I READ "Walden" in March one year and planted beans in May because I wanted, with Thoreau, to "learn of beans and they of me." I was careful to make my bean field of just the right extent - four rows, three feet long - one package of seed, because I was also influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote: "My garden that skirted the avenue of the manse, was of precisely by the right extent. An hour or two of morning labor was all that it required, but I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day." I wondered what I could learn from this planting.
That summer was a time of growing, for me and the beans. It ideally combined just enough labor in the early morning (I, like Thoreau, hoed the rows when the dew was still visible in spite of what experienced growers warned), the frequent visits to watch the infinitesimal growth, and finally in July, the evening dishes of beans.
My beans connected me with the universe. I could not leave them, once they were planted, if I expected a harvest. They would grow proportionately to my effort and diligence, along with help from the elements, but if I abandoned them, I could not claim any part in whatever growth they experienced. The analogy, of course, which both Thoreau and I saw, was that I must plant other seeds and nurture them if I were to be rewarded with a growth in myself.
Because I had a city plot of beans, I needed not contend with woodchucks as Thoreau did; and yet if I had, I probably would have questioned, as did Thoreau, why the beans belonged to me more than the woodchuck. We were both a part of the universe, neither more vital than the other.
My beans required me to stay home, a "laborious native of the soil," and for that I was grateful. There was work to be done each day.
Thoreau said passersby compared his field with others, and he "came to know where he stood in the agricultural world." My neighbors didn't plant gardens, so I had no such comparison, but I was reassured each day that the green shoots were blooming, and I would have beans.
I found I needed to make choices - the weeds must go - and I wondered by what right I had to make those choices. Did not the weeds deserve as much attention as the beans? And if not, why not? The sun shone indiscriminately on both. Must we use the criterion of usefulness to measure our worth? When a weed, such as the dandelion, is elevated to usefulness in our scheme of things, it becomes important. How fickle we are when we make these choices.
I have planted beans often since that summer, but not for several years. Yet I have been mindful of other seeds, sometimes planted but not nourished, sometimes flourishing to harvest. I always consider them with an air of contemplation, for my whole connection with the universe has been humbled, yet strengthened, by that first summer with the beans. I feel it is time to plant again.