The Learned Pig

Art – Thinking – Nature – Writing


It’s late March and my neighbour Keith is gloating.

“I’ve put my onion sets in, and my potatoes, and a few spring onions and carrots. Just off to sow some radishes. Not too keen on them myself, but Ann likes them.”

Keith is nearly eighty and is out daily, bending, digging and weeding in his huge garden. He loves tulips, dahlias, gladioli, anything brightly coloured, and he puts me to shame with his vegetables. I haven’t even sorted out my old seeds yet, let alone bought any new ones. 

I need to catch up. So I pull out my box of seeds from the cobwebby shelf in the garage where it has been forgotten all winter, and tip it out onto the living room floor. My plot is a quarter of the size of Keith’s, so this year I’m going to be firm with myself and only grow those things that I know we will eat and will do well in this hot, dry, coastal garden. Seeds too old to germinate well and packets of cabbages, calabrese, carrots, radish all get put in the ‘give them to someone who might use them’ pile. Reluctantly, squashes go in the same pile because they take up too much space in my tiny beds. Potatoes and onions are out of the question for the same reason. What’s left is spinach, peas, various leafy salads, herbs, peppers, tomatoes. And French beans. 

I love growing French beans. The colourful, solid seeds, precious little bullets of nutrition with their Jack-and-the-Beanstalk magic. The way they uncurl from the soil, even the dwarf varieties shooting straight up, reaching for the sky. There’s half a packet of tiny, jet-black Cobra, cool in the palm of my hand, that will grow long, tender green beans; a small jar of speckled, pinkish-brown Borlotti I must have saved a year or two ago; and skulking at the bottom of the box, an unlabelled, sealed envelope with a few roundish lumps in it. When I tear it open and look inside I’m surprised to find the two-tone seeds of my favourite bean. I have no idea where they came from nor how old they are. I haven’t grown this bean for years.

It has several names, my favourite bean: Calypso, Orca, sometimes Pickle Bean. But the one I know it by, is the Yin Yang bean. This is because of the pattern and colouring of the bean seed, half black and half white. The black half always contains the white eye of the scar, or hilum, from where the bean was attached to the pod, while the white half usually contains one or more small black dots. So it looks like a three-dimensional version of the Chinese ‘Yin Yang’, or tai chi, symbol, if not quite so regular. 

Maria seemed a lot older than me. I knew nothing about gardening back then, and she seemed to know everything.

When I first saw this bean I was in France, just out of university, unsure what to do with my life and volunteering at one of the gardens that inspired me to become a market gardener. It was an acre of vegetable beds set out in a circular pattern, created by Maria Sperring at her retreat centre in La Creuse. In her mid-twenties, Maria had bought a tumble-down old stone farmhouse with a few overgrown acres in the middle of French nowhere and named it “Le Blé en Herbe” – The Ripening Seed – after the Colette novel. When I arrived there in the 1990s, squashed in the back of a coach from Victoria, she had owned the place for a year or two and was still travelling back and forth to Hastings for work, making the thousand-mile round trip every few months in an ancient and rickety 2CV. 

“How will I recognise you at the coach station?” I had asked on the phone, twenty-one and nervous.

“Look out for the 2CV – there’ll be no mistake,” she’d said, and there wasn’t. Maria had an unruly tawny bob and hands that belonged to a builder. She spoke in a fluent monotone above the rattle of the old car, with sudden explosions of wild laughter. She seemed a lot older than me. I knew nothing about gardening back then, and she seemed to know everything. I think she was twenty-eight.

In the farmhouse, there was hundred-year old plaster peeling off the walls, huge grey flagstones on the floor, an ancient wood-fired Rayburn that had travelled all the way from Hastings in the back of the 2CV, and a bucket to wash in. Outside was a compost loo, the large circular veg garden she had already created, and down the track, tiny fields so neglected that oak trees had self-seeded in the middle of them. Most days I’d see Maria’s elderly neighbour hobble down the track on bowed legs, wicker basket over her arm, stick in hand, black linen pinafore, scarf tied around her head. She’d be back an hour or so later with the basket overflowing with fresh greenery she had picked from the hedgerows. Nettles, wild garlic, hedge mustard… anything green and edible. 

“L’oille,” she’d say, knowing I wouldn’t understand. 

“L’oille…soupe. Soupe”. 

I’d nod enthusiastically. 

If it wasn’t for the 2CV, the neglect of the fields and the abandoned cottages nearby, it could have been the early 1900s. I loved it.

For a couple of years, I was back there every chance I got. In December when the hoar frost was thick enough to be mistaken for snow; in July when we dripped in the midday heat and retreated for long siestas under the lime trees. One time must have been bean-sowing time, because I remember Maria’s big, gnarled hand pouring the seeds into my smaller, softer one. They were like little beads of wood that someone had spent hours sanding, painting delicately with a tiny paintbrush, then varnishing. Smooth, shiny, cool, exquisite.

“Yin Yang beans,” she said.

“Wow,” I said.

If they had been made by human hand, I thought, they would have been like tiny Japanese netsuke. We made a long drill in one of the vegetable beds, sprinkled the beans straight into the ground and covered them over with brown French soil.

Sometimes, between sowing, planting, weeding, cooking, chopping wood, we practised tai chi on the circle of grass in the middle of the vegetable garden. Our Tigers Crouched among the lettuces and our Monkeys Returned to Mountain between the cabbages and the potatoes. 

Maria and I had learned different styles of tai chi, hers soft and elegant, mine focussed and purposeful.

Maria and I had learned different styles of tai chi, hers soft and elegant, mine focussed and purposeful. My teacher back in England, Dan Docherty, was a six-foot-two Glaswegian who had been the 1980 heavyweight martial arts champion in Malaysia, winning using tai chi techniques he had learnt while serving in the Hong Kong police force. When he returned to the UK, he set up a school and proceeded, he liked to say, to “rescue tai chi from the hippies”. Dan was also a scholar who translated the tai chi classics from Chinese to English and was meticulous about tai chi theory, philosophy and history. tai chi, he said, is the physical embodiment of Taoist thought: “philosophy in action”. He would take a classic tai chi front stance, one foot forward, one back, weight on the front foot: yang. Then he’d shift his weight onto the back foot: yin

“There you have it,” he’d say, in a Glaswegian accent rubbed smooth by years away: “philosophy in action.” 

He taught us that tai chi, both the martial art and the Taoist philosophy, was the constant interplay of yin and yang, the two fundamental forces in the universe. Always in motion, never total. It’s why the tai chi symbol has a dot of yin in the yang and a dot of yang in the yin. It’s why, when you take a front stance you should never have all your weight on the front foot. There must always be the potential to change quickly, otherwise your opponent will easily pull you off balance.

I gave up tai chi long ago and haven’t seen Dan for years. In any case, he wasn’t the kind of teacher you could make small talk with about vegetables. So I’m not sure what he would think about a bean being named after the tai chi symbol. Perhaps he would scoff. But I like it, the thought of all that philosophy in a bean pod. I think Maria did too; it’s probably why she grew them – that, and their sheer beauty. As a bean to eat, they are no better than average. But I didn’t find that out until later, because by the time they came up I was back in England.


The Learned Pig


Yin Yang beans are from neither Japan or China, however. Like runner beans, so-called ‘French’ beans, borlotti beans, butter beans and the myriad other beans of the Phaseolus genus, they are ‘New World’ beans, endemic to the Americas. We have only been eating them in Europe since post-Columbian colonialists began bringing them back along with other plunder. The huge diversity of cultivars is thanks to the First Peoples of South America, particularly Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, for whom they were a staple food crop for centuries. Bean seeds from archaeological sites in Peru have been radiocarbon-dated to 8000 BCE. Nobody knows who bred the first Yang Yang beans, but I like to imagine a long-ago gardener on a Caribbean island entranced by a bean that had mutated strangely to black and white, like an Orca whale. How we love correspondence, things that remind us of other things.

Yin Yang beans have been cultivated as a dwarf variety, but all Phaseolus beans in their original form were climbers, twining themselves around the stems of other plants to reach to the light. Among the things that Maria taught me in France was that climbing beans twine anti-clockwise – “widdershins”, she called it, which means, according to the OED, “In a direction opposite to the usual; the wrong way,” or more specifically, “in a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun”. Rotating widdershins is considered unlucky, the work of the Devil. It’s the way witches dance when they’re up to mischief: unwinding the world, creating chaos and disaster. Widdershins is not unlucky for the bean though, evidently.

Rotating widdershins is considered unlucky, the work of the Devil. It’s the way witches dance when they’re up to mischief.

This puzzled me for years, because it seemed to make sense that a plant would follow the sun round during the course of the day. Could it be a matter of perspective? If you look at a clock on the ground, the hands turn the same way as the sun, but if you take it above your head and look at it from below, they go widdershins. In a similar way, of course, the sun looks as though it travels anti-clockwise when you’re in the Southern hemisphere. But no matter where you look at a bean plant from, it twines in the opposite direction to the sun – unless you’re south of the equator, when it twines in the same direction as the sun. So then I reasoned that maybe New World beans climbed anti-clockwise because they were from the Southern hemisphere. They had evolved to twine with the sun down there, not with the sun up here. Then I noticed something strange. The morning glory I planted against the house twined in the same direction as the runner beans. Morning glory is closely related to that most elegant and most noxious of British weeds, the bindweed. So I checked the tendrils of bindweed beginning to twirl gracefully up the base of the hedge. Widdershins. Yet the honeysuckle I had recently planted in the back garden twined in the other direction – ‘deasil’, with the sun.

I resorted to the internet for an explanation. After wading through many claims, none of them true (French beans twine clockwise and runner beans twine anti-clockwise; beans twine clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern hemisphere, and so on), I discovered three interesting things. The first was that a majority of stem-twining plants in the world spiral anticlockwise. The second was that scientists don’t really know why this is the case, nor why some species go the other way, but it appears to have something to do with subcellular particles called microtubules. The third was that Flanders and Swann wrote a song about it. The song is called Misalliance, in which a honeysuckle and a bindweed fall in love only to discover that their parents disapprove of the match:

To the honeysuckle’s parents it came as a shock.
“The bindweeds,” they cried, “are inferior stock!
They’re uncultivated, of breeding bereft,
We twine to the right and they twine to the left.”

My mother loved Flanders and Swann. To my deep embarrassment she was fond of belting out the Hippopotamus Song (“Mud! Mud! Glorious mud!”) at the most inappropriate moments. But I don’t remember her singing the one about the bindweed and the honeysuckle, so maybe it was one of their less popular hits.

I was disappointed not to find a definitive answer to the twining problem (how we crave explanations), but the Flanders and Swann song made up for it to some degree. At least they had created some sort of meaning from the inexplicable, even if I couldn’t decide whether the song was clever social satire, or just plain daft.


The Learned Pig


The next day, Keith announces over the garden fence that his broad beans are up.

“The ones I sowed in November. About that big,” he puts the rake he’s carrying down in order to hold both hands up. “Looking great so far! Should be good as long as the blackfly don’t get ‘em. Ann loves her broad beans.”

Broad beans have a special place in my heart too, because they were the first crop I planted on the first bit of land that I could call mine. It was around the time I was regularly making the trip to France and I was newly obsessed with the idea of growing food, so I got an allotment. My allotment neighbours, all old hands, watched my progress and unconventional methods with interest. I remember hours of worry that the broad beans I planted in my raised beds just wouldn’t come up. They might be eaten by mice, rot in the ground or just not grow for some inexplicable reason. Every day I checked anxiously for signs of growth. When they did finally appear, curls of bright green against the grey Wiltshire soil, the feeling was one of excitement, but also relief. Several years later, as a new market gardener on the red soil of Somerset, broad beans were the first crop I carried proudly to the local shop to exchange for cash. An old gardener who had been selling surplus vegetables to the shop for years was there. He checked them over, appraising. They were good beans, big and plump and fresh. All he said was: “You won’t have any trouble if you can grow stuff like that”. And I felt like I had arrived. 

Walking the footpath that ran through the field was normally a bleak affair – except when the beans were in flower.

But this year the broad bean seeds had ended up on the reject pile along with the cabbages, carrots and radishes, and, feeling like a traitor, I explained to Keith I wasn’t growing any because I was saving the space for French beans.  

“Not because I don’t like broad beans,” I added hastily, “It’s just that they take up more space and… well… actually I prefer French beans.” 

It’s not surprising we took so enthusiastically to New World beans when they arrived in Europe, because before that broad beans were our only choice, and a broad bean is a very different proposition to a French bean. The plant, as well as the bean, is squat and earthy, with none of the airy elegance of a haricot, or even a runner. The bean itself takes more dedication to eat: Jane Grigson quotes Dioscorides’ description from the first century AD: “windy, flatulent, hard of digestion, causing troublesome dreams”. It’s still not too far off the mark, even if eating varieties have changed since then. If you want to really enjoy them, you need to pick them young and go to the trouble of slipping the grey-green jacket off each emerald bean after cooking. Their saving grace is the scent of the flowers, something John Clare knew all about:

A beanfield full in blossom smells as sweet
As Araby, or groves of orange flowers;
Black-eyed and white, and feathered to one’s feet,
How sweet they smell in morning’s dewy hours!

Clare’s beans were field beans, grown for animal fodder – smaller and tougher than broad beans, but no less sweet-smelling. Stand in the middle of a beanfield in early summer, and you’ll know what he means. There was a huge field next to my market garden which alternated between grain crops, peas, and occasionally, beans. Walking the footpath that ran through the field was normally a bleak affair – impoverished soil cracking under acres of monocrop – except when the beans were in flower. Then I would go out of my way to cross it, and sometimes, in the dip where I knew the farmer couldn’t see me, sit on the stony ground, nose-level to the louche black-eyed flowers, drowning in their scent.

It made me think of Thoreau in his beanfield at Walden, the two-and-a-half acres where he spent his mornings weeding and hoeing the long rows, “making the earth say beans instead of grass”. But Thoreau’s beans were New World beans – “the common small white bush bean”, probably a similar variety of Phaseolus vulgaris to those used in tins of baked beans today. I doubt Thoreau’s beanfield would have smelled as sweet as Clare’s, nor the beanfield I sat in, drowning.

Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was an experiment in an alternative way of living. He deliberately, if temporarily, gave up his comfortable middle-class life for a simple life in a hut, surrounded by nature. Some have called him an early “proto-hippy”. He was also no stranger to brushes with the authorities on account of his radical beliefs, famously spending a night in jail for refusing to pay the poll-tax. “I was not born to be forced,” he wrote in his essay Civil Disobedience.  

There was another beanfield, an English one, that was equally significant for members of a counter-cultural movement – hippies, if you will. But this beanfield had less pleasant associations than Thoreau’s. It was the field of sweet-smelling Vicia faba not too far from where I grew up in Wiltshire, which was the site of the conflict between police and the New Traveller community that became known as the Battle of the Beanfield. At the time I knew little of the details, only seeing the few innocent news clips that we were allowed to see. Years later I read the account pieced together from eye-witness’s testimonies by the journalist Andy Worthington, and watched the film ‘Operation Solstice’ by Neil Goodwin and Gareth Morris. They cut through what Goodwin called “hastily erected news censorship” to present a chilling tale of police brutality. The film, especially, was shocking and painful to watch. Why didn’t we know, I thought. Why weren’t we told?

The police moved through the bean field, smashing windows, breaking doors, pulling people to the ground.

On the first of June 1985, members of the Peace Convoy – dubbed ‘New Age Travellers’ by the press – were heading for Stonehenge to set up ready for the solstice festival. There was some sort of legal injunction in place that year to prevent the free festival taking place, but no one took it seriously, so there were around 600 men, women and children trundling slowly down the A338 in old vehicles they had lovingly converted into homes. They had just reached the A303 when the leading bus came to a sudden halt, face to face with a police barricade. One by one, all the hundred or so vehicles following it shuddered to a stop. 

“They were determined to get to Stonehenge,” said a policeman. “We were determined to stop them.”

When a brief attempt to negotiate with the police failed, one of the leading buses tried to get round the barricade by driving through the hedge into a neighbouring field, in the process colliding with a police van. It was the trigger the police were waiting for. They radioed for reinforcements and began moving down the line of buses and trucks, smashing windscreens with crowbars and truncheons, pulling people out. One woman they grabbed by her long hair and attempted to pull through the shattered glass of a side window. 

“She was screaming blue murder,” said an eyewitness. “Unsurprisingly.”

More travellers started driving off the road into the field, cutting the fence and smashing their vans through the hedge, either in an attempt to get round the barricade, or just to escape having their homes trashed. Others followed. Some stopped in the first field of grass while some drove into the next, a crop of field beans in full growth. The police backed off, but surrounded the two fields, making sure no one could escape.

There was a tense stand-off. Some travellers made tea, fed their children. Others tried to talk to the police, or to the couple of reporters at the scene.

“We haven’t done anything,” said a young woman into a camera, turning to her mates for confirmation. “Have we?” 

“We’re just trying to live our lives,” agreed a man in a round helmet sporting an anarchist ‘A’ and trimmed with Rastafarian colours – red, gold and green. 

We were not born to be forced, they might have said, with Thoreau.

Eventually the police chief made an offer to the travellers. They were to come out of the field, one by one, and be “processed”. There was to be no bargaining. The travellers knew what this meant, because a group of them had been “processed” by the police at a free festival the year before. The group had been arrested, separated from their partners and children, their homes systematically smashed up, their lives destroyed. So, unsurprisingly, they declined the offer, and at 7pm the police received the order to move in.

By then there were over 1,200 uniformed officers in action, a sea of blue helmets and riot shields, surrounding vans “like flies around rotten meat”, in the words of one journalist, “truncheons flailing, trying to hit anyone they could reach”. They moved through the bean field, smashing windows, breaking doors, pulling people to the ground. Witnesses saw heavily pregnant women clubbed to the ground, babies showered with broken glass, numerous travellers hit on the back of their heads as they tried to run away.

In surviving footage, a traveller is lying unconscious on a stretcher, head wound round with bandages. “What’s wrong with him?” the reporter asks, and an ambulance man shrugs, “Fractured skull probably.” Another traveller is pulled away from the fray upright, one policeman on each arm, face covered in blood, sobbing hysterically, “Look what they’ve done to us. Look what they’ve done to us!”

They didn’t show the film of the man with a fractured skull on the news that night.

The incident sticks in my mind not because I was there, or even knew anyone who was, but because I was seventeen at the time, a burgeoning hippy rebel. I had been to the Stonehenge festival a couple of times – it’s what you did as a hippy teenager living near Salisbury in the early 1980s. What I remember is fragmentary: stalls of Indian clothes smelling of incense; paper plates of brown veggie food; loud music and wild dancing; the reek of cannabis and overflowing chemical toilets; mud; laser lights piercing the night sky. 

They didn’t show the film of the man with a fractured skull on the news that night, or the traveller covered in blood. That footage mysteriously went missing. What we saw were just lines of colourful buses and hundreds of policemen milling about with riot shields. My mother tutted, though whether at the policemen or the hippies I wasn’t sure. You could never quite tell with her, which way she would turn. No Stonehenge this year then, was what I thought. Bastards. When I was seventeen, everything was either black or white. I couldn’t see the eye of one in the other. 

At the end of the day, eight police officers were hospitalised along with sixteen New Travellers, while 400 were detained in one of the biggest mass arrests in UK history. Some of the travellers were later awarded a few thousand pounds in damages, which all disappeared in legal costs, but no police officers faced any criminal charges, and there was never an inquiry. The Earl of Cardigan, an unlikely witness to the events, was labelled a “class traitor” by the right-wing press when he gave evidence in favour of the travellers, and an MP stood up in the Commons and called the travellers “New Age vermin”. We twine to the right and they twine to the left.

No one mentioned the scent of the bean flowers, though when I peer closely at the low resolution footage on the internet, I swear I can see dots of black-eyed white among the green. Nor did anyone mention the farmer whose bean crop was crushed by bus tyres, trampled by standard-issue black boots, showered with broken glass, spattered with blood. Some of the plants must have survived, because one of the travellers later related how she and her friends had returned in the autumn and picked beans. “To make hippy stew,” she said.


The Learned Pig


I carefully plant the few Borlotti, Cobra and Yin Yang seeds in pots which I keep in a propagator in the porch. Unlike tough old broad beans, they are tender plants and won’t cope with frost. It’s less than a week before the first Borlotti and Cobra appear. The beans have swollen, sent white roots down into the compost, and then uncurled themselves into the air like new fern leaves. A day later, the seed splits in two above the compost, and two green leaves unfold like the wings of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Then the plant starts to shoot, another leaf appears and another, and the growing tip of the stem pushes up, up, pirouetting in the air as gracefully as Nureyev, spiralling to the sky. Turning always widdershins, the wrong way, against the sun. Because that’s what beans do.

If you watch a time-lapse video of a bean germinating, you will see that it does, in fact, dance. Just very, very slowly. It’s a shame, I think, that the Chinese didn’t have time-lapse videos of plants growing as they were developing tai chi, otherwise we might have had moves such as ‘Climbing Bean Twines to Heaven’ or ‘Bindweed embraces Bamboo’, as well as crouching tigers and creeping snakes. 

There’s no sign of the Yin Yang beans. Perhaps they were too old, their chi expired. After two weeks, I’m about to give up and throw the whole lot on the compost, when I see a show of white in one of the pots. It’s the curl of a root as it pushes its way down, like the curve of a whale’s back as it dives into the deep. One bean out of the ten I sowed has germinated. It’s enough. Provided it grows, next year I will have more to sow.


Image credit: Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), still life with broad beans (undated)

This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.


The Learned Pig