When life doesn’t make sense, bees do

When your mom hauls you across the country to live with your grandparents, then takes to her bed, not a lot in life makes sense. Fortunately, Meredith May’s eccentric and wise grandfather introduced her to a world that did: his honeybee hives.

img_0109San Francisco journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May weaves these worlds together in The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees (Park Row Books, 2019).

May arrived at her grandparents’ Carmel Valley, California home with her mother and younger brother at age five after her parents’ abrupt separation in the 1970s. From the moment they arrived, the honey bus — a rusty old military bus where Grandpa made honey — was an object of fascination, then solace and inspiration for young Meredith. The more she learned about bees, the more she admired their social intelligence.

Bees could see a problem coming and start making a change before it became serious and they perished. If their hive became overcrowded or unsafe, they took initiative to move to someplace better. … Bees had enough brainpower to envision a better life, and then go out and get it.

As the months turned into years, Mom remained in bed, emerging just long enough to rain generations’ worth of emotional and physical abuse on her daughter. Grandma and Grandpa took up the slack of raising two children. As far as the reader knows, Grandma rarely held Mom accountable for anything and never encouraged her to get treatment for what was obviously crippling mental illness. (Granted, a doctor in the 1970s may have prescribed tranquilizers and called it a day.)

Grandpa, who seemed to see the situation more accurately than anyone else in the house, advised May to stay out of her mother’s way and forge her own path. This she did, helping her grandfather tend his many hives and make honey while excelling in school and discovering what she could do. Only as May was about to leave for college did her mother offer a glimpse of context for what she had endured.

While I couldn’t help feeling sad and frustrated about the behavior of many of the adults, May’s journalistic acumen and the bees keep this from being just another dysfunctional family memoir. Grandpa used the bees as examples of a more constructive way to behave — through caring, shared decision making, and commitment to community.

He reminded us that bees live for a purpose far grander than themselves, each of their small contributions combining to create collective strength. Rather than withdrawing from the daunting task of living, as our mother had done, honeybees make themselves essential through their generosity.

This worthwhile memoir sheds a personal and cultural light on honeybees today as we consider how to treat them, and one another, with more generosity.

Listening to the birds

29868587Birds bridge the ordinary and the unknown as few other creatures can. In Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, novelist, essayist, and children’s author Kyo Maclear details a year of urban birdwatching and life shifting in her home city of Toronto.

While coping with her father’s illness, the married mother of two young sons happened upon the photography of a musician and urban birdwatcher, and was riveted. “These birds lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity,” she said, but the message in the photos was not one of environmental sins, but of love for “the dirty, plain, beautiful, funny places many of us call home.”

The musician (as he is known throughout the book) became Maclear’s guide on a number of bird walks throughout the year. As so often happens when we take up something new, ostensibly to distract ourselves, the insights that emerge bring us right back to face the music, if we are willing.

Accompanying the musician to his father’s aviary of finches, for example, and feeling like a “galumphing invader” among the tiny, captive creatures, sparks reflection on the quality we most associate with birds: freedom. We are all captive in some way to something, Maclear said — such as the cages of ego and habit we may or may not recognize. A small birdwatching excursion to a marina on the edge of the city not only teaches her how to distinguish among trumpeter, mute, and tundra swans but becomes an almost meditative experience of simultaneous waiting and experiencing.

As she began to talk about the subject of this book, Maclear was surprised by the number and diversity of people who shared their own bird stories and passions — rich hobbyists, former POWs, people who traded the bottle for binoculars. “They had lost something, hoped for transcendence, wondered how best to live this life. Birds spoke to their irrevocably blue parts, their hopeful parts.”

The birders she encountered in books and in the world shared little except this, she concluded: “If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”

 

 

 

Owl be seeing you

“To that which you tame, you owe your life,” Stacey O’Brien was told when she adopted a tiny barn owlet in 1985. The tiny creature had an injured wing and would not have made it in the wild, so O’Brien brought the wild into her home. She tells their story in “Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl.”PaperbackCover

One would think the Caltech biologist knew what she was getting into. She was part of a scientific research community that in many ways was its own subculture, so she had not only knowledge but support. But does any new parent truly know what he or she is getting into? Perhaps the task is not to know, but discover.

To provide Wesley with what he needed, O’Brien had to enter the world of a sophisticated bird of prey with his own set of rules — “The Way of the Owl,” as she would call it. This required her to procure and prepare mice to feed him — all in a day’s work for an owl mom, but not so easy for an adoptive human mom, even a scientist. You recognize it’s the way of nature. But still.

Wesley was as devoted to O’Brien as an owl in the wild would be to his mate, and he held her to the same standards. When she traveled, he pouted upon her return. When gentleman callers turned up, he let them know who ruled the roost. He groomed himself fastidiously; if he plucked a feather on one side of his body, he invariably pulled the corresponding feather on the other side. Wesley even became an unexpected link with O’Brien’s grandmother, a fellow animal lover. O’Brien also learned to use her intuition to care for and communicate with Wesley.

The relationship lasted nearly 20 years — through jobs, boyfriends, and the ups and downs of life. Sometimes she cried into his feathers and he tried to understand. When she had to contend with her own life-threatening illness, the knowledge that Wesley needed her helped keep her going. “I looked into the eyes of the owl, found the way of God there, and decided to live,” she writes.

After Wesley passed from this world, writing about their journey together gave O’Brien a way to cope with her grief, and to offer the rest of us a glimpse of The Way of the Owl.