Every summer, my father planted huge gardens that produced the food our family lived on for much of the year. And every summer, my sister and I were put to work in these gardens, weeding and picking beans before we could cross the fields to join our friends.
Home ownership, savings and sustainable living are now in vogue. But back then, subsisting on the land in a ramshackle farmhouse without a phone or running water wasn’t considered glamorous, so my sister and I tried to hide the embarrassing truths about our way of life. We did our best to keep our occasion outfits stylish and hoped no one would learn that, back home, taking a shower meant throwing a bucket of spring water over your head. While other teenagers had TV rooms in their homes, we had a bean room, where Dad stored piles of dried beans and squash among piles of prayer books and religious magazines. Our peers drove their fast cars, played loud music, and got together for a quick meal, while at home my family sat down for bean meals.
Long after we left that farm, beans took on greater prominence in our collective imaginations, moving beyond their status as culinary staples to becoming signifiers of the unique strangeness of our lives. The beans also represented Dad’s grand dreams of establishing a utopian community on earth where we would await the apocalypse.
These weren’t dreams his children shared, but it was impossible not to regard the grandeur of his vision with some kind of reverence.
Dad used to talk eloquently about the payback that beans provide. Why invest money, he said, when you only get a tiny percentage back? Whereas with beans, one small seed in the ground produces hundreds. Sometimes, on rare trips to the little local grocery store, he would horrify us by offering to pay for our margarine and powdered milk with a handful of beans and offering the cashier an eloquent explanation of the economy of beans, the economy of abundance.
Now, as the world faces food shortages and supply chain slowdowns, as we live in fear of climate catastrophe and, again, nuclear war, I find myself to regretfully admit that Dad was right. His dream of self-sufficiency may have been naïve, but he had clear eyes on the futility of cutthroat competition and unbridled materialism, on the gulf that exists between stock market numbers and the hungers of everyday life. I am even grateful for those long hours bent over in the garden weeding and picking beans.
I have no illusions that subsistence farming will save me, especially at a time when our relationship with nature has become so fractured. But working with things that grow means stepping out of the scarcity economy and into the abundance economy, where a single seed becomes hundreds. The diversity and extravagance of nature contrasts with the sparseness of a capitalist terrain where the desperate oppose the desperate and where the privileged few hoard the wealth of the world.
As the story closes in on the kind of dire future Dad foresaw, we discover the shortcomings of our ideas about survival. If survival means scrapping meager resources, it will be brief and probably ugly. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated this, with people scrambling for supplies and refusing to make even small sacrifices for the sake of our most vulnerable neighbours.
The bean seed economy reminds us that scarcity is not natural. It’s a trick we’ve built, a mechanism that allows the few to thrive on the backs of the many. I don’t know what it would take to regain an economy of abundance on a pragmatic level. I know that if we are looking for messages on how to live and pursue happiness, a handful of bean seeds is not a bad place to start.
This article also appears in the July 2022 issue of US Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 7, Page 7). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pixabay/Urike Leone