Beans, Beans the Magical Fruit
Beans, Beans the Magical Fruit

Beans, Beans the Magical Fruit

I grow lots of beans. Yes, waxy green, yellow and purple pods that wink out at me through summer’s thick vegetation, to be eaten fresh. And yes, a few different types of climbers for the corn, as an essential part of the “three sisters”. Among these, the proto North American bean Scarlet Runners. But I also grow small fields of bush beans, some types ten thousand years old, that we make Miso from. You could almost call me a bean farmer these days, and a bit of a bean scholar I suppose. So I thought I’d share some of what I know about beans.

Some of our beans: Scarlet Runners, Arikara, 5 Nations, Vermont Cranberry

One thing we all know is western culture, or non-traditional people, look down on beans. “Ain’t worth a pile of beans”, as well as the common flatulence jokes come to mind. Yet any connoisseur of beans knows if you soak them overnight and get rid of the water, or long cook them, or ferment them, then you don’t get gas. Beans are actually pre-biotic helping the digestive culture in our gut. So if we eat them as regular as once or twice a week then we develop the perfect gut flora and fauna to fully assimilate them without all the gas. Beans in fermented forms like Miso and Natto give our body very special enzymes which both detoxify, cleanse and regulate our circulatory system including our heart. Eating them more regularly also gives us a gentle form of roughage helping with peristalsis. By contrast cooked red meat is loaded with accumulated environmental toxins and natural toxins like nitrates. And while the meat has massive energy stores in it, it takes huge amounts of energy to digest and assimilate meat, with no probiotic aid. Not to mention red meat slows down the digestion and peristalsis causing the build up of gasses and toxins, that move into our colon and rectum, potentially causing cancer in those organs.

Not only have we been turned away from the noble bean by this sensory evocation of sulphuric gas but we are also convinced from a young age, like we’re royal elites, that beans are “poor people’s food” or “hobo food”. I admit that’s how my family and I thought of them when I was growing up. If you look a little closer at all these put downs you might feel a familiar undercurrent to the discrimination. Not surprisingly like the Earth herself, Beans have historically been the embodiment of the sacred feminine.

When this piece of ancient history came to me suddenly all the prejudices made so much sense. Because frankly, the feminine and its symbols of power have been kept down and desecrated for the last 3000 years by Western culture. By contrast, traditional and pre-patriarchal cultures all over the world for thousands of years have understood beans as embodiments of the feminine and revered them because of it. It’s not pronounced the same way but in the Celtic languages ‘bean’ means woman. In Sanskrit, one of the oldest known root languages, the word “Mudra” can refer to beans, a woman, or a magical gesture which enables one to enter another dimension! 

Beans are also traditionally associated with the organs they look like, as in the ‘doctrine of signatures’. These days that’s most often the Kidney or Heart, but the older association links beans with the womb. If you look carefully at the clef on the bean, known as the hilum and the opening at the bottom called the micropyle, it looks like a miniature vulva. In bigger beans like Limas and Favas this opening is even more vaginal looking. Apparently in Italian Fava is slang for vulva.

Lima Bean’s hilium and microphyle aka Vulva (even at the top, a little clitoris!)

Beans were once understood to be a womb-like holder for ancestral spirits. The spirit enters the bean through the waters in the bottom of the vulva/flower when the plant is in bloom. Just like we all enter into the womb during conception, grow in vitro and then are birthed from our mother’s waters, the spirits are birthed into their bean “home” dimension through the plant’s pool of nectar. If you doubt the drawing power of the flower to a spirit then you’ve never been spellbound by beauty. If you doubt the power of a nectar pool to cleanse and nourish the spirit as it transmigrates into the bean think about incorruptible golden healing honey that’s made from the same flower nectar.

You might laugh at this “primitive” understanding but as a seed keeper and someone who has carried and grown beans for over thirty years, and as someone who holds up and cherishes my bean relations, I believe there is truth to this archaic understanding. Nothing gives me more comfort than having rafters hung heavy with corn and sacks brimming with beans. Yes, partially because I’m looking at a highly stable “assured” food source for my family for the next year, but there’s something else here. I am an animist and have a relationship with the spirit of these beings. Most of these beans I’ve have cared for and prayerfully planted every year for over thirty years now, and I can tell you when ‘they’ are in the room there is a presence greater than a dried legume or a grain. I don’t feel that from the industrially grown and processed beans at the health food store. They hold no spirits. The basement’s also full of next year’s food, ferments and root cellared vegetables, and while I do hold them dear they also don’t feel alive in the same way to me. It will sound strange but I just like having the corn and beans (and squash) around, with me in the house, like friends or good relations. I feel better and more whole in their company.

Scarlet Runner

So to me it makes perfect sense on many levels that they are houses for the ancestors. I imagine the bean seed could ‘house’ a spirit so long as it is viable. Which is about ten years. During this time the spirit is held in the dreamtime, in the house of the North, in a dormant but living state. When we plant the bean the ancestor ‘dies’ in that “inner” dimension. This is followed by a period of gestation where the spirit is being reanimated and woven into matter. Then after a few days of moisture and heat the spirit is birthed back through the vulva of the bean as they shoot into the outer (earth) dimension. When we eat beans they are also sacrificed to nourish us, to make our bodies strong in this dimension. When we plant the beans they are sacrificed for the miracle of new life. And that single little new shoot born from within the seed will in turn grow into a huge plant making a hundred or more homes for the ancestors, and making nutrients to sustain our human bodies while we are ‘alive’.

We have much to learn from the bean.

A piece of the old ‘bean’ knowledge is hidden inside the common fiery tale Jack and the Beanstalk. As you can imagine like most fiery tales that have come down to us through the ages this one’s been twisted around to fit into our Christian morality, seeming to be about greed. But if you look at the essence of the tale, the truth about the magical bean is still in the story. Jack’s family is going through hard times. He is fatherless. His mother sends him to town to sell their cow for food. On the way to market he is convinced by a mysterious old man to take some “Magic beans” for a trade instead. Not returning with food, his mother is furious and assumes him to be an idiot. In a fit of anger she throws the beans out the window. In the darkness of night a great vine grows linking the upper dimensions with the earthly realm. From these other dimensions all the “riches”, or sustenance for life can be drawn.

This story can be read on many levels. On one level it is a metaphysical map. The vine is the Axis Mundi at the centre of creation connecting the upper and lower world. By linking the upper realms with the Earth a channel is created through which the riches of life come. A related view might see this as tantric tale, the “magic beans” and the Earth represent the feminine and the vine represents the sacred masculine, the lingam, linking the worlds, from which new life is “born”. It’s also notable that the ‘miracle’ happens at night while they are dreaming. The beans, the earth, the night and dreaming are historically all associated with the Feminine.

The story can also be read as an agricultural parable. The family is not able to handle the high input agriculture of animal husbandry. Selling the cow represents a subsistence failure. The stranger who offers Jack the beans is offering a magic gift that will re-place value of the feminine, of gardening and the self-regenerating vegetive world of the bean. Older, pre-patriarchal forms of agriculture did not rely on or even use animal feces for fertilizer. Common among these regenerative forms of agriculture were; ‘flood plain agriculture’, where the silt of an annually flooded river fertilizes the land; ‘shift agriculture’ where you simply moved to another rich area and let the old garden revert back to the wild; ‘fallowing’, where you don’t move but rather just let the land’s wild plants come in and heal and regenerate the land for a year; and growing in polyculture with legumes, combining beans with other plants, or as a successive crop, to enrich the soil. All these methods were used for tens of thousand of years before animal feces became the basis of agriculture.

Farmers used to keep only a breeding pair animals over winter so there was no stockpile of manure for planting fields. The rest of the animals were killed in the late fall at the first frost because if the animals couldn’t be grazed, they couldn’t be kept. The farmer couldn’t cut enough good ‘feed’ and keep it from rotting or being eaten by rats over the wet cold winter. The transition to manure compost happened after the introduction of Turnips into Europe in the 1700’s, which enabled farmers to keep livestock over winter. Then they had piles of manure to deal with in the spring.

Agriculturally speaking beans are a miracle because you can grow in the same areas without the addition of animal compost. I suppose beans are an early form of bio-technology. They enable a farmer to grow huge amounts continuously without moving, fallowing or composting the growing area. Beans can do this by fixing nitrogen from the air through a synergistic fungi hosted in the plants root nodules. Then the soil-feeding beans are grown with, or cycled with crops like corn and squash that are heavy feeders on Nitrogen.

Magical bean indeed.

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