The Bean Trees

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Themes and Colors
Family and Motherhood Theme Icon
Feminism and Solidarity Among Women Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Disaster and Survival Theme Icon
Belonging and Homeland Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Bean Trees, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Nature Theme Icon

Kingsolver’s background as a biologist and her intense love of nature are prominent throughout the novel. Aside from the many beautiful descriptions of the landscapes around the characters, the characters themselves also love the natural world and find peace when they are in natural environments. Kingsolver continually affirms that humans are also animals, and therefore part of the environment in which they live. Taylor learns to integrate herself into the environment when she moves to Arizona. Though the flora and fauna in the desert are the polar opposite of the natural world in Taylor’s original Kentucky home, Taylor is enchanted with the stark beauty of this new landscape. The animals that have adapted to the harsh desert or overcome the extra stresses that human cities put on natural resources in the desert provide inspiration for Taylor as she and Turtle learn to survive and thrive in this arid land despite the troubles they have faced. Taylor expresses Kingsolver’s belief that modern human society has adversely affected natural ecosystems and begins to learn about the ways that humans have harmed the delicate balance of the desert and ways that humans can help return the earth to its natural rhythms. Kingsolver reverently describes the beauty and wonder of nature, as well as the harsh balances of life and death in the natural world, as she advocates for humans to become responsible stewards of the good and the bad in the environment.

More than simply rest and relaxation, natural spaces in the novel also offer cathartic experiences that begin to heal traumatic experiences from many characters’ pasts. Turtle, though shell-shocked from the tragedies of her first years, takes an interest in gardening that helps her to slowly bridge the gap between human and natural worlds. Turtle’s growth matches the growth of the wisteria vines that thrive in the poor soil of the Tucson desert. Turtle’s rebirth into human society takes place at a lake as Turtle reenacts the burial of her mother. At the same lake, Taylor finally realizes how to gain legal custody of Turtle. Though the natural world is far from idyllic in Kingsolver’s conception, it is still more perfect than the manmade institutions that have caused Taylor and Turtle, as well as Estevan and Esperanza, so much trouble in the novel. Taylor, Turtle, and the others need to spend regular time in natural environments in order to be happy and healthy. Kingsolver writes these natural scenes with an eye towards building awareness of the majesty of nature while convincing her readers that the natural world needs people who are committed to preserving that beauty for future generations.

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Nature ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Nature appears in each Chapter of The Bean Trees. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Nature Quotes in The Bean Trees

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bean Trees related to the theme of Nature.
Chapter 3 Quotes

By this time, I had developed a name for the child, at least for the time being. I called her Turtle, on account of her grip. She still wasn’t talking but she knew her name about as far as a cat ever does, which means that when you said it she would look up if she was in the right mood.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Turtle (April)
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

Taylor names the Native American child that was given to her Turtle, because Turtle has a very strong grip like a mud turtle, which has an extremely strong jaw. At this point, Turtle seems to have retreated to the animal world after experiencing horrible abuse at the hands of her human family. Taylor’s name for Turtle, and her description of Turtle as cat-like, reveal both that Taylor has an immense respect for animals and that she chooses to meet her child on Turtle’s own terms. Turtle’s name does not come from the shyness or slowness often negatively associated with turtles, but from the strong grip. Taylor clearly admires these turtles for their ability to hold on, and hopes that Turtle will be able to hang on despite the hard start to her life.

Taylor does not take the fact that Turtle doesn’t talk and doesn’t always answer to her name as a sign that Turtle is not smart, simply explaining that Turtle must be clearly choosing when she wants to answer and when she doesn’t. Taylor also does not blame Turtle for choosing not to engage with the human world that has caused her so much harm already. Taylor will give Turtle the space, support, and praise that she needs to reenter the human world when she is ready, and let her take solace in the natural world as long as she chooses to.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

He moved around in there for quite a while before he said anything to Lou Ann, and it struck her that his presence was different from the feeling of women filling up the house. He could be there, or not, and it hardly made any difference. Like a bug or a mouse scratching in the cupboards at night – you could get up and chase after it, or just go back to sleep and let it be. That was good, she decided.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Lou Ann Ruiz (speaker), Angel Ruiz
Page Number: 84-85
Explanation and Analysis:

After Lou Ann’s family leaves from their visit helping Lou Ann take care of her newborn son, her husband, Angel, returns to pack up his stuff and move back out. Lou Ann then explains the difference between Angel’s presence in the house and her mother and grandmother’s presence in the house: her female family members fill the house while Angel leaves it still empty. Lou Ann compares Angel to an animal, rather than another human being in the house. To Lou Ann, at least, women offer companionship to other women, but men are not even the same species. Even if Lou Ann were to try to communicate with Angel, he wouldn’t understand, and Lou Ann would just have to “chase” after him rather than talk to him as equals. Lou Ann decides that this is a good thing, growing up as she did with a mother and grandmother who kept each other from getting lonely both while Lou Ann’s father was alive and after he died. It is only once Lou Ann meets Taylor that she feels true companionship.

Chapter 12 Quotes

I wasn’t really afraid, but there is something about seeing a snake that makes your stomach tighten, no matter how you make up your mind to feel about it. “Fair’s fair,” Mattie pointed out, as we skirted a wide path around the tree. “Everybody’s got her own mouths to feed.”

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Mattie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Birds
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Taylor and Mattie are walking back from watching the first rain of summer come in when they hear a rattlesnake in a tree. Mattie tells Taylor that the snake is probably climbing to get birds’ eggs to eat. Taylor attempts to stay as calm as Mattie, but can’t help feeling scared of the snake. The novel certainly celebrates nature, but it does not shy away from the harsh stakes of the natural world. Throughout the novel, birds have been a symbol of the vulnerable parts of nature that need protection. Taylor wants the natural world to be fair according to her desires, helping the underdog live and giving a break to the weaker animals. But Mattie knows that the animals that eat birds’ eggs deserve to live too. It is easy to try to paint the snake as a villain because it is a scary animal, but humans who truly care for nature have to remember that the snake is simply trying to feed its own babies and is not truly acting maliciously. In the natural world, things that seem unjust according to human sensibilities are actually the truly “natural” outcome. It is the human responsibility to protect all facets of nature and not interfere with the aspects that seem wrong to us.

Chapter 17 Quotes

The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by, is how I explained it to Turtle, but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Turtle (April)
Related Symbols: Wisteria Vines (Bean Trees) and Plants
Page Number: 305
Explanation and Analysis:

Turtle and Taylor go to Oklahoma so that Taylor can gain legal custody of Turtle. While waiting for the public notary to file the papers, Taylor takes Turtle to the public library and looks up wisteria vines, Turtle’s favorite plant back home in Tucson. Throughout the book, Turtle has been compared to the wisteria vines, which are ugly plants on first glance that blossom into beautiful flowers when they are ready. This is yet another example of how human beings are shown to be a part of the natural systems around them. Now, Taylor finds out another reason that Turtle is like a wisteria vine. Turtle grew up in very poor conditions, losing her biological mother and living with an abusive aunt and uncle in poverty. Yet wisteria vines are able to thrive in poor soil thanks to the helpful rhizobia bug that fertilizes the dirt, just as Turtle is able to grow strong thanks to the help of Taylor and her other adoptive family members. Kingsolver extends this metaphor to all the characters of her book, all of whom need the help of other people in order to live healthily and happily.

She watched the dark high-way and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest.
And me. I was the main ingredient.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Turtle (April)
Page Number: 312
Explanation and Analysis:

After Taylor gains legal custody of Turtle in Oklahoma, the two drive back to their home in Tucson. Turtle, who has had trouble connecting with other people due to the abuse she suffered with her biological family, is finally able to engage with the other members of her new-found family. Previously, Turtle only said the names of vegetables as a way to show how much more comfortable Turtle was with the natural world instead of human society. Now instead of talking about vegetables in the ground, Taylor describes Turtle’s speech as a “vegetable-soup” that can nourish people and help them grow.

Taylor too was uncomfortable with the new family that she had formed with Turtle, Lou Ann, and Dwayne Ray, because she didn’t feel like she truly belonged as Turtle’s mother. But now that Taylor has learned that Turtle loves her best, making her the “main ingredient” in her soup, Taylor can feel secure as Turtle’s mother. Their family may not be conventional, but it is the best thing for Taylor and Turtle to come home to.