The Bean-Field

Return to the Thoreau homepage. Thoreau begins this chapter abruptly without tying it the previous chapter, and he ends it without connecting it to the following chapter ("The Village"). However, he talks about the village in the middle of talking about his bean fields. His abrupt beginning, "Meanwhile my beans . . ." is a reminder that he explained about his beanfield before (in "Economy," Part IV).

This chapter has several purposes. One is, of course, to tell about his bean field. However, that is the smallest part of the material in this chapter. More important for him is to tell about what he liked about working in the bean field and why he didn't continue to work there.

However, his strongest purpose is to talk about what we could do instead of continuing to plant our fields in the way that people always have. While his ideas are not fleshed out, he evidently saw farming as an opportunity to create a benefit for the future; that is, the farmer's intent would be to gradually improve the qualities of his fields and land, something that many farmers do and many do not. He would like to see an end to the war between man and Nature, so that the farmer would be less concerned about personal gain and more concerned with the wealth of all Nature, a attitude illustrated in the books of David Grayson. Unfortunately, agriculture today tends to focus on profit and immediate results. Also Thoreau uses this opportunity to suggest that we should focus more on improving mankind.

Buried within this chapter are his comments on the Mexican War, which he semi-disguises with irony and sarcasm. He will next comment on the War in "The Village."

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Meanwhile my beans, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest were in the ground; indeed they were not easily to be put off. What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus. 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. It is a fine broad leaf to look on. My auxiliaries are the dews and rains which water this dry soil, and what fertility is in the soil itself, which for the most part is lean and effete. My enemies are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks. The last have nibbled for me a quarter of an acre clean. But what right had I to oust johnswort and the rest, and break up their ancient herb garden? Soon, however, the remaining beans will be too tough for them, and go forward to meet new foes. Thoreau has previously described his 2½ acre bean field in "Economy."

One can see several signs here and elsewhere that Thoreau was uncomfortable with this labor, so he only planted a third of an acre the second year. He questions whether he has the right to disturb the natural vegetation to grow his crop. However, he is growing beans in an old field that was partially cleared and had grown crops before.

The giant Antaeus was the son of Poseidon (god of the sea) and Gaea (the Earth), and in wrestling Hercules, gained strength each time he touched the ground.

When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to this my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now tonight my flute has waked the echoes over that very water. The pines still stand here older than I; or, if some have fallen, I have cooked my supper with their stumps, and a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes. Almost the same johnswort springs from the same perennial root in this pasture, and even I have at length helped to clothe that fabulous landscape of my infant dreams, and one of the results of my presence and influence is seen in these bean leaves, corn blades, and potato vines. Thoreau is inconsistent about his use of "now" in Walden, as the book was revised many times over a period of nine years, which much material added from a later time. However, here "now" means during his first year at Walden, while he was working on his beans.

Thoreau also tells in the "The Ponds" about his early visit to Walden.

I planted about two acres and a half of upland; and as it was only about fifteen years since the land was cleared, and I myself had got out two or three cords of stumps, I did not give it any manure; but in the course of the summer it appeared by the arrowheads which I turned up in hoeing, that an extinct nation had anciently dwelt here and planted corn and beans ere white men came to clear the land, and so, to some extent, had exhausted the soil for this very crop. It was common on the frontier to clear the land and grow crops in the virgin soil, and then, after the fertility of the soil had been destroyed, to move on to a new area. Thoreau's blaming the lack of fertility on the Indians is facetious.
Before yet any woodchuck or squirrel had run across the road, or the sun had got above the shrub oaks, while all the dew was on, though the farmers warned me against it, -- I would advise you to do all your work if possible while the dew is on, -- I began to level the ranks of haughty weeds in my bean-field and throw dust upon their heads. Early in the morning I worked barefooted, dabbling like a plastic artist in the dewy and crumbling sand, but later in the day the sun blistered my feet. There the sun lighted me to hoe beans, pacing slowly backward and forward over that yellow gravelly upland, between the long green rows, fifteen rods, the one end terminating in a shrub oak copse where I could rest in the shade, the other in a blackberry field where the green berries deepened their tints by the time I had made another bout. Removing the weeds, putting fresh soil about the bean stems, and encouraging this weed which I had sown, making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass, -- this was my daily work. As I had little aid from horses or cattle, or hired men or boys, or improved implements of husbandry, I was much slower, and became much more intimate with my beans than usual. But labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness. It has a constant and imperishable moral, and to the scholar it yields a classic result. A very agricola laboriosus was I to travellers bound westward through Lincoln and Wayland to nobody knows where; they sitting at their ease in gigs, with elbows on knees, and reins loosely hanging in festoons; I the home-staying, laborious native of the soil. But soon my homestead was out of their sight and thought. It was the only open and cultivated field for a great distance on either side of the road, so they made the most of it; and sometimes the man in the field heard more of travellers' gossip and comment than was meant for his ear: "Beans so late! peas so late!" -- for I continued to plant when others had begun to hoe, -- the ministerial husbandman had not suspected it. "Corn, my boy, for fodder; corn for fodder." "Does he live there?" asks the black bonnet of the gray coat; and the hard-featured farmer reins up his grateful dobbin to inquire what you are doing where he sees no manure in the furrow, and recommends a little chip dirt, or any little waste stuff, or it may be ashes or plaster. But here were two acres and a half of furrows, and only a hoe for cart and two hands to draw it, -- there being an aversion to other carts and horses, -- and chip dirt far away. Fellow-travellers as they rattled by compared it aloud with the fields which they had passed, so that I came to know how I stood in the agricultural world. This was one field not in Mr. Colman's report. And, by the way, who estimates the value of the crop which nature yields in the still wilder fields unimproved by man? The crop of English hay is carefully weighed, the moisture calculated, the silicates and the potash; but in all dells and pond-holes in the woods and pastures and swamps grows a rich and various crop only unreaped by man. Mine was, as it were, the connecting link between wild and cultivated fields; as some states are civilized, and others half-civilized, and others savage or barbarous, so my field was, though not in a bad sense, a half-cultivated field. They were beans cheerfully returning to their wild and primitive state that I cultivated, and my hoe played the Rans des Vaches for them. From Sophia Thoreau's drawing, one would think the bean field was in front of Thoreau's hut, but Robbin's archeological dig established that Thoreau built in a hollow. The land above the hollow (notice that Thoreau says "upland") does not look as if it has ever been a field, as it is quite uneven, with very poor soil. His house site is currently over 400 yards from the road to Lincoln, but Gleason's map shows that the road used to run much closer.

Thoreau did hire someone to help plow the field before planting, but the rest of the work was by hand. Notice that he rejected other help, even if that meant no manure; he wanted to do the work with his own hands to demonstrate self-reliance.

In addition to the busybodies looking in his house, Thoreau faced other busybodies in his fields.

Thoreau expresses the same idea in two ways, notice how the former is more poetic and the latter more striking:

making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass

making the earth say beans instead of grass

Note how Thoreau relishes the fact that his field was half wild. I think he wants Walden to be half wild also to help demonstrate the value of the wild crops which Nature grows and people seldom notice.

Near at hand, upon the topmost spray of a birch, sings the brown thrasher -- or red mavis, as some love to call him -- all the morning, glad of your society, that would find out another farmer's field if yours were not here. While you are planting the seed, he cries, -- "Drop it, drop it, -- cover it up, cover it up, -- pull it up, pull it up, pull it up." But this was not corn, and so it was safe from such enemies as he. You may wonder what his rigmarole, his amateur Paganini performances on one string or on twenty, have to do with your planting, and yet prefer it to leached ashes or plaster. It was a cheap sort of top dressing in which I had entire faith.

Harding reports that Nicolò Paganini could play the violin using just one string. The style of the thrasher is also similar to Paganini.

Thoreau, being a poet, depends on a purely poetic fertilizer.

As I drew a still fresher soil about the rows with my hoe, I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day. They lay mingled with other natural stones, some of which bore the marks of having been burned by Indian fires, and some by the sun, and also bits of pottery and glass brought hither by the recent cultivators of the soil. When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios. The nighthawk circled overhead in the sunny afternoons -- for I sometimes made a day of it -- like a mote in the eye, or in heaven's eye, falling from time to time with a swoop and a sound as if the heavens were rent, torn at last to very rags and tatters, and yet a seamless cope remained; small imps that fill the air and lay their eggs on the ground on bare sand or rocks on the tops of hills, where few have found them; graceful and slender like ripples caught up from the pond, as leaves are raised by the wind to float in the heavens; such kindredship is in nature. The hawk is aerial brother of the wave which he sails over and surveys, those his perfect air-inflated wings answering to the elemental unfledged pinions of the sea. Or sometimes I watched a pair of 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, Or I was attracted by the passage of wild pigeons from this wood to that, with a slight quivering winnowing sound and carrier haste; or from under a rotten stump my hoe turned up a sluggish portentous and outlandish spotted salamander, a trace of Egypt and the Nile, yet our contemporary. When I 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. Notice the pieces of glass and modern pottery which Thoreau found with arrowheads and ancient pottery, showing that the scattering of trash existed in Thoreau's day and in Amerindian times as well.

Thoreau was extremely effective at finding arrowheads because he noticed details that others overlooked. The same quality made him effective as a naturalist and as a writer.

Thoreau must have been a poor laborer in his bean field, having so many distractions! I know that I can get very little work done while living in the woods because I am so richly entertained by Nature all around me!

On gala days the town fires its great guns, which echo like popguns to these woods, and some waifs of martial music occasionally penetrate thus far. To me, away there in my bean-field at the other end of the town, the big guns sounded as if a puffball had burst; and when there was a military turnout of which I was ignorant, I have sometimes had a vague sense all the day of some sort of itching and disease in the horizon, as if some eruption would break out there soon, either scarlatina or canker-rash, until at length some more favorable puff of wind, making haste over the fields and up the Wayland road, brought me information of the "trainers." It seemed by the distant hum as if somebody's bees had swarmed, and that the neighbors, according to Virgil's advice, by a faint tintinnabulum upon the most sonorous of their domestic utensils, were endeavoring to call them down into the hive again. And when the sound died quite away, and the hum had ceased, and the most favorable breezes told no tale, I knew that they had got the last drone of them all safely into the Middlesex hive, and that now their minds were bent on the honey with which it was smeared. Thoreau admired beekeeping, and he uses it here as part of his criticism of militarism, after comparing cannons to popguns and puffballs and a military display to a disease. An ancient and false belief about swarming is that the bees can be induced to return home through loud noises (swarms sometimes return because their queen has failed to join them), and thus a whole family would rush outside and beat on every container as loud as possible. Thoreau's unstated implication is that the townspeople's behavior is equally foolish. Note the double meanings of "drone," "hive," and "honey" in the last sentence.
I felt proud to know that the liberties of Massachusetts and of our fatherland were in such safe keeping; and as I turned to my hoeing again I was filled with an inexpressible confidence, and pursued my labor cheerfully with a calm trust in the future. This sentence is pure sarcasm, of course. Today, we spend billions to "defend" our country from "aggression," and yet invading the US is almost impossible, as the English found out in 1776 and 1812.
When there were several bands of musicians, it sounded as if all the village was a vast bellows and all the buildings expanded and collapsed alternately with a din. But sometimes it was a really noble and inspiring strain that reached these woods, and the trumpet that sings of fame, and I felt as if I could spit a Mexican with a good relish, -- for why should we always stand for trifles? -- and looked round for a woodchuck or a skunk to exercise my chivalry upon. These martial strains seemed as far away as Palestine, and reminded me of a march of crusaders in the horizon, with a slight tantivy and tremulous motion of the elm tree tops which overhang the village. This was one of the great days; though the sky had from my clearing only the same everlastingly great look that it wears daily, and I saw no difference in it. In other words, there was usually a terrible racket, although occasionally some better martial music made him feel as though he could enjoy bayonetting a Mexican and also inspired him to seek some innocent animal to similarly attack. Note the ironic use of "chivalry" and the reference to the ill-conceived crusades, making clear that Thoreau is being facetious again. While the village considers this a "great day," Thoreau saw only the usual natural beauty.
It was a singular experience that long acquaintance which I cultivated with beans, what with planting, and hoeing, and harvesting, and threshing, and picking over and selling them, -- the last was the hardest of all, -- I might add eating, for I did taste. I was determined to know beans. When they were growing, I used to hoe from five o'clock in the morning till noon, and commonly spent the rest of the day about other affairs. Consider the intimate and curious acquaintance one makes with various kinds of weeds, -- it will bear some iteration in the account, for there was no little iteration in the labor, -- disturbing their delicate organizations so ruthlessly, and making such invidious distinctions with his hoe, levelling whole ranks of one species, and sedulously cultivating another. That's Roman wormwood, -- that's pigweed, -- that's sorrel, -- that's piper-grass, -- have at him, chop him up, turn his roots upward to the sun, don't let him have a fibre in the shade, if you do he'll turn himself t'other side up and be as green as a leek in two days. A long war, not with cranes, but with weeds, those Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on their side. Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead. Many a lusty crest-waving Hector, that towered a whole foot above his crowding comrades, fell before my weapon and rolled in the dust. The expression "to not know beans" means to be extremely ignorant.

Thoreau liked to finish work in the morning and have his entire afternoons free to walk the woods, as he states elsewhere in Walden.

In "Where I Lived and What I lived For," Thoreau said that we are like pygmies fighting with cranes. Here he compares his battle with the weeds to a war against Trojans. "Trojan" can also mean a diligent person, and the weeds were determined enemies. The sun, rain, and dews are on their side, just as Aphrodite (Venus) and other gods were on the side of the Trojans. The weed, like Hector, had a prominent crest.

Those summer days which some of my contemporaries devoted to the fine arts in Boston or Rome, and others to contemplation in India, and others to trade in London or New York, I thus, with the other farmers of New England, devoted to husbandry. Not that I wanted beans to eat, for I am by nature a Pythagorean, so far as beans are concerned, whether they mean porridge or voting, and exchanged them for rice; but, perchance, as some must work in fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day. It was on the whole a rare amusement, which, continued too long, might have become a dissipation. Though I gave them no manure, and did not hoe them all once, I hoed them unusualy well as far as I went, and was paid for it in the end, "there being in truth," as Evelyn says, "no compost or laetation whatsoever comparable to this continual motion, repastination, and turning of the mould with the spade." "The earth," he adds elsewhere, "especially if fresh, has a certain magnetism in it, by which it attracts the salt, power, or virtue (call it either) which gives it life, and is the logic of all the labor and stir we keep about it, to sustain us; all dungings and other sordid temperings being but the vicars succedaneous to this improvement." Moreover, this being one of those "worn-out and exhausted lay fields which enjoy their sabbath," had perchance, as Sir Kenelm Digby thinks likely, attracted "vital spirits" from the air. I harvested twelve bushels of beans. A trope is an expression in which the words do not mean what they seem to mean, for example, ironic or metaphoric language. Thoreau suggests he worked the fields to produce tropes, expressions, and parables, a partially true and partially ironic statement, a trope. While others are getting inspiration or profit abroad, Thoreau is getting literary ideas from his bean field. Not using beans to eat or vote because of Pythagoras is another trope because Thoreau is creating confusion for the sake of humor: Pythagoras did tell his followers not to eat beans, and beans have been used as counters in voting, but neither has anything to do with Thoreau's eating tastes.

In Thoreau's day, it was known but not understood that a fallow field will regain fertility. The "vital spirits from the air" are oxides of nitrogen fixed by bacteria.

But to be more particular, for it is complained that Mr. Colman has reported chiefly the expensive experiments of gentlemen farmers, my outgoes were, --

For a hoe.......................... $0.54

Plowing, harrowing, and furrowing... 7.50 Too much

Beans for seed...................... 3.12½

Potatoes " "  ...................... 1.33

Peas     " "  ...................... 0.40

Turnip seed......................... 0.06

White line for crow fence........... 0.02

Horse cultivator and boy three hours 1.00

Horse and cart to get crop.......... 0.75


In all............................ $14.72½

This is irony too, as Thoreau has made it abundantly clear that he was more of a poet than a farmer and that he did not attempt to maximize his financial gain. However, although some would call him a "gentleman farmer," no one could accuse him of being "expensive."
My income was (patremfamilias vendacem, non emacem esse oportet), from

Nine bushels and twelve quarts of beans sold $16.94

Five    "    large potatoes................... 2.50

Nine    "    small potatoes................... 2.25

Grass......................................... 1.00

Stalks........................................ 0.75


In all.......................................$23.44

Leaving a pecuniary profit, as I have elsewhere said, of  $8.71½
The Latin quotation is from Cato and says that the head of the family should be a seller rather than a purchaser.
This is the result of my experience in raising beans: Plant the common small white bush bean about the first of June, in rows three feet by eighteen inches apart, being careful to select fresh round and unmixed seed. First look out for worms, and supply vacancies by planting anew. Then look out for woodchucks, if it is an exposed place, for they will nibble off the earliest tender leaves almost clean as they go; and again, when the young tendrils make their appearance, they have notice of it, and will shear them off with both buds and young pods, sitting erect like a squirrel. But above all harvest as early as possible, if you would escape frosts and have a fair and salable crop; you may save much loss by this means. This is primarily practical advice, as we would find in Cato's book, but includes a nice description of a woodchuck eating the beans. Practical advice is rare in Walden, although it is probably a good book for a homesteader to read. Thoreau is using these comments to mark the end of his discussion of the bean field.
This further experience also I gained: I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops. Alas! I said this to myself; but now another summer is gone, and another, and another, and I am obliged to say to you, Reader, that the seeds which I planted, if indeed they were the seeds of those virtues, were wormeaten or had lost their vitality, and so did not come up. Commonly men will only be brave as their fathers were brave, or timid. This generation is very sure to plant corn and beans each new year precisely as the Indians did centuries ago and taught the first settlers to do, as if there were a fate in it. I saw an old man the other day, to my astonishment, making the holes with a hoe for the seventieth time at least, and not for himself to lie down in! But why should not the New Englander try new adventures, and not lay so much stress on his grain, his potato and grass crop, and his orchards, -- raise other crops than these? Why concern ourselves so much about our beans for seed, and not be concerned at all about a new generation of men? We should really be fed and cheered if when we met a man we were sure to see that some of the qualities which I have named, which we all prize more than those other productions, but which are for the most part broadcast and floating in the air, had taken root and grown in him. Here comes such a subtile and ineffable quality, for instance, as truth or justice, though the slightest amount or new variety of it, along the road. Our ambassadors should be instructed to send home such seeds as these, and Congress help to distribute them over all the land. We should never stand upon ceremony with sincerity. We should never cheat and insult and banish one another by our meanness, if there were present the kernel of worth and friendliness. We should not meet thus in haste. Most men I do not meet at all, for they seem not to have time; they are busy about their beans. We would not deal with a man thus plodding ever, leaning on a hoe or a spade as a staff between his work, not as a mushroom, but partially risen out of the earth, something more than erect, like swallows alighted and walking on the ground: --

    "And as he spake, his wings would now and then
    Spread, as he meant to fly, then close again,"

so that we should suspect that we might be conversing with an angel. Bread may not always nourish us; but it always does us good, it even takes stiffness out of our joints, and makes us supple and buoyant, when we knew not what ailed us, to recognize any generosity in man or Nature, to share any unmixed and heroic joy.

Thoreau decided not to grow as many beans again but to use the time for self-improvement. He says that his efforts were lost, which is a sign of his modesty. His sister Sophia thought he was the best person she had ever known.

He criticizes our society for forever taking great pains with our fields and not as great of pains with our virtues. He finds it ironic that the 70-year-old man is more concerned with planting seeds than with his soul. He says that we are so busy working that we fail to find time to communicate with one another. Why not try to create a new generation of people who will not be focused on the ground but on the heavens? Why not spread our time diseminating seeds that will generate change within people? We should treat our fellow men as if they were angels rather than a product of the earth.

Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber. Cato says that the profits of agriculture are particularly pious or just (maximeque pius quaestus), and according to Varro the old Romans "called the same earth Mother and Ceres, and thought that they who cultivated it led a pious and useful life, and that they alone were left of the race of King Saturn." Thoreau further criticizes our culture by pointing out that we no longer have the notion that farming is sacred, as did the Romans and Greeks. Rather than celebrating Nature (Ceres), we focus on money (Plutus) instead. We treat the land as if it is our own property, rather than belonging to God and Nature, and thus we don't mind destroying it for future generations. Many farmers, rather than trying to understand and aid Mother Nature, steal from her instead. That is, they deplete the soil and allow it to erode rather than improving its fertility, and they destroy their forests to increase their immediate profits.
We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction. They all reflect and absorb his rays alike, and the former make but a small part of the glorious picture which he beholds in his daily course. In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden. Therefore we should receive the benefit of his light and heat with a corresponding trust and magnanimity. What though I value the seed of these beans, and harvest that in the fall of the year? This broad field which I have looked at so long looks not to me as the principal cultivator, but away from me to influences more genial to it, which water and make it green. These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? The ear of wheat (in Latin spica, obsoletely speca, from spe, hope) should not be the only hope of the husbandman; its kernel or grain (granum from gerendo, bearing) is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer's barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also. Thoreau's paragraphs tend to be essays, and this one is similar to parts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:45 and 6:24-34). However, Thoreau's message is somewhat different. He is saying that the natural world is as important to God as is mankind, and we should be willing to relax and be a part of Nature and to accept the good and the bad that occur to us with less anxiety.
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