Monday, December 22, 2008

What exactly do the bees do all winter?

People often ask me this. I very earnestly explain how -- having ensured a supply of honey and having killed off 0r ejected the drones – the bees will cluster around the queen and keep her warm and fed. All winter long, their task to make sure the queen is nourished and comfortable so that, come spring, she will get back to her task in life, which is to lay eggs and make more bees.

I am very earnest about this because I very much want our bees to survive the winter. It is not a laughing matter to lose a hive to winter starvation or nocema (apian cholera, not pretty) or invasive mice.

I don’t try to describe the skits that our bees perform among themselves to while away the dreary winter months of barely staying awake. I certainly don’t boast that we have among our hives a group of rather talented mimes, jugglers and sword swallowers, not to mention the thespian apians who regularly (that is, through the wintry nectar-less months) perform original skits taking great liberties with the concept of queenship.
Not a word. I stick to the cluster story.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Down for the holidays

Is there a weird medieval saint who woke up each morning in a panic? Or is that very panic what drove a girl to the convent and its rigid hours of prayer and silence?

All I know is that it’s the holiday season and I am falling fast into that state I refer to as holiday gloom. I attribute it to the sundered family and the fractured self. (And maybe just a little bit to the short days, the tinny muzak and the plastic Santa and his eight ungulates on our neighbor’s lawn inflating and deflating like clockwork.)

Is there a divorced person out there who genuinely looks forward to the cheer-infested shoals of the holiday season? Foolish optimism leads me to believe that there is, but I don’t know you. I don’t even know of your existence.
You’d have to be brain dead not to recognize that the unifying theme of all these end-of-the-year holidays is family togetherness. And for those of us who are divorced, that is exactly what is not. Even for those of us who divorced for all the right reasons and have gone on to make happy lives for ourselves, the holidays are when you doubt yourself. The holidays remind us of our failure to keep the family intact. Even if our expectations were unrealistic we still failed to meet them. Even halfway.

So, because it just might cheer me up, I will keep looking for the patron saint of depression. There are several patron saints of mental illness (Dymphna and Christina the Astonishing come to mind) but they tend to be possessed or have ecstatic leanings, or else they are practitioners of the arts of levitation and bilocation (think Drogo and Benedict Labre).

Photo by Andrew Or

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Capon is a noun and a verb

One of the many ways in which CSB and I differ (and it has been suggested by skeptics that we have Nothing in Common) is how we spent summer vacations as young adolescents. I swam badly, played tennis even worse, and wrote fairy tales and plays, though not about virgin saints. CSB worked on Ruth Sharp’s 153 acre farm in Bedford: Cantitoe Farm. By then Ruth Sharp was already legendary for working hard herself, and demanding the same from her summer laborers. In her late 60’s she drove a decrepit flatbed truck through the hay field while CSB walked along and tossed the bales up to his brother, who stood atop the flatbed. He told me: “She never stopped.”
Apropos of the unwelcome status of roosters in our village, CSB reminisced last night about the summer Will Perry, Ruth Sharp’s foreman, taught him to capon. “Ah yes, a capon,” I said. “I have always wondered about capons. I lay awake wondering about capons.”
A capon, I learned, is a castrated cock. To capon is to castrate a cock. CSB kindly explained the procedure: grab the cock by the legs, slice him between the legs, stick in your fingers and remove the testicles. Continue with next cock.
In case you are questioning, as I did: yes, the cocks are alive when this happens, and the slice is actually very small, and yes, of course they have internal testicles. (Soon you will be able to read all about vent-sexing chickens in my upcoming novel Absent a Miracle.) Less fondly, CSB recalled the overwhelming smell of ammonia in the chicken house.
You can also use the verb: to caponize.

Ruth Sharp died several years ago and in 2000 her farm was bought by – of all people – Martha Stewart. Certain things have changed. The newly constructed horse barn is massive and temperature controlled. There are 200 peony varieties, and yes, there are bees in architecturally lovely beehives. I have no idea if caponizing still goes on in the chicken house.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Abnormal temps

What happens when it is 69˚ outside on the 15th of December, the 15th day of advent, the feast of Saints Nino and Valerian, and six days before Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice?
Ice caps melt, ocean levels rise, and our bees sense a confusing elevation of the temperature, break their winter cluster and venture out of their hives.

If you think you are confused, imagine a lone honeybee this morning, flitting around the vast white paneled WONDER BREAD truck in the A&P parking lot. I saw her there and knew her for one of ours.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Look carefully.

Click for larger image.
This image arrived unbidden and unannounced at the bottom of an email from the lovely Anna in Berlin. The nativity reconfigured? Naturally, I was intrigued. It took a while, but in a 1993 issue of the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism in an article by Maria New & Elizabeth Kitzinger about Pope Joan (a character dear to my heart, but not today) I found an explanation. Philip IV commissioned the painting in 1631( apparently an era of fascination with hermaphroditism) from the great José de Ribera. It is a "portrait of Maddalena de Ventura, the mother of seven, who grew a luxuriant beard at age 37 and is shown nursing her last child when she was 52." The writer goes on to say she she could have suffered from "nonclassical 21-hydroxylase deficiency."
It is good to think about the many permutations in which the nuclear family finds itself.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bees and the infant Ambrose

Saint Ambrose –whose feast is today – is justifiably famous for many things: his eloquence, his suppression of the Arian heresy, his pedagogical friendship with Saint Augustine, and causing the imperious Emperor Theodosius to repent his sins (the massacre over 7000 persons), but these are the not the reasons I mention him today.
Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Doctor of the Church, is the patron saint of beekeepers, bees and wax-workers.
According to legend the infant Ambrose, peacefully rocking in his cradle in Trier, Germany, was stung by a bee on the lip. He did not cry out; instead, he became one of the great orators of the age, known for his "honeyed speech”.
Another variation on the legend has it that a bee flew over and let fall a drop of honey onto the babe’s lips.
Both are fine stories, and while it is good to have friends in high places, any beekeeper knows how unlikely are both scenarios. In the first place, honeybees rarely sting unless threatened or defending the hive. In the second place, honeybees do not fly around carrying honey. They carry pollen and nectar to the hive and there, inside the perfect honeycomb cells, the honey is made.
Another variation on the legend has it that a swarm of bees alighted on the face of the infant Ambrose and left behind the honey of eloquence. This seems somewhat more feasible as swarming bees could be carrying honey and who know, maybe they thought this cradle would make a fine new hive?

The Litter Dilemma

One thing the ancient monks, hermits, eremites, Essenes, ascetics, anchorites and Hesychasts did not have to contend with was litter. In particular, empty beer cans. But we do, I do.

(Though I suppose if I abandoned my pursuit of worldly glory and moved to a rocky outpost in mid-ocean, I would be litter free. Except for the occasional sighting of those flotillas of rubber ducks that fall off container ships and then endlessly circumnavigate the globe, teaching us much about thalassic currents.)

Unless you count the piles of date pits, and the carapaces of locusts.

No, litter is definitely a problem of the here and now, of our too much stuff wrapped in too much packaging.
Almost every day the dogs and I take the same walk. We exit the backyard through the rusty gate, hypotenuse across Draper Park, take the short cut past the cement picnic table, through the overhanging vines and poison ivy, along the esker that forms the southern border of the former marble quarry, past the fallen log so illogically popular with trysters, and out onto the Old Croton Aqueduct. On another occasion I will write of the detritus to be found beside the Popular-with-Trysters log, but now I will lament the debris of partyers at the cement table. All those empty beer cans, cigarette butts and assorted plastic wrapping. It depresses me every time I come up this evidence of...what? Callous indifference? Laziness? Stupidity? There are several nearby garbage bins, so there is so rational excuse.
Yesterday I collected 8 cans of Bud Lite and 2 cans of Red Bull and 3 bottles of Miller Lite and 1 bottle of Corona. Which might lead me to draw certain conclusions about the alcoholic preferences of the litterers. But then, also carelessly tossed into the underbrush, there was an empty bottle of a rather decent Argentinean Malbec. All my preconceived notions and stereotypes were dislodged. And I am left with what?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Whatever Gets You Through the Day

We all have techniques we rely on to get us through the bad patches, over the humps and out to the other side. When I am feeling overwhelmed with bad news, I have found that thinking about shredder trucks cheers me up. The whole concept of shredding cheers me.
So it was especially serendipitous that, as I sat here bemoaning (going from the personal to the public): my clogged sinuses, the plague of flies in the house (Saint Bernard is still AWOL), Bruno’s limp, CSB’s disappearing drill bits, The mystery of the green pumpkins, the spate of bad news at my publishers culminating with the resignation of the much-admired Becky Saletan, the economy, the war and global warming – the phone rang with an automated messaged from Westchester county informing me that because Westchester county is so concerned with my vulnerability to identity theft, I can bring up to four boxes of documents (minus staples, clips, snaps, and zippers) down to the train station this Sunday and feed them into the maw of the County's MOBILE SHREDDING UNIT.

Here is a shredding fact: during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 the US embassy shredded all their documents as fast as they could. Later, when the Iranians took over the embassy they gathered up all the shredded paper and turned it over to local carpet weavers, who put it all back together to provide the Iranians with irrefutable evidence of the Americans' Imperialist designs. That must surely rank high on the list of Tedious Jobs of Dubious Worthiness.