Sunday 1 November 2015

Diet Tips of the Great Philosophers ≠92: Henry Thoreau and Green Beans

Posted by Martin Cohen

Many of the philosophers whom we rely on to represent little oases of good sense and rationality in a disorganised world, disappointingly turnout, on closer inspection, to be not only rather eccentric, but downright irrational. David Henry Thoreau, an anarchist who eked out a living by making pencils while living in a shed by a pond, on the other hand, appears even at first glance to be rather eccentric. Short, shabby, wild-haired and generally rather unprepossessing, he nonetheless seems to have anticipated much of the ecological renaissance that today’s philosophers (and diet gurus) have only just begun to talk about. Oh, and yes, he was always rather thin.

In his Journal entry for January 7, 1857, Thoreau says of himself: 
'In the streets and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it - dining with the Governor or a member of Congress! But alone in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine.

I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. . . I wish to . . . be sane a part of every day.'
He is famous for having spent two years living in a small wood cabin by a pond, and living off, not so much three fruits of the woods, but his own allotment. Naturally, Thoreau was a vegetarian. He remarks how one farmer said to him: ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make the bones with;’ even as the farmer:
‘... religiously devoted a part of his day to supplying himself with the raw material of bones, walking all the while behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.’
Thoreau himself cultivated, not so much an allotment, as a small bean farm, of two and a half acres, which provided for himself the bulk of the food he ate –peas, corn, turnips, potatoes and above all green beans, the last of which crop he sold for extra cash. During the second year, he reduced his crops, if anything, writing:
‘ … 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.’
He drank mainly water, writing that it was ‘the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor’ and worrying about the temptations of a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!

From life in the woods 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.’

In a chapter of his most famous book, Walden, entitled simply, ‘The Bean Field,’ Thoreau records how:
‘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.’
For Thoreau, buying food, allowing others to grow food for him, would have disconnected him from the land, from direct contact with Nature, the source of both his bodily and spiritual nourishment. It was not enough to just have something to eat; he also wanted the experience of growing it.

Diet tips:

Food that you’ve grown has a special quality
You don’t need to eat a huge range of things to be healthy 


Unknown said...

Very interesting, and certainly true, but a bit minimalist as a way of life. Although Thoreau seems to get pleasure from growing his own food, and eating it, the general impression is that he was a bit miserable trying to believe how good this way of life was.
Pleasure is also about sharing with other human beings.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Well, such living would put an end to John Ruskin's complaint, that in our lighted rooms we know little of the monetary games which are played far away among the dark streets.

docmartincohen said...

Thomas's comment, on the Victorin artist, conceals a thought that perhaps prompted his comment?

"In all of his writing, Ruskin emphasised the connections between nature, art and society. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation... Today, his ideas and concerns are widely recognised as having anticipated interest in environmentalism, sustainability and craft."

Thoreau's transatlantic soulmate!

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docmartincohen said...

I really appreciated your thoughtful comment, Calvin! Then I spotted it was really an ad at the end. I think we should leave it up to remind ourselves how cynical the world is. (But do we need reminding?)

Unknown said...

Furthermore, the body is capable of becoming more and more immune to the action of insulin and the body will become more prone to storing fat.

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docmartincohen said...

I'm not sure that was really Thoreau's aim, but thank you too for your contribution...

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