experience of cultivating them. In ‘The Bean Field’ we get an insight into the nature of his labours. Being outside, he tells us, working up a sweat under the morning sun and sky, hoeing his beans in the fresh country air, ‘yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.’[12] At such times, he noted somewhat cryptically, it ‘was no longer beans that I hoed,’[13] suggesting, we can suppose, that he was cultivating not so much the land as his own soul.

Thoreau delighted at being ‘part and parcel of Nature.’[14] The chickadees became so familiar with him that at length one even perched upon an armful of wood which he was carrying, pecking at the sticks without fear. ‘I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing… and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by an epaulet I could have worn. The squirrels also grew at last to be quite familiar, and occasionally stepped upon my shoe when that was the nearest way.’[15] Thoreau would listen to the brown thrashers as he worked his rows and would carefully observe the wildlife on the edge of his field. As he was not driven by an urge to maximize profits, and was thus in no real hurry, he could rest on his hoe and watch the hen-hawks circling high in the sky, ‘alternately soaring and descending, approaching and leaving one another, as if they were the embodiment of my own thoughts.’[16] Philip Cafaro, again, captures the significance of these and similar experiences exactly: ‘To a poet-naturalist, opportunities for such encounters, even opportunities to feel changes in the weather and mark the natural course of the day, are strengthening and vivifying. Thoreau contrasts this work with factory and office work, suggesting again that the experience lost is not made up in increased pay or productivity.’[17]

This Thoreauvian calculus deserves our most serious consideration, today more than ever before. But it will take some concerted imaginative effort on our part to broaden our view of things, since Thoreau suggested that we entrenched urbanites, who are highly dependent on the grocer and who live and work mostly indoors, can barely comprehend what it could even mean to be ‘part and parcel with Nature.’ And until we have some sense of its richness, some sense that there is another, simpler, more intimate way to provide for ourselves, we are likely to continue doing economics in the usual, narrow fashion and structuring our lives accordingly, not even knowing what we have lost, or, rather, what the market economy and its division of labor has taken from us. ‘This is the only way, we say.’[18]

I will close this section by referring to another rather cryptic passage in Walden, in which Thoreau summarily dismisses all those timid souls who have doubts about the feasibility of alternative economics:

There is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once – for the root is faith – I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say.[19]

[1] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 315.

[2] Ibid 309-10.

[3] These expenses included seeds, rice, Indian meal and salt to make his own bread, oil for his lamp, etc.

[4] Thoreau, above n 1, 310.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid 284.

[7] Ibid 404-5.

[8] Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses from an Old Manse (New ed, 1857).

[9] Thoreau, above n 1, 406.

[10] Ibid 406.

[11] Philip Cafaro, Thoreau’s Living Ethics : “Walden” and the Pursuit of Virtue (2004) 98.

[12] Thoreau, above n 1, 408.

[13] Ibid 408.

[14] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 592.

[15] Thoreau, above n 1, 518.

[16] Thoreau, above n 1, 409.

[17] Cafaro, above n 11, 99. Thoreau’s point is not that factory and office work are not valuable. His suggestion is that the drive to maximize profits is disconnecting more and more people from the simple pleasures of contact with nature in their working lives. Thoreau is questioning whether the increased profits that arise from factory and office work is worth that disconnection from nature.

[18] Thoreau, above n 1, 266. In this context Thoreau also quotes Confucius: ‘To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.’ Thoreau, above n 1, 267.

[19] Ibid 319.