Life in the Soil

Comparing the rewards of small-scale farming to those recounted by Thoreau

A privy makes for fertile ground.

by author

This essay will be included in an anthology, Dirt: A Love Story, to be released in autumn of 2015 by University Press of New England.

It was black. I remember, because at my age then—around eight years old and in early spring—it was the first time I had looked down to notice dirt. Our family was quartered in a one-room hut in a dark forest in northern Germany right after the war. Towering pines shaded the ground except for a small clear patch up on a bank in front of the cabin. Light snow had recently covered the ground, and now, after a warm spring rain, it had become black, and that made me notice something marvelous by our doorstep. Quite suddenly, maybe one day to the next, I saw a small patch of the dark dirt turning a luminous green, and it was larger the next day, and then expanded in ribbons over the black ground from day to day: I was mesmerized by a rosette of laterallyspreading grass blades that had made the dirt vibrant.

This was, as far as I can remember, my earliest moment of wonder. Had grass been underfoot before, I would probably have hardly noticed it from seeing it all the time, nor would I have made a connection between grass and dirt. But the single patch that had expanded from one day to the next had transformed this dark patch of soil to what I might later have called Life. It was a moment of magic and mystery, maybe even of ecstasy, forever stamped into my memory.

For the time being then, dirt was  also something crumbly under the soles of my feet and between my toes. It was the sand on a mile or so of the wooded road between our hut and the village school. Shiny green beetles flushed in front of me, and after a brief zigzagging flight, where they glinted like jewels in the sun, they landed a few yards ahead. We called them “sand beetles,” and later tiger beetles. Although I couldn’t fly, I could run, and it felt good to be on par with such gorgeous company.

Carabus granulatus

Matthias Lenke

Tiger beetles (of the family Cicindelidae) are related to carabids, which are commonly called “ground beetles.” Like me, ground beetles do not fly, but they all run. These earthbound running beetles soon became my passion, to have and to hold, through the influence of my father. I accompanied him when he dug pits in the ground for catching mice and shrews, but ground beetles fell in, too. He gave me a field guide to identify them, and I soon knew them by name: the giant black Carabus coriaceus, the dark-bluish C. intricatus, the shiny copper C. cancellatus, and its look-alike C. concolor, and the deep-green C. auratus. . . The merit of those intricately sculpted beetles was not simply that they were beautiful, but also that I could find them merely by scanning the dirt wherever I walked. Even more merrily, I could run and catch them.

I thought of my old carabids with a start, with a nostalgic recognition, when recently— now in Maine, on a new continent—I dug out the pit for my privy. There, several feet down in the dirt, I unearthed a Carabus. Held in rapture by the chaotic substrate of unimaginable complexity, a substrate that looked like sheer randomness on my shovel, I suddenly found one of those creations of the dirt. It was metallic black, sculpted in lines and pits, and its edges glistened a deep purple. I did not know the name of this species, nor what precisely it was doing underground, but I captured it in a photograph. Perhaps its larva had burrowed in that spot and metamorphosed to become an adult, or maybe it had hibernated there in the winter, or was attempting to escape heat or drought. But in any case, it was ultimately from and of the dirt, just as the green, green grass had been. The beetle had likely fed on snails, and the snails on grass. It was of the soil, which I was preparing to receive my wastes. And this same receptive soil would also receive all of me, eventually, to convert all of me to grass, trees, flowers, and more. For the time being, though, an American chestnut tree I had planted years earlier, as well as nearby sugar maples, would grow well because of their proximity to the privy.

I used the dirt from the pit excavation to make a raised garden bed, in which I planted potatoes. I just stuck several of them into this dirt, and presto, come fall—it seemed too good to be true—there were perfect and delicious Yukon Golds. My girlfriend, Lynn, saw the magic, and before I knew it, we had an even bigger bed of potatoes, beans climbing a pole, snap peas growing on chicken wire, and little green sprouts of kale and carrots. We had watched with eager participation as the emerging green dots in the dark dirt first turned into shoots, and we would harvest potatoes in August for eating in winter. With every meal there would be a memory of that plot and our shared task.

There is more to be had from dirt than food. I think Thoreau knew this well and maybe said it better 172 years ago. Old Henry was “determined to know beans,” and having made himself a two-and-a-half-acre bean field, he tended and hoed it daily from “five o’clock in the morning till noon.” He came to “love” and
“cherish” his beans and wrote: “They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.“ Working alone and with his hands, he became, as he said, “much more intimate with my beans than usual.” Along the way he concluded that “labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness.” And he told the reasons why.

When tending his bean field, Thoreau was “attracted by the passage of wild pigeons,” he sometimes “watched a pair of hen-hawks circling high in the sky,” heard the brown thrasher sing, and with his hoe “turned up a sluggish portentous and outlandish spotted salamander.” His enterprise was “not that I wanted beans to eat,” nor was it likely for “leaving a pecuniary profit.” I’m in rapport with his romantic ideal, and his point that when he “paused to lean on my hoe, these sounds and sights I heard and saw anywhere in the row, a part of the inexhaustible entertainment which the country offers”—as opposed, I suppose, to those summer days “which some of my contemporaries devoted to the fine arts in Boston and Rome” as entertainment, instead. Perhaps this vibrant “idleness” is what Thoreau cherished most.

Carabus auronitens

Virginie FORT

One would, however, want to get real when it comes to dirt and work. We do not generally hoe beans in order to hear the brown thrasher, or exhume a spotted salamander as a lofty end in itself. One wants to see the things impartially from all perspectives. However, true to that sentiment, Thoreau gave an exact economic enumeration of his work as well. He itemizes monetary costs and profits, in which overall bean-patch costs added up in his accounting to $14.72 and 1/2 cent, with a profit of $8.71 and 1/2 cent.

To our ears now, old Henry pretty much worked that summer in his two-and-a-half-acre bean patch for nothing. The garden patch that Lynn and I worked this past summer allows for some comparisons. We were not seeing any passenger pigeons, but we were getting pleasures similar to what Henry got from his. Plus, we enjoy companionship, which old Henry did not appear to pursue. So for us it’s a win-win situation with the dirt, in more ways than two. But I also suspect this dirt will, before the start of winter, become a winning economic proposition as well. And so was Henry’s (if he’d excuse me for being familiar), despite what he may have implied, and we inferred.

Our dirt patch is 1,600 square feet (0.037 acres), so his was about seventy times larger. He spent $3.12 on seed, and we spent $94.00. Thus, overall, in terms of our money, he paid about 30 times less overall, but on a per-acre basis, in dollar amount, he paid 2,100 times less. Take outside labor: his “ploughing/harrowing/ farrowing” cost him $7.50. (This amount irked him, because in Walden he added a comment—“Too much”—for emphasis next to it.)

How much is his “Too much?” Lynn and I paid our neighbor, Mike Pratt, $150 to harrow our plot, which, as already mentioned, is 70 times smaller than Henry’s. But Henry did not pay 70 times more. Instead, he paid 20 times less overall, which comes to 1,400 times less per unit acre than we paid. Similarly, our total pecuniary costs were 1,960 times more than his, prorated per acre. My point: inflation since the time of Thoreau’s bean patch (of 172 years ago) has reduced the worth of a dollar about 2,000 times from what it used to be. Thus, Thoreau’s seemingly trivial profit of $8.71 and a half cent is actually a hefty $17,430, in terms of the dollar now. (And his seeming pettiness, accounting to the last half cent, is thus more like figuring to within ten dollars now.)

Bean field

Dave Berryman

How many young people today could earn $17,000 in a summer by working forenoons in a bean field, and having the rest of the day off for “other affairs”? None! But it was not the amount of time Thoreau spent in his bean field, or the money he made, that he rhapsodized about. It was the ancillary “profit.” Now we are hard put to get a fraction of the pecuniary profit he earned, and even then it is usually at the cost of the main ancillary ones that a country life close to the dirt provides, and that we now all too commonly lack. Thoreau derided husbandry as he saw it then as pursued with “irreverent haste and heedlessness . . . [with] our object being to have large farms and large crops merely.” His conclusion that “I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer” suggests he felt that even his “industry” was already too much.

To turn now to the other Henry, a Maine writer a century later, near the arguable beginning of industrial agriculture, who marks the end of dirt with its ancillary gratuities and the beginning of accounting by and to the dollar its material worth only: In his book Northern Farm, Henry Beston reminds us, “[T]he shadow of any man is but for a time cast upon the grass of any field. What remains is the earth, the mother of life.” And he concludes: “When farming becomes purely utilitarian, something perishes . . . sometimes it is the human beings who practice this economy, and oftenest of all it is a destruction of both land and man.”

As a fellow Mainer, and as a fellow human—united not by artificial or perceived boundaries but linked together by our universal bonds to the soil of Earth, the link that connects all of Life—I grow beans for more than utilitarian purposes. My farming may be token, but like the blades of grass that first sparked my interest in living things, the activity is a visceral and vital reminder of the grandeur in our very existence.