Baker Farm

Return to the Thoreau homepage. From my first reading of Walden, "Baker Farm" has been one of my favorite chapters. All of Walden is an explanation of Thoreau's philosophy of life, but here he gets the chance to explain his lifestyle to a poor family who could directly profit from it. Thus, he explains how he lives very simply and practically. However, the message is ignored, as the family is content with following customs rather than thinking out new solutions.

Baker Farm epitomizes for me the problem of explaining Thoreauvian values to the people around us. A Thoreauvian understanding of the world can solve a lot of practical problems, even if the person is not interested in meditation or the beauty of Nature. Indeed, the current mode of living, with people on a consumer treadmill, never getting an opportunity to enjoy the material possessions that they have heaped up, while damaging both the environment and their own health, is very difficult to defend, if ever examined. However, people do not examine the whole problem but simply react to one issue at a time, often in a contractory manner. And thus, they cannot see any value in making sweeping lifestyle changes.

This chapter also provides an effective encapsulation of the Thoreauvian view of life.

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Sometimes I rambled to pine groves, standing like temples, or like fleets at sea, full-rigged, with wavy boughs, and rippling with light, so soft and green and shady that the Druids would have forsaken their oaks to worship in them; or to the cedar wood beyond Flint's Pond, where the trees, covered with hoary blue berries, spiring higher and higher, are fit to stand before Valhalla, and the creeping juniper covers the ground with wreaths full of fruit; or to swamps where the usnea lichen hangs in festoons from the white spruce trees, and toadstools, round tables of the swamp gods, cover the ground, and more beautiful fungi adorn the stumps, like butterflies or shells, vegetable winkles; where the swamp-pink and dogwood grow, the red alder berry glows like eyes of imps, the waxwork grooves and crushes the hardest woods in its folds, and the wild holly berries make the beholder forget his home with their beauty, and he is dazzled and tempted by nameless other wild forbidden fruits, too fair for mortal taste. Instead of calling on some scholar, I paid many a visit to particular trees, of kinds which are rare in this neighborhood, standing far away in the middle of some pasture, or in the depths of a wood or swamp, or on a hilltop; such as the black birch, of which we have some handsome specimens two feet in diameter; its cousin, the yellow birch, with its loose golden vest, perfumed like the first; the beech, which has so neat a bole and beautifully lichen-painted, perfect in all its details, of which, excepting scattered specimens, I know but one small grove of sizable trees left in the township, supposed by some to have been planted by the pigeons that were once baited with beechnuts near by; it is worth the while to see the silver grain sparkle when you split this wood; the bass; the hornbeam; the Celtis occidentalis, or false elm, of which we have but one well-grown; some taller mast of a pine, a shingle tree, or a more perfect hemlock than usual, standing like a pagoda in the midst of the woods; and many others I could mention. These were the shrines I visited both summer and winter. "Baker Farm" does not link to previous or subsequent chapters.

Thoreau places material in the first two paragraphs which does not directly relate to his purpose, which is typical for him. However, here the description of these activities support his argument later on. This chapter is tightly focused on his theme.

Thoreau begins by mentioning all the magical places that he has found within his woods, places that would tempt the Druids to abandon their forests (the Druids were ancient Celts who worshiped the oak tree) and trees worthy of Valhalla, the Norse afterworld for the heroes.

He calls these places "shrines," and since we know that his religious beliefs are non-conventional, mystical, and pantheistic, we know that he is not being entirely metaphorical in his use of this word. A good bit of his life, at least four hours every day, is devoted to finding and appreciating those wonderful times and places in Nature.

Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin. If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life. As I walked on the railroad causeway, I used to wonder at the halo of light around my shadow, and would fain fancy myself one of the elect. One who visited me declared that the shadows of some Irishmen before him had no halo about them, that it was only natives that were so distinguished. Benvenuto Cellini tells us in his memoirs, that, after a certain terrible dream or vision which he had during his confinement in the castle of St. Angelo a resplendent light appeared over the shadow of his head at morning and evening, whether he was in Italy or France, and it was particularly conspicuous when the grass was moist with dew. This was probably the same phenomenon to which I have referred, which is especially observed in the morning, but also at other times, and even by moonlight. Though a constant one, it is not commonly noticed, and, in the case of an excitable imagination like Cellini's, it would be basis enough for superstition. Beside, he tells us that he showed it to very few. But are they not indeed distinguished who are conscious that they are regarded at all? Walter Harding, in his Variorum Walden, is skeptical that Thoreau could stand at the end of a rainbow, but I am not. I have stood with a heavy mist between me and the sun, for instance, at the foot of a waterfall, and was just dazzled by the rainbow light.

More of a problem, for me, is the story of the halo. However, this summer (2001), one of the cyclists crossing the US noticed this phenomona, and there was quite a discussion in, with several having experienced it, and some providing more detail than Thoreau. It seems that the sun needs to be low and behind the observer for this to occur. I look forward to having this experience myself one day.

I set out one afternoon to go a-fishing to Fair Haven, through the woods, to eke out my scanty fare of vegetables. My way led through Pleasant Meadow, an adjunct of the Baker Farm, that retreat of which a poet has since sung, beginning, --

     "Thy entry is a pleasant field,
     Which some mossy fruit trees yield
     Partly to a ruddy brook,
     By gliding musquash undertook,
     And mercurial trout,
     Darting about."

I thought of living there before I went to Walden. I "hooked" the apples, leaped the brook, and scared the musquash and the trout. It was one of those afternoons which seem indefinitely long before one, in which many events may happen, a large portion of our natural life, though it was already half spent when I started. By the way there came up a shower, which compelled me to stand half an hour under a pine, piling boughs over my head, and wearing my handkerchief for a shed; and when at length I had made one cast over the pickerelweed, standing up to my middle in water, I found myself suddenly in the shadow of a cloud, and the thunder began to rumble with such emphasis that I could do no more than listen to it. The gods must be proud, thought I, with such forked flashes to rout a poor unarmed fisherman. So I made haste for shelter to the nearest hut, which stood half a mile from any road, but so much the nearer to the pond, and had long been uninhabited: --

   And here a poet builded,
     In the completed years,
   For behold a trivial cabin
     That to destruction steers."

So the Muse fables. But therein, as I found, dwelt now John Field, an Irishman, and his wife, and several children, from the broad-faced boy who assisted his father at his work, and now came running by his side from the bog to escape the rain, to the wrinkled, sibyl-like, cone-headed infant that sat upon its father's knee as in the palaces of nobles, and looked out from its home in the midst of wet and hunger inquisitively upon the stranger, with the privilege of infancy, not knowing but it was the last of a noble line, and the hope and cynosure of the world, instead of John Field's poor starveling brat. There we sat together under that part of the roof which leaked the least, while it showered and thundered without. I had sat there many times of old before the ship was built that floated his family to America. An honest, hard-working, but shiftless man plainly was John Field; and his wife, she too was brave to cook so many successive dinners in the recesses of that lofty stove; with round greasy face and bare breast, still thinking to improve her condition one day; with the never absent mop in one hand, and yet no effects of it visible anywhere. The chickens, which had also taken shelter here from the rain, stalked about the room like members of the family, too humanized, methought, to roast well. They stood and looked in my eye or pecked at my shoe significantly. Meanwhile my host told me his story, how hard he worked "bogging" for a neighboring farmer, turning up a meadow with a spade or bog hoe at the rate of ten dollars an acre and the use of the land with manure for one year, and his little broad-faced son worked cheerfully at his father's side the while, not knowing how poor a bargain the latter had made. I tried to help him with my experience, telling him that he was one of my nearest neighbors, and that I too, who came a-fishing here, and looked like a loafer, was getting my living like himself; that I lived in a tight, light, and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to; and how, if he chose, he might in a month or two build himself a palace of his own; that I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them; again, as I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard, and it cost me but a trifle for my food; but as he began with tea, and coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef, he had to work hard to pay for them, and when he had worked hard he had to eat hard again to repair the waste of his system -- and so it was as broad as it was long, indeed it was broader than it was long, for he was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain; and yet he had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day. But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things. For I purposely talked to him as if he were a philosopher, or desired to be one. I should be glad if all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state, if that were the consequence of men's beginning to redeem themselves. A man will not need to study history to find out what is best for his own culture. But alas! the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe. I told him, that as he worked so hard at bogging, he required thick boots and stout clothing, which yet were soon soiled and worn out, but I wore light shoes and thin clothing, which cost not half so much, though he might think that I was dressed like a gentleman (which, however, was not the case), and in an hour or two, without labor, but as a recreation, I could, if I wished, catch as many fish as I should want for two days, or earn enough money to support me a week. If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a-huckleberrying in the summer for their amusement. John heaved a sigh at this, and his wife stared with arms a-kimbo, and both appeared to be wondering if they had capital enough to begin such a course with, or arithmetic enough to carry it through. It was sailing by dead reckoning to them, and they saw not clearly how to make their port so; therefore I suppose they still take life bravely, after their fashion, face to face, giving it tooth and nail, not having skill to split its massive columns with any fine entering wedge, and rout it in detail; -- thinking to deal with it roughly, as one should handle a thistle. But they fight at an overwhelming disadvantage -- living, John Field, alas! without arithmetic, and failing so.

The bulk of the story is found in this rather long paragraph, broken by poetry from Ellery Channing's "Baker Farm."

An odd detail to me is his seeking shelter from the rain twice, while fishing up to his middle in water, although the second time, he is perhaps more influenced by the lightning.

Even though John Field (a pseudonym?) is a hard working man, Thoreau calls him shiftless because he cannot change his own way of doing things. He is like his wife, who always has the mop in hand but always has a dirty floor nonetheless. For example, although the house he is living in is far from satisfactory, with its leaky roof, John would rather pay rent than build his own.

I was explaining to a logger back in the mid-80's about how I had built my own place and how little it had cost me, and he replied that he couldn't afford to do that because he had an income of only $10,000 a year and a family to feed. But the fact that he had a small income made it all the more important for him to build his own place and free himself from the burden of monthly rent.

In the same way, Thoreau points out to the man that he could build his own place very cheaply, and by raising his own food, by not purchasing expensive meat, tea, coffee, and butter, and by avoiding the cost of work clothing, he could live a very satisfactory and healthy life without having to spend all of his time working for others.

Although the goal of John Field in coming to America was to be able to purchase a few luxuries, Thoreau tells him that by giving up those few luxuries, he can have a much more important treasure, a free and independent life.

Although most people are much more educated than John Field, they fail to understand that they don't have to spend their lives working at jobs they hate but can free themselves by taking responsibility for their own lives. By buying a small piece of land, building a small home, growing much of their own food and avoiding expensive foods, and using bicycles for transportation, they can reduce their monthly expenditures to very little, yet still live a comfortably and enjoyable life.

In with the economic argument, Thoreau adds the point that by living a simple life, one avoids the necessity of supporting the war in Mexico, the slave trade, and "other superfluous expenses," which are encouraged by our love of luxuries.

In today's world, we can plainly trace many world problems to our dependence on luxuries which we would be better off without. Our dependence on coffee, tea, and chocolate and other luxury foods has resulted in the wealthy buying up all the land in the third world and exploiting the poor to harvest the crops. Our use of tobacco products has been responsible for misuse of the soil and remains responsible for many deaths from heart disease and cancer. Our dependence on automobiles has caused global warming, pollution, a stressful lifestyle, an unlovely environment, recessions, and wars. Our use of electricity has resulted in local environmental damage due to coal mining and dam building, plus global warming, and harmful effects of acid rain, especially on forests and lakes. Our desire for fine houses and a daily newpaper has resulted in the destruction of vast forests. This damage is often invisible, as we can only see the world as it is and not as it once was and ought to be.

"Do you ever fish?" I asked. "Oh yes, I catch a mess now and then when I am lying by; good perch I catch." "What's your bait?" "I catch shiners with fishworms, and bait the perch with them." "You'd better go now, John," said his wife, with glistening and hopeful face; but John demurred. Thoreau suspends his comment here until later, but he does not agree with John Field's choice of bait.
The shower was now over, and a rainbow above the eastern woods promised a fair evening; so I took my departure. When I had got without I asked for a drink, hoping to get a sight of the well bottom, to complete my survey of the premises; but there, alas! are shallows and quicksands, and rope broken withal, and bucket irrecoverable. Meanwhile the right culinary vessel was selected, water was seemingly distilled, and after consultation and long delay passed out to the thirsty one, -- not yet suffered to cool, not yet to settle. Such gruel sustains life here, I thought; so, shutting my eyes, and excluding the motes by a skilfully directed undercurrent, I drank to genuine hospitality the heartiest draught I could. I am not squeamish in such cases when manners are concerned. Thoreau makes an unnecessary request for water, as he can get a drink from the lake, but this teaches him something additional about the family. They have broken their rope for drawing water from the well, and rather than having gotten a new rope and bucket, they are boiling surface water, but the water contains trash and is not really boiled. Thoreau would rather leave than wait and doesn't want the water, but he is too polite to refuse.
As I was leaving the Irishman's roof after the rain, bending my steps again to the pond, my haste to catch pickerel, wading in retired meadows, in sloughs and bog-holes, in forlorn and savage places, appeared for an instant trivial to me who had been sent to school and college; but as I ran down the hill toward the reddening west, with the rainbow over my shoulder, and some faint tinkling sounds borne to my ear through the cleansed air, from I know not what quarter, my Good Genius seemed to say, -- Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day, -- farther and wider, -- and rest thee by many brooks and hearth-sides without misgiving. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played. Grow wild according to thy nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English bay. Let the thunder rumble; what if it threaten ruin to farmers' crops? that is not its errand to thee. Take shelter under the cloud, while they flee to carts and sheds. Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport. Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs. Thoreau shifts to answering a question John Field wouldn't have asked: "Isn't this a trival lifestyle for an educated person?" The answer is that there are no loftier goals or worthier tasks than living a good life. Most people, including most educated people, are tied to meaningless jobs and lives and don't have the freedom to enjoy each day. Because of their lack of ingenuity and lack of faith (Matthew 6:30), they are wage slaves, stuck on a consumer treadmill, unable to enjoy the true pleasure and adventure of life. Thoreau instead will live a life of freedom according to his natural tendencies, not worried about the weather, earning money from time to time as a pastime, and enjoying the landscape without trying to possess it.
O Baker Farm!

   "Landscape where the richest element
   Is a little sunshine innocent."

   "No one runs to revel
   On thy rail-fenced lea."

   "Debate with no man hast thou,
        With questions art never perplexed,
   As tame at the first sight as now,
        In thy plain russet gabardine dressed."

   "Come ye who love,
        And ye who hate,
   Children of the Holy Dove,
        And Guy Faux of the state,
   And hang conspiracies
   From the tough rafters of the trees!"

Thoreau provides a sprinkling of lines from Channing's poem, picking the ones that seem most appropriate to this account.
Men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street, where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines because it breathes its own breath over again; their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps. We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character. Thoreau says that people are tied down to their jobs and lack adventure in their lives. He suggests adding new adventures and discoveries every day, which will add meaning and character to life.
Before I had reached the pond some fresh impulse had brought out John Field, with altered mind, letting go "bogging" ere this sunset. But he, poor man, disturbed only a couple of fins while I was catching a fair string, and he said it was his luck; but when we changed seats in the boat luck changed seats too. Poor John Field! -- I trust he does not read this, unless he will improve by it -- thinking to live by some derivative old-country mode in this primitive new country -- to catch perch with shiners. It is good bait sometimes, I allow. With his horizon all his own, yet he a poor man, born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty or poor life, his Adam's grandmother and boggy ways, not to rise in this world, he nor his posterity, till their wading webbed bog-trotting feet get talaria to their heels. Somehow, Thoreau is no longer wading in the water to fish but is using a boat!

Nonetheless, his point is clear. The physical move from one country to another can be as meaningless as swapping seats in a boat. If one wants to get ahead, one has to abandon one's inherited misconceptions and try new methods.

Thoreau's Text in This Column
My Comments in This Column
Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages |
WALDEN: | Economy I | Economy II | Economy III | Economy IV | Where I Lived | Reading | Sounds | Solitude |
WALDEN: | Visitors |The Bean-Field | The Village | The Ponds | Baker Farm | Higher Laws | Brute Neighbors |
WALDEN: | House Warming | Former Inhabitants | Winter Animals | The Pond in Winter | Spring | Conclusion | | Copyright © 2001 Ken Kifer | November 19,2001