Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A long weekend, another time

With the exception of attendance at the Memorial Day parade I spent this past weekend of remembrance deep in blissful nostalgia for old-time farming and beekeeping.

I would like to report that the parade itself evoked a more bucolic, small-town life. But it did not: our parade needs help. It consisted of: about 6 old convertibles (and no doubt about it, they are lovely and well-loved old convertibles – don’t ask me the make.) with vets propped up in the back seat waving listlessly to the thin ranks of onlookers; one local marching band in fetching red wool uniforms and also in desperate need of a weigh-loss program – one of the larger trumpeters was so overwhelmed by the heat, inside his red wool uniform, that he required medical intervention; a nearby high school band that was so out of tune, out of step and mismatched that they couldn’t have been more out of tune, out of step and mismatched had they tried, and in fact that I like to think that was the case. One punk trumpeter managed to speak on her cell phone as she trumpeted. Also about 4 Boy Scouts, a few Girl Scouts and Daisies, the 4 remaining members of the Hastings Mothers Club and the Mayor and trustees.
So dismayed was I by this parade that I have suggested that the Ladies’ Literature Club should make an appearance in the next one, for whatever occasion. CSB has graciously offered to drive his truck while we ladies gather in the back – or perhaps he will pull us on a float – and read aloud while nibbling cucumber sandwiches. Probably wearing white gloves.
As for the weekend’s agricultural nostalgia, this was a result of two old books. The Keeper of the Bees, (1925) by Gene Stratton-Porter, was given to me by a friend who is moving and hence cleaning out her house and redistributing her wealth of books. I seem to be the recipient of choice when friends find any book with Bees in the title, for which I am grateful.
In The Keeper of the Bees, a badly injured WW1 vet leaves the hospital where he has been parked since the war without any great improvement, and takes to the road fully expecting to die soon from the sepsis of his gaping shrapnel wound. Instead, somewhere on the Southern California coast he happens upon a beekeeper in need of help. (The first of several serendipitous coincidences.) He gets the beekeeper to the doctor, and ends up living in his house and taking care of the bees in the beautiful blue garden by the Pacific, and of course recovering from his wound with the sunshine, salt water, good food and healthy work. The descriptions of the blue bee garden, the world of blue, with its violets, heliotrope, forget-me-nots, blue verbenas, larkspur, bluebells, phlox, blue vervain -because blue is the most perfect color and bees are the most perfect insects - filled me with a visceral longing for an early 20th California I never knew but now imagine and imbue with more beneficence than is reasonable.
He also becomes fast friends with a local tomboy, Scout (I am wondering if Harper Lee read this book) who teaches our hero everything he needs to know about the bees. Her knowledge of swarms and techniques for capturing swarms were especially good, and especially timely given that we spent much of yesterday tracking a swarm on the East Side of Manhattan (more on that later). There are two things Scout gets wrong about the bees, and only because in both cases the true story was not understood for a few more decades, making me wonder what we misunderstand now that will be better known a few years hence. Several things I am sure, but which ones?
Scout explains to Jamie that on her mating flight, the Queen mates with one lucky drone when in fact we now know she mates with multiple drones because this genetic diversity is healthier for the hive. But that was not fully understood until the 1950’s.
Scout also describes the dancing bees, and tells Jamie that they do this to cool the hive and entertain the Queen. We now know that the bees perform the “waggle dance” to give remarkably exact directions (in relation to the sun) to the pollen and nectar flow. But Karl von Frisch did not publish his research about the meaning of the ‘waggle dance’ until after WW2. He received the Nobel in 1973 for his work.

From bees and their blue garden I went to chickens in the Pacific Northwest. In The Egg and I (1945) Betty MacDonald relates how, as a cultured and citified young bride, she and her husband (a tall, handsome, ex-Marine) start a chicken farm in the mountains near Port Townsend, Washington. Her husband is passionate about poultry and, apparently, life without amenities. Their nearest neighbors are Ma and Pa Kettle, later to become emblematic as shiftless mooches and ignorant farmers with a surfeit of progeny.
MacDonald leavens the squalor and laziness of the Kettles with their hospitality. She softens the vagaries of her temperamental stove and long hours of chicken raising with the bounty of their garden and picnics at the beach. She regales us with the many diseases chickens are prey to. MacDonald is willing to try (almost) anything and is open-minded about her neighbors who regard reading as a terrible waste of time and probably dangerous to your health. And you know you are reading something written a half-century ago when she politically incorrectly has nothing good to say about the drunken, shiftless, wife-beating Indians, and says it without apology. I finished the book as they had just installed running water and electricity, and I imagined, assumed, a long happy future for Betty, Bob, little baby Anne and the ever-increasing flock.
So why did I feel compelled to look up Betty in Wikipedia? After 4 years of marriage and 2 daughters, in 1931 Betty MacDonald left Bob (the handsome, ex-Marine chicken farmer) and had no more contact with him. No further details were given. In 1942 she remarried Donald MacDonald (yep) and so it was while married to him – and chicken farming yet again - that she wrote The Egg and I enshrining those bucolic first years on the chicken farm with Bob.

I am happy to report that we have an electric heat lamp* for our chicks as well as running water from the Croton Watershed. But Alonso the rooster still crows and the honeybees still love blue flowers.

*In order to comply with all safety regulations and keep our Seal of Approval from UL, I addendo this just in from brother #2, he-of-all-arcane-lore:

In just the last two years, two barns within five miles of our house in New
Hampshire have burned down due quite specifically to electric heat lamps for
chickens, so this is NOT your usual ridiculous over-the-top warning about
bad events that do not actually ever happen (eg, the urban legend "if you
don't turn off your cell phone when fueling your car, you will die in a
hideous fire", which, in fact, NEVER actually happens–see

In other words, make really, really sure that nothing flammable, under any
conditions, cannot touch or even get near your heat lamp.

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