Wednesday, October 29, 2008
First there was the cock who awoke him early each morning to pray his night office.
Then there was the mouse who kept him from falling asleep while he prayed his night office.
Then there was the fly who acted as his bookmark, keeping his place in the missal.
How did the mouse keep him awake, you well may ask. The legend does not elaborate.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Not to take away from those of you who are at this very moment enjoying the your home entertainment center, or working out in your home gym or sweating in your home sauna, but while you were otherwise engaged, the world of real estate exigencies has moved beyond your passé must-haves. And what is this latest sine qua non of a fully–equipped home? Why, it is a WINE CELLAR CUM APIARY.
In the course of our autumnal hive inspections, we noticed that some hives were rather weak and it seemed doubtful they would make it through the winter. Plus there has been an unfortunate spate of hive robbing of late, and weak hives are especially vulnerable. So CSB conceived this plan of bringing the weak hives inside. But where inside? In the wine cellar, of course.
Our basement harks back to the early 18th century and frankly, has not advanced much in the intervening years. In particular there is a region we call the back basement, where the floor is still dirt and cobblestones (The story goes that the cobblestones were brought over in the 17th century as ballast in Dutch ships. I cannot comment on the historical accuracy.) and rodents have been known to roam. Among the objects in the back basement are a decrepit coal furnace and a pile of glass x-rays, presumably of urological tracts because for most of the twentieth century the resident of this house was a prominent NY urologist. Who knows, maybe your grandfather’s digestive tract is preserved, in negative relief, in our basement. Maybe not.
In the past, on jerrybuilt shelves in the back basement, next to the pit containing the coal furnace and bedrock, we have stored wine bottles (both empty and otherwise) and odd alcoholic confections people kindly bring us from around the world (Chinese herb liqueur, Polish fruit brandy, Costa Rican coffee aqua-viva, Amazonian chichiwasser and the like). Calling this damp cobweb-draped chamber a wine cellar is like calling the snarky emails my daughter and I send each other Belles Lettres.
Now we have beehives there as well, and so can call it an Apiary. CSB made these wooden boxes you see and installed the nuc boxes inside; there is a hole on the other side of the box and plastic tubing going out the window, so the bees can get out for cleansing flights when they need to. The hope is that the will stay warm, huddled around the queen, and emerge triumphantly alive in the spring.
Plus, if you put an ear to the outside of the box, you can hear them buzzing. Soon everyone will want an apiary in their basement.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
In 1924 Lenin died, the 8-hour work week came to Belgium and André Breton wrote the Surrealist Manifesto.
Arguably, these are not related events. Although the very existence of surrealism makes connections possible that are not.
My father was born in 1924; his birthday was 2 days ago. Marlon Brando was born in 1924. He died 4 years ago. And Robert Mugabe, tyrant of Zimbabwe, was born in 1924. (I know this because this week’s New Yorker has excellent articles about both Mugabe and Brando, illustrated. No article about my father.) In the accompanying photograph, Brando is young and sultry and handsome; Mugabe’s photograph was taken this year, and he looks remarkably good for his age, so much so that I have to suspect something Dorian Grayish is going on. Somewhere in the $10 million Harare mansion, there is a closet filled with skulls, old machine guns, and a life size portrait of a hunched over Mugabe, with dried blood under his fingernails, wrinkles so deep that whole families of nits can live inside them, and a flock of crow’s feet. Or else plastic surgery. We must always consider plastic surgery.
Chances are good my father doesn’t know who Marlon Brando was; that was nothing to do with memory loss and everything to do with a lifetime of single minded focus on the vicissitudes of the textile industry, and – oh yes - indifference to popular culture. My father may actually know the name of Robert Mugabe because he reads the Times religiously and watches the Lehrer Report religiously, but the country he knows is Rhodesia. Zimbabwe has disappeared into the maw of occluded vessels, along with Myanmar, Mumbai and the end of Pan American.
Friday, October 24, 2008
This week, the hive died. For a while we suspected something was amiss in the hive, as the population was declining precipitously. That is not unusual for this time of year when the queen has stopped laying and the bees are getting ready to hunker down for the winter. But it was disturbing to notice that the normally tidy (if they were my relatives, I would label them OCD) bees were not dispatching the dead bodies, but instead leaving them to lie & rot on their front porch, bleak intimations of mortality.
Because there are only four frames in the observation hive, they never get up to the numbers of a normal hive (60,000 at peak of the summer) nor do they store up honey for the winter. So as the nectar dried up we started feeding honey to the bees. (CSB devised an ingenious screened porch off their front porch that works quite well for pouring in honey, local of course.) But we think we made it too easy and that the hive was robbed. We saw a couple of deadly battles outside the window pierced by their entry hole, but the truth is, the observation hive was just too few and too weak to resist.
One day there were more dead bees piled up at the base of the hive than there were living bees despairingly walking across the honeycomb. And the next day there were none.
I know it’s Nature’s Way and all that, but it still terribly sad when a hive dies. It is a loss both singular and multiple. We think of each hive as a single functioning organism with a single intelligence and a single purpose; Rudolph Steiner wrote of the hive as analogous to a human brain. But it is impossible not to notice that there are thousands of individual bees in there. When I watch a bee balancing on the stamen of a cleome and collecting pollen, it is one bee I am watching. So I am mourning her. Many thousands of her.
Last night I dreamt that my novel (Absent a Miracle) had been adapted into a play, and I was in the audience watching it, and 2 seats over was John Updike. I watched and I watched and half the characters were missing and there were NO SAINTS. The saints had been completely expunged from the story.
Later John Updike told me he liked the play because it was essentially the story of Princess Anne and then he offered me his office to work in and he dropped tomatoes all over the floor.
When I told CSB about this dream (because he is the lucky audience to all my dreams), which an emphasis on the NO SAINTS part, he muttered something about an uphill battle.
(That would be Sisyphus who does not appear in the Oedipus plays were are now reading.)
And certainly it has nothing to do with the expunged feast of Saint Ursula, October 21, removed from the calendar in 1969 for the flimsy reason that she probably never existed. What can we say about someone whose apocryphal story has given such brilliant material to so many artists, from Caravaggio to Memling to Carpaccio to anonymous Puerto Rican woodcarvers? You have beautiful young women, gruesome deaths, any landscape you like, and the critical mass of 11,000 virgins. The fact that the cult of Saint Ursula was suppressed (along with another favorite, saint Christopher) in no way diminished her popularity.
Why John Updike you may well ask? Presumably because I’d just read a review of his Widows of Eastwick. And before that, in a review last week of a book about witchcraft, which I will probably never read, Germaine Greer referred to Saint Melangell and her hare. That perked me up for a whole morning of otherwise surreal conversations with my father as I narrated for him my personal (slanted) version of the last 100 years of Cuban History, because Saint Melangell of Pennant Melangell in Wales, who was introduced to me by Tristan Hulse, hagiographer par excellence, is a favorite of mine and just so happens to appear in Absent a Miracle. (Notice how I managed to refer not once but twice to the title of my new book.)
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I was wrong. Things have taken a decidedly felicitous turn. It seems this Apicultural Clipping Service only needed the bees, the crisis among the bees and the Internet to emerge fully-grown from the collective brain of my family and friends.
Now my mother sends me articles about the Beekeepers of Wadi Du’an from Aramco World.
A friend sent me a picture of a South Korean beekeeper wearing all his bees. Warmer than polar fleece.
A culinary friend sends me every mention of honey in Gourmet magazine.
Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat, a brilliant and also hilarious book about obituarists, sent me a link to an alarmist British article predicting that English honey will run out before Christmas. (This arrived just a few days before the recent Times’ piece about the British recall of edible sex toys, mostly chocolate. Is there a connection between these two critical events?)
I don’t have to read the Economist, because my sister, B, does, and she sends me every article about Bees Detecting Landmines and the Discovery of 3000 year-old beehives in Israel, and of course, the ever-worrisome CCD.
But the tone of these clipped articles was seriously ratcheted upward this past week, when my brother M was cleaning out his files and found a couple of articles for me in his scholarly clutter. The first was: The Social behavior of the honeybee: Classical Physics or Quantum Mechanics? Here is a typical sentence: “This section briefly describes experimental data demonstrating that physical fields and quantum effects, both endogenous and exogenous, are involved in the behavior of social insects and in coordinated interactions among elementary components of living matter.”
Also: “A well-known example of this is the “misdirection” in the orientation of the honeybee’s recruitment dance caused by the subtle fluctuations in the intensity of the earth’s magnetic field. [So &So] find that bursts of magnetic fields at a frequency of 250 Hz cause jumps of misdirection of up to ten degrees.”
In case you are disinclined to read to the end, I will clue you in. The answer to the question posed in the title is Quantum Mechanics.
The second article M sent is called “A Mathematical foundation for the dance language of the honeybee” by Barbara Shipman of the Math Department at the U. of Rochester. It is 30 pages long and only 3 of those pages are NOT studded with mathematical formulas and equations that are sublimely beautiful in their unintelligibility, like Arabic calligraphy or Norse runes. Were it not that I am sure he is simply trying offload all this paper, I would be flattered that my brother actually thought I might understand this.
The truth is that I love watching the bees perform their perfectly mathematical waggle dances, giving each other directions to the latest trove of nectar. If that is quantum mechanics, so be it.
And to all of you in my clipping service out there - and all of you who might consider entering those hallowed ranks - consider this my expression of heartfelt gratitude. And wonder.
Friday, October 17, 2008
This week’s theme could very well be: The Trees are so Much Taller Now. Blessed as we’ve been with Indian Summer all week, we’ve walked every day, my father, my granddaughter and I. In Hingham there are several lovely woods with meandering paths, but 2 of the finest are World’s End (more about the global proclivity for World’s Ends later) and the GW Town Forest. My father grew up here and now lives in the house he grew up, and he has walked in these woods and along these paths all his life. And because Hingham, like so much of New England, was once entirely agricultural, all the forests are second growth (at least).
Because of his strokes two years ago, my father has forgotten huge chunks of the last fifty years, while the first twenty or thirty years are his life are still vivid. And every day he forgets yesterday and last week and last month, anew. But he is undaunted. At times bizarrely cheerful.
And the trees are so much taller now, than they were then. Each day we can rediscover this.
At World’s End, four coastal drumlins extending into Hingham Harbor, he comments that the trees along the shore were never so tall; there used to be an unimpeded view across the water to Boston. Now we see the skyscrapers in the interstices.
The trees ARE much taller. In 1889, a John Brewer owned all of the peninsula. After farming for 30 years he had the idea of developing his land. So he hired Olmsted (the very same) to design a subdivision and according to his plan, cart paths were laid out and over 900 trees were planted. Happily, the proposed subdivision never came to fruition. The adolescent trees of the 30’s and 40’s are now stately oaks, maples, walnuts and chestnuts.The vistas are ineluctably altered.
Ditto with the Town Forest. In 1922 the town acquired over 100 acres of farmland and planted mostly white pines. Those white pines are now mature and we walk along soft paths of fallen pine needles.
For my father, all the trees are taller than remembered. For my granddaughter, it is all new and colorful and she buries herself in a pile of pine needles, again and again, to emerge triumphant.(That's her in the plaid shirt.)
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
But I did not intend to catalog the contents of any closet, at least not today. Last night my sister B came to visit and (in search of grainy mustard) together we enjoyed a stroll through the byways and pathways of my mother’s vast refrigerator. We found many delightful condiments and tidbits, but here is what intrigued us the most.
Goose fat, indeed, from a long ago Christmas Eve. It begs the question: what does one do with 11-year-old goose fat? What does one do with fresh goose fat? Being helpful sorts, my sister and I briefly considered purging the above goose fat. But why? It had been there for these 11 years and the label wasn’t even smudged. Who were we to second-guess its permanent place on a shelf in the fridge? We put it back exactly where we found it. For the next generation.
Thanks to the Gregorian calendar today, October 15th, as the feast of Satin Teresa of Avila(about whom I cannot say enough), rather than October 4, which is in fact the day she died, in 1582.
Pope Gregory XIII issued a Papal bull in 1582 decreeing the adoption of the new calendar in order to correct the drift in the Julian calendar which was causing the vernal equinox to move too far ahead. (And hence screw up the date of Easter. Another story. Yes, battles were fought over the date of Easter – can you imagine anyone fighting over such a minor religious issue?)
Initially, only 4 catholic countries (Spain among them) adopted the Gregory’s calendar. Thursday October 4th 1582 of the Julian calendar magically led to Friday October 15, 1582 of the Gregorian calendar. The rest of Europe followed suit gradually, though naturally many suspected it was a Papist plot.
So depending upon which country you lived in, you lost eleven days in 1582 or sometime thereafter. There is a 1755 painting by Hogarth which features a Tory campaign banner that reads: Give us back our eleven days! Although, by my advanced calculations that should be Ten days.
Monday, October 13, 2008
There is barely a free moment to mention Blessed Alexandrina of Portugal who was 14 when she defenestrated in order to flee a rapist, and spent the rest of her life bedridden. For her last 13 years she survived solely on Communion (she had the “gift of inedia”), which may account for many of her visions.
I’d like to say a few words about Juglans nigra. We have a black walnut tree right next to the driveway and overhanging the back porch. (I have no idea of its age, older than me and maybe even older than the house. Its height is equally unknown – I should have paid attention in trigonometry.) No one possessed of a brain should ever plant a black walnut tree near a house. It is a menace.
Yes, I know the wood is valuable, the shade is lovely and some people go to the trouble of collecting the walnuts, soaking them for two weeks and then smashing them with a hammer to extract the nutmeat which is then considered edible.
What you need to know that is that falling black walnuts (inside their greenish drupes) are deadly projectiles. They dent car rooftops (see the hood of my car for most recent evidence of such) and cause craters to form in the skulls of small children.
Assuming a black walnut falls unimpeded to the porch, and assuming it rains anytime soon, then a black walnut takes on its vilest incarnation. The drupes soften and reveal a black squishy pulpy mess containing juglone & this stains permanently. If you want to pockmark your porch with random black splotches, you might not find this objectionable, if you did not first sustain a concussion. Our ancestors used it to dye their hair and I am sure it worked wonders. On their scalps as well
On a windy afternoon or evening in the autumn when the breezes rustle the branches and shake loose the walnuts, I stand in my kitchen and continue to be startled and jolted from my sauté-induced reverie, though I should know better. It sounds like Baghdad out there, or Mogadishu, or anyplace where machine guns randomly pepper buildings with bullets, then stop just as randomly, then start again. (It’s more unnerving that way.) So it is with the falling and flying back walnuts.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
On this day replete with interesting saints (Sergius and Bacchus, the emperor Maximilian’s “Personal Favorites”; Thaïs, an Egyptian courtesan who burned all her jewels and fancy clothes publicly in the street before shutting herself up in a lead-sealed cell to pray for the rest her life; Saint Keyne of Wales, a virgin who turned snakes into stone) I was hard put to chose.
That is not true.
There was never any doubt, for me, that I would write about Saint Pelagia the Penitent. I will take any available opportunity to write about Saint Pelagia the Penitent: she whose romantic legend has been conflated, confused and confabulated over the years, and spawned numerous other cross-dressing hermetic saints (e.g.Apollinaria, Euphrosyne, Marina).
And especially, now, when the misdeeds and mis-steps and tacky associates of one’s past lives are being bandied about the political stage (OB’s bff the rhyming Weatherman; JMcC’s bff, the raper and pillager of Savings and Loans; SP’s early life as an Elvis-impersonating dog sledder; my own early years as a burlesque dancer in Montevideo; even the upright CSB has a scandal in his past, but we can’t mention it) it seems timely to think about the merits of reinventing oneself. Again and again, if necessary.
The beautiful Pelagia was an infamous ‘actress’ in early Antioch. One day, while Bishop Nonnus was hanging out with a group of bishops*, Pelagia rode by on her white donkey, brazenly baring her shoulders and needless to say, all eyes were on her. Even the bishop’s. After Pelagia and her donkey rounded the corner, Nonnus asked his fellow bishops how they enjoyed the sight of her beauty. They declined to answer. Not Nonnus. He declared how pleased he was to see her because she was a message from God. Clearly, he told the others, Pelagia went to a lot more trouble to be beautiful and perform her dances for the pleasure of men, than they took in caring for their own congregants.
The very next day Pelagia happened to hear Nonnus preaching; the words “went straight to her heart” and she begged to be baptized.
Eight days later she gave away all her beautiful clothes, dressed as a man and headed to the Mount of Olives where she lived alone in a cave for the rest of her life. She was called the “beardless monk.” When she died a few years later, those who buried her were shocked to discover her true sex.
• We have a murder of crows, a pride of lions and a gaggle of geese, but what do we call multiple bishops? An EXHORTATION of bishops.
Monday, October 6, 2008
One of the strangest things I have ever done perhaps did not look all that strange. But it was. All I did was drive a few miles north on Route 9 to the Church of the Transfiguration in Tarrytown. And what was there? The corpse, the incorrupt body, of Saint Thérèse of Liseux, making one of its numerous stops on its endless journey around the world to be displayed to the faithful. For reasons best left unexplored I am fascinated by the Catholic cult of Incorrupt saints, those whose bodies did not or have not decomposed, as is the generally approved norm. Hagiography is full of bodies that were found intact after years underground, corpses that smelled like flowers, en-vialed blood that liquefies annually, for centuries after the saint’s death. I cannot begin to explain these things, but the fact that there are so many instances of Incorrupts and they are often extremely well documented, gives pause. (More than pause. See my new novel, Absent a Miracle, for more bizarre happenings.)
Thérèse of Liseux, who died in 1897, is still making the rounds. She was one of 5 living daughters of a French watchmaker and a lacemaker. In the end, all 5 daughters entered the Carmelite convent, for which the parents are much honored, but it always seemed to me terribly sad, to think that all of one’s children chose a cloister over procreation and domestic bliss.
Thérèse's life in the Carmel at Liseux was about simplicity and directness. When urged by her superior to write a spiritual autobiography, the resulting book, The History of a Soul, was so well-received and beloved because it spoke so directly of her love for God and the struggles and ecstasies of a soul. There is nothing much about the body. Yet it is her body circumnavigating the globe.
One of the more remarkable things about Thérèse is that she deliberately set out to be a saint("I want to seek a way to Heaven, a new way, very short, very straight, a little path....I would like to find a lift to raise me to Jesus, for I am too little to go up the steep steps of perfection."), which goes against all the conventional wisdom about sainthood and the insanity plea.
And there I was in this 1960’s round brick Carmelite church, guiltily getting in line with true believers to walk past the glass encased body of Saint Thérèse, who died at the age of 24 of TB. This is not the coffin I saw, but it gives you an idea of how such a thing looks.
How does this bring us around to bomb-sniffing bees? Only in my mind.
You probably associate Los Alamos with all things nuclear. But there is more to Los Alamos than that. Researchers there are experimenting with and constructing a portable detection unit that will sniff out bombs and drugs. According to the September issue of Science News, with a “just a few minutes of training” undercover bees can learn to detect a wide variety of smells from TNT to methamphetamine to aflotoxin, on the general theory that “if it smells….”
This is not the first time bees have found themselves drafted into military service. The Romans catapulted beehives (Yes. Those exquisitely crafted perfect hexagons of wax were turned into weapons of mass destruction, or much annoyance.) over the walls upon their enemies, and as recently as WWI beehives were rigged with tripwire against an enemy approach.
You may well ask: how do the bees tell their handlers when they have sniffed something? Apparently – and I do not say this from personal observation – when bees approach nectar they stick out their tongues in anticipation of the pleasures it affords. This is called the “proboscis extension reflex” and using those tried and true Pavlovian techniques, bees can learn to stick out their tongues when they smell a bomb or drugs.
Do I object to bees being re-programmed in the service of human military or political goals? I have not given it much thought, not enough. But I have thought much and often about the apian social structure, about the remarkable way in which a bee, throughout her lifetime, will perform a series of tasks perfectly, all geared to the well-being and perpetuation of the hive. Already they make honey and wax which have been of enormous value to humans for millennia. Certainly they are the only insects who make food for humans. (I am not counting the maggots eaten in times of starvation, or by deranged collegians.) So are we pushing our luck?
Friday, October 3, 2008
I found this earlier today at the base of a thorn locust tree in an unspecified location. The first person to correctly identify it wins a limerick composed in his or her honor. A really bad limerick, since that is the only kind I know how to construct.
Hint: It is not my brain.
The police have recovered a missing truck used by safe-sex advocates to distribute condoms throughout the country, but the thieves who took the “condom mobile” last weekend made off with 5,000 prophylactics. Also missing was a motor used to inflate a 23-foot-long condom that was part of a government-financed H.I.V.-AIDS awareness campaign. The vehicle — which features images of a peeled banana on the side and a shirtless man asking, “I protect myself, do you?” — was found Wednesday. Officials said 800 rapid H.I.V. tests and the inflatable condom were intact, but the small truck had been stripped of its sound system. By Marc Lacey
Given the all around bad news these days, it is cheering to note that the New York Times saw fit to report on condom theft. Thank goodness the 23 foot long inflatable condom was not stolen, but now how will they manage to inflate it?
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Like many people we know, Saint Bavo of Ghent (589-654) led what Butler understated as an “irregular” life before he cleaned up his act, that is to say, was converted by a stirring sermon of Saint Amand. Actually, Bavo’s early misdeeds are worse than those of anyone I know: he actually sold his servants into slavery. Pretty unforgivable, you would say?
But as we have seen time and time again, a checkered past, a feckless youth, a prodigal adolescence, even a criminal record, can all be expunged by a timely conversion.
Which would explain why Bavo’s conversion makes such an excellent subject for painting, such as Rubens’ huge painting in the cathedral in Ghent. (For art’s sake, rather than verisimilitude, Rubens includes several semi-nude bodies in all sorts of torqued positions.)
But the painting I want to mention, because it is so unexpected, is Bavo’s singular appearance, in grisaille, on the exterior right wing of Hieronymus Bosch’s Triptych of the Last Judgment. (The one in Vienna. Not Bosch’s only Last Judgment, not by a long shot.)
The falcon on his left wrist, the spurs and elegant robes are all emblematic of the luxurious life led by Bavo, pre-conversion. Conversely, the open purse in his right hand signifies the alms he dispensed so graciously to the poor, post-conversion. The midget, the amputated (or mummified) foot, the child balancing a bowl atop his head, these are all pure Boschian enigmas. I read that both the foot and the bowl on the infant’s head appear in Bosch’s Lisbon Triptych, in a sinister context.
The other thing you must know about Saint Bavo is that after some time in the monastery he decided he wanted more of a hermetic life, and took up residence in the hollow trunk of a large tree. One hopes it was a very large tree. Since hollow trees are favorite places for a swarm of bees, I wonder whether he had to evict 60,000 odd honeybees and their queen before settling in.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
The topic at last night’s meeting at our bee club(BYBA)was Selective Honeybee Breeding and frankly, it was much more interesting than I anticipated. The speaker, Dr Ernesto Guzman, an expert in genetics and parasitic mites, is a professor of Apiculture at the University of Guelph. (Weren’t the Guelphs one of the rival factions fighting over Papal supremacy in renaissance Florence? In which case, what are they doing in northern Ontario?)
Any talk that includes phrases such as Drone Flooding Techniques and Cryopreservation of Drone Semen will get my attention.
And as I am sure you all know, any discussion of selective honeybee breeding must sooner or later come round to the matter of instrumental insemination of the Queen, and the difficulties thereof. It is difficult to collect the drone sperm and it is difficult to inseminate the queen, both.
Enter the World’s EXPERT in the Cryopreservation of Animal Semen. Yes, there is such a person and her specialty is Elephant Semen. One can only imagine all the ways in which collecting semen from elephants differs from collecting semen from drone honeybees.
Which leads to perhaps the most astounding fact of the evening: A simple graph showing the relative length of human sperm, bull sperm and drone sperm.
You could never guess.
Human sperm is 6µm in length.
Bull sperm is 70 µm
Drone sperm is 270 µm.
NB: µm=micrometer=one millionth of a meter=one thousandth of a millimeter. Also known as a micron.
You read that correctly. Drone sperm is 4 times as long as bull sperm and 45 times as long as human sperm.
On so many levels this seems counter intuitive and just plain crazy. Consider the little drone. Consider the polyandrous Queen. Unlike cows and human females, she does not copulate on multiple occasions over time. She takes one, possibly 2, mating flights and copulates with up to 20 drones, taking in enough sperm to last her a lifetime of laying up 1500 eggs a day (during the honey season).
I will never regard a drone again with the same dismissiveness.