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Category: critters

mr. mousey’s snow picnic

of all the mounds and miles of snow, of all the ice rivers and hurling winds, of all the times i thought my front door might blow wide open, off the hinge and dangling in a tunnel of arctic gusts, of all the jaw-dropping majesty that whirled and swept and fell and blew, the moment that caught me most stilled this blizzard-piled week, most falling-to-my-knees, was when i discovered the fat gray lump in the snow mound just outside the kitchen door.

it was not at all what i’d expected when i first eyed it from across the room, what i’d thought i’d seen a hundred times before. no, it was not a junco, one of those gray-topped snow birds with the pure-white waistcoat, the darlings who romp in the snow as if dressed for a mid-winter ball.

no, what it was was something i’d never before been invited to watch from a front-row bleacher seat, to share a long winter’s afternoon, enchanted.

it was a fat little mouse, soon addressed by the surname mousey, as in mr. mousey, with the biggest roundest ears i ever knew a mouse could have, and the busiest itty-bitty teeth as he chewed and chewed through the cornmeal mush i’d tossed out for whomever was hungry after the storm. er, blizzard. make that, blizzard-of-the-decade.

for the better part of an afternoon, i watched the little fellow, watched him up close like he had walked into my unwitting science experiment: mouse tunnels 101.

why, that hungry boy, he’d dug gazillions of labyrinths in and through and under the snow. what i’d mistaken for a hole put there by a falling clump of ice, was in fact mr. mousey’s grandest opening, the launch to all his under-snow festivities.

he showed me how it worked: he’d nibble a while, and then when his belly was full, or perhaps digesting an especially granular cornmeal chunk, he’d take to the entertainment part of the show, and wiggle his little self up and down and sideways through all of his underground pathways, punctuating every passage with the POP! of his sweet little head (and ears) out through the peek hole. why, he showed me just how industrious he’d been since the snows started falling–or perhaps once they’d stopped.

there must be a good half dozen crisses and crosses in that undersnow highway of his. and every last one leads back to the prize: the wide swath of cornmeal i tossed to the winds.

and somehow, despite the fact that the backyard was aswirl with all of my flocks, despite the fact that i’d stood there among them one cold afternoon, shortly after pouring a bucket of seed, and felt the flap of their wings, so close to my head did they swoop and chatter and make like noisy carousers at a mid-winter’s feast, it was one wee mouse who most captured my heart.

i’ve not seen a mouse in such close action, not outside of a cage. oh, i’ve seen swishes of tails now and then, heard the scampering of little mouse feets, but a mouse out in daylight, a mouse undeterred by the gaze of a curly-haired person, a mouse willing to show off his tunnels, why that was a mouse who got me to thinking.

it was as if the blessed cloak of nature—sacred wrap that it is, stitched with spools of mystery and wonder–had been pulled back, amid the extremes of snow and cold, and allowed me a rare peek inside, into all the ways the little critters stay alive, fend for themselves, ingeniously employ the snow to their advantage. and rely, on occasion, on the whims of souls who consider it among their holiest duties to scatter seed and oats and grains, and plumped-up dried fruits when cupboards allow, to nudge them along through the cold hard winter.

it’s a holy equation indeed, a sublime one. for the cost of a few cups of seed, of cornmeal, of suet cut from the beast, we offer feed to the flocks, the winged ones, the long-tailed-big-eared, the soft and the fluffy. and they, in return, throw caution to the wind, they seek out sustenance even if it means baring their ways to the humans.

one wee mouse, now claimed by my little one as his very own mascot and pet (and thus the name), brought me to my knees yesterday, and i watch for him again this morning.

he reminds me, without words, how very much we are all a tethered web. and how we need each other, mouse or bird or human, to weather all the storms that blow and hurl through the thick of our lives.

what little miracles did you witness this week?
and, out into the vast whiteness, i send the deepest birthday wishes to my brother who will always be my little one, the one whose birth felt so much like a dream come true. a miracle every soul should get a chance to brush up against. and lucky me, i did……

starting the goodbye

that old cat, a country cat, has been a feisty cat since the day he sprang forth from the icehouse beer cardboard six-pack in which he’d mewed the whole way home.

he was a kitten then, a wee striped thing, and he’d come to fill a gaping hole in our little family.

you see, we’d had our hearts broken time and time again back in the baby-hoping years, wishing and praying for a someone to carry home someday for our little one, who’d turned from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4, and still was all alone, without a someone to share a room, to fight over books in the back seat, to venture off into our tiny back yard and spend the afternoon making like it was the amazon jungle, or the dark side of the moon. or, heck, looking down the road (and that’s what mamas do), there was no one yet whose hand he’d hold on the someday when i die.

fact was, there’s only so much breaking a heart can do, and then it’s time to wipe away the tears, make peace with what you’ve got rather than long for what you’ve not, and, well, when talking to a friend, a friend with many cats, and more on the way, you nod and murmur, “hmm, maybe…..”

and then you rejoice at the news that your kitten has been born. you wait six weeks, and when the father of your four-year-old is out of the country, for heaven’s sake, you drive out to the farm to meet the furry little fellow.

and, oh, you feel your heart go thwallop. and you see your little boy melt down onto the floor to meet what will pass for, um, a brother.

and you tuck the little ball of stripes into the nearest carry-all you can find, in this case the cardboard six-pack left from someone’s weekend beers.

and home you drive.

and out you let those stripes.

and he hightails it straight for your toes.

so many toes he charges for, he nibbles, he pierces with his razor kitten teeth, you hear these actual words come from the mouth of the father of your child, once he’s back from faraway country: “either he goes, or i go,” you hear him say. (and deep inside you snicker because you know forever more you’ve got one fine yarn to tell.)

and of course neither the ferocious toe-smitten kitten nor your mate heads for any door.

and you grow to love said cat. you catch your little one curled up with him, stroking him, making houses for him, trying to coax him into his kindergarten backpack.

you screech when said kitten leaps from tree limbs onto rooftops and when, uh oh, he can’t get down. and you hold your breath as the one who issued he-goes-or-i-go declaration hauls out the ladder and climbs precariously to the little rascal’s rescue. again and again and again.

and you walk through city alleys, crying, calling his name, every time he goes and gets lost for days on end, stuck in tight spots and dark cellars where, egad, drugs are sold. (you discover the latter after you’ve tiptoed through the labyrinthine basement blackness with the helpful chap who gangbangs on the side.)

oh, lord, that cat puts you through the wringer. and you love him more with every cock-eyed hair-raising chapter.
and then, some 13 years pass, and the cat you never could contain, the cat that roams all night, and leaves body parts on your doorstep, he slows down one summer. loses weight. is hardly his feisty self.

you fear he’s slurped too many murky waters from the birdbath, darn it. or perhaps he swallowed one too many critters from the tall-grass jungle.

and the boy who once carried him home, who stroked him, and cooed to him the whole long way, the boy who loved to tell the story of his name, how he came to be turkey baby choo-choo hi cat bye cat, the boy whose legs are now so long they spill beyond the borders of the bed (though the cat finds room to curl there, each and every morning), he is the first one to crumble when you point out the cat’s all bony just beneath his fur.

when you point out how he barely leaves the hollowed-out spot beneath the old roses in the garden, where he now spends hours napping. or is it that he’s feeling rather ill, and just can’t muster what it takes to up and stumble toward the house?

all at once, you all realize how time has passed and this chapter might be coming toward a close. how this cat that carried you from all alone and four to seventeen and very much a real-live brother has shared some fine adventures, stories to be told forevermore. and how, along the way, you’ve come to count on that rare breed of loyalty a boy and cat can surely share.

and you realize that even if it’s not the very end, the goodbyes begin in measured spoonfuls.

and so for a whole hour one summer morning, you sit on bricks, beside the spot where he’s gone limp, you stroke your blessed furry cat, you honor him with gratitude that’s deep, will last forever. you whisper words to him, tell him he was mighty in his glory days, showed what cats are made of, hauling home whole herds of chipmunk parts, and mice tails too, fierce hunter.

you consider the gentle side of that ol’ cat, how he climbed upon you in the morn, pushed his paws into your chest, as if kneading breadloaves, one paw after another, sure sign of cat love.

you think back on all the times when that cat, he leapt to your rescue. how when you were sick or sad, he always had a knack for climbing in your lap, for licking you with that scratchy sand-paper tongue of his. uncanny, how the cats smell hurt rising from the ones they love.

and with a cat–or any creature, after all, maybe even with a caterpillar if you name it, feed it, let it out for so-called walks (though more likely bends-and-stretches)–love’s a two-way street.

and, oh, what with college round the bend, and all this slo-mo cat decline, it seems we’ve come to the part of the story where the grace-filled parting starts unspooling.

where we gather up all the hours and the days of our entwined lives, where we sift through the parts that make us laugh out loud, and the ones where we held our breath and begged the heavens for his safe return.

love is like that towards the end. if you’re blessed to see it coming. if you’re given long slow mornings where you have a chance to look into each other’s eyes and hearts, say thank you for the bond that will not break, the bond that got us through a dark place, the pawing at the door so many times, when in on cat feet crept the next best thing to a little brother, one who never fought for books, but did play along in the amazon jungle.

that old cat is moving slow now. and we are mustering the start of our holy blessed vespers, the sacred rites of thank you and thank you before the last goodbye.

not always do we get the chance to tell the stories one more time, to whisper thank you and good bye. i know too well how suddenly sometimes death can come, and we’re left gasping. without goodbye. i know too that cat or dog or bird love is real. and its loss leaves a gaping wound. hopefully that old cat has a few romps left. he’s the cat my boys grew up with, he’s the cat who’s made us laugh and cry. and one thing’s certain, there’ll be more of both. have you been blessed to whisper long goodbyes? or were you too cut short?

heartbreak in the hives

it’s not every day we interrupt our homefront meditations to bring you the news, but it’s not every day the honeybee lands on the front page of the newspaper that’s dropped on your front stoop.

sadly, today is that day.

the honeybee, Apis mellifera, is, as you know, or might easily imagine, one of God’s creations that we love best. (see “illumination: bees’ no lesser labor,” 01.24.07)
and the honeybee, it seems, is in distress. serious distress.

suddenly, starting last fall, beekeepers all over the country were opening their hives and finding nothing–no bees, no dead bodies, no obvious culprits, either. “apian ghost towns,” the chicago tribune called it.

hundreds of thousands of colonies–millions and millions of honeybees–dying off, across the map.

at first, the keepers of bees were calling this strange occurrence “fall dwindle,” or “disappearing disease.” but then, underlying and amplifying the alarm, just last month a swarm of bee brains put their heads together in a task force and realized this was not some seasonal decline; they renamed the mysterious and vast wiping out of bees from coast to coast, Colony Collapse Disorder. egad, capital letters.

no one has a clue what’s wreaking all the havoc; the beekeepers, it seems, are truly baffled. it might be pest, or the modern ways some have come to manage hives. it might be, worst of all, some environmental scourge.

to date, 24 states across the country count themselves among the seriously afflicted; illinois has yet to raise its tattered flag. but, beekeepers say, it’s never a good idea to open your hive before the daffodils are in bloom, so in many states they just don’t know what they’ll find when they finally lift the lid.

what’s at stake, according to the bee people and the newspaper that landed on my stoop, is, of course, the $150-million-a-year honey industry, but worse, the honeybees’ pollination of crops across the U.S., valued at $14 billion annually. (what they do, when all is well, is truck in billions of bees in boxes, and let them do their thing among the would-be fruited plains; problem is, all is not now well, and there’s no buzzing in the fields.)

that would mean, my friends, your produce bin, severely done in. and grab your almonds while you can, because almond growers in california haven’t a clue what they’ll do without their bees.

about three decades ago, an apiculturist, that’s someone who studies bees, estimated that one third of what humans eat is a direct result of honeybees’ pollinating labors, the way they nuzzle their nose in the fuzz of every blossom that must be passed from pistil to stamen if bearing fruit is to occur.

the national research council figures three-fourths of all flowering plants require pollination to bear fruit.

far as i’m concerned, though, all this number pinning only begins to lay out the breadth of the disaster.

here’s a dabble into the depth: no economist will put numbers to the loss of wildflowers, but already in the u.k. and the netherlands, scientists have correlated the decline in honeybees and flowers. it’s a vicious cycle: bees rely on certain plants, plants rely on certain bees. what’s lost is the ephemeral wild flower, beacon of fragile beauty, bursting through the earth with reckless and random abandon.

but what else of the noble bee might we stand to lose? the wax, illumination in its early stage; a wonder healer called propolis, believed to cure or stave off everything from the common cold to asthma to festering wound; the colony itself, model of cooperation and getting the job done, even if an autocratic civilization, what with madame queen bee ruling over all her winged minions.

when i am distressed about the bee, or just plain curious about the buzzing creatures, i turn to sue hubbell, who has been described as “a latter-day henry thoreau with a sense of the absurd.” once a beekeeper in the ozarks, she wrote, “a book of bees,” (houghton mifflin, $12) back in 1988, bits of which originally ran in the new yorker. she puts together words that drip like honey from the hive.

i wish i could have called her to get her read on this disaster, but, alas, i could only turn her pages, remind myself of why it is i am so gaga for the bees.

on page 53 she tells us, “beekeeping is farming for intellectuals.” already, i am more than hooked. not that i consider myself any sort of intellectual. but i know that all sentences that follow will send me to the moon. and they did.

she goes on to tell that “the greeks spun tales about the god of beekeeping, aristaeus. pliny wrote about bees. aristotle observed them, puzzled over them and reported his findings. virgil made bees the subject of his fourth georgic, a part of the series of poems with agricultural themes.” classicists, she tells us, insist that virgil’s purposes were political, that he used bees as a vehicle for his clearly political leanings, to prove his civic points, pointing all the while to the workings of the hive.

but isn’t that the very thing that makes us drool at the thought of bees (and not simply their golden honey), the very fact that bees might be a model for whole civilizations?

and then we come back to the wildflowers. there is nothing left but sadness, when considering that the tender and the robust, both and all, would be helpless in the wind if it weren’t for the busy flapping bee, ferrying most essential pollen from one sweet throat to another.

and what would be a world without strawberry? or berry of any sort? or the apple or the peach? would it be a world in which i would want to dwell?

the honeybee it seems is hardly afterthought, although most of the world, save for all those beekeepers and honey lovers, think little of the bee in the course of any day.

it’s curious to note that back in ancient times, there grew a great myth, the myth of aristaeus, that had as its crisis point the wiping out of all the hives.

it makes me wonder if there’s a lesson to be learned, if only we will listen to what’s unfolded in the millennia of long ago.

here’s the story: aristaeus, it’s told, was the son of cyrene, who despised spinning, weaving, “and similar housewifely tasks.” she preferred to hunt wild beasts. apollo, you might remember, once watched her wrestle a lion to the ground and fell so in love with her, he carried her off to africa and built a palace there for her.

after their love child, let’s call him ari for short, was born, apollo ditched cyrene, and cyrene, longing for the wild, in turn ditched poor ari, leaving him to be raised by nymphs who, among other tasks, taught him to raise bees in terra cotta pots.

when grown, aristaeus wandered out of libya, and amid his wanderings stumbled upon eurydice, a wood nymph, who happened to already be taken, the beloved, it seems, of orpheus. (and you thought modern soap operas were twisted? well, hold on, it gets better here…)

not-smart ari, according to the story, tried to rape eurydice, but she ran, through the woods. in her hurry, she did not see a big fat snake right there on the path. don’t you know, this being a greek legend, she tripped right then and there over a tree root. the snake, of course, bit her and she died from the poison. orpheus, heartbroken, grabbed his lyre and started to pluck. hades, god of the underworld, was so moved by the beautiful music, he was going to let eurydice out, but only if orpheus promised not to look at her until she was safely in the sunlight. alas, ol’ orph couldn’t help himself, looked back, and lost her forever.

the other gods, so furious at ari, punished him by killing all his bees. he had no clue–sound familiar?–why all the bees had died, so he went off in search of his mother, mistress of wild things. he found her living under a stream, a fine place for a wild mama. she knew nothing about the bees, but sent him off to proteus, the god of many shapes, who might have a clue. ari ends up having to wrestle proteus to the ground, insisting he hold one shape until he tells what happened to the bees.

to make a too-long-already story a mere tad shorter, suffice it to say that much sacrifice was involved, but at last, the gods relented and a swarm of bees appeared to ari, who promptly stuffed them back in terra cotta pots.

grateful for the forgiveness of the gods, ari and his pots of bees settle down and live a relatively uneventful life, except for when his son gets turned into a stag, then torn to bits by a pack of 50 hounds.

all this is to say that, perhaps, just maybe, the gods are buzzing mad at something that we’ve done. and we, like ari, must do something rather drastic, something sacrificial, should we ever have a hope of once again seeing swarms of honeybees in our terracotta pots.

it’s either that, or a life that might be hades-ruled, a life spelled h-e-double l. i can’t imagine. no strawberries. no beeswax candles. no wildflower tossing in the wind. it makes me shudder.

whither the honeybees?

record your heartbreak here…..

the hunter

looks innocent enough, our ferocious cat, on this side of the glass. boy accomplice at his side. gaze locked out the window. just beyond, the critters romp; not a one’s at risk, in danger.

ah, but this is my cat in winter.

you should see what’s happened since the snows have melted. the full-blooded hunter gene seems to have been catapulted from its winter sleep.

back then, a week ago, in depth of winter, he was content to press wet nose to pane. to keep an eye on things from the comfort of his lookout rug.

but that was then. this is spring, the season of a cat’s deep stirrings. he’s on the prowl, well, whenever he’s not curled up napping. like at 3 o’clock this morning, when he nudged me for escape from house. he was in the mood, it seems, for mouse.

just yesterday morn, as i stepped out into the march morn masquerading as june, there was trophy no. 1 for the season. shall i spare you the gory details? let’s just say our mouse population is down by one. and i’ve got the head to prove it. (oops, hope you didn’t spit your coffee out.)

meet turkey baby, the meanest cat in town. ol’ turk (that’s short for turkey baby meow meow hi cat bye cat choo choo space shuttle, a name derived from early passions of a boy then merely four) is son of prowling farm cat.

and it seems, as ol’ papa farmcat strutted past sweet turkey’s mama some fateful day, he made sure to sink his prowling gene deep into the mix, into the kitten once so small we carried him home tucked in one sleeve of an otherwise empty cardboard six-pack.

that was almost 10 years, and heaven only knows how many chewed-up critters ago.

i had thought this past winter that our ol’ turkey baby was finally showing signs of slowing down. i was thrilled to see him sitting by the glass. thought perhaps he’d finally turned the corner, would let me off the hook of being the not-proud owner of the ferocious feline flesh-eater.

you see, my little gray-striped cat is my moral dilemma. especially in hunting season.

i am, no surprise, pacifist from head to toe. proudly raised boy no. 1 who never once chewed grilled cheese into g-u-n. (then along came boy no. 2 and quickly dashed my future claim to two boys, no weapons.)

so what to do with cat who hunts? hmm.

we’ve tried bells around his neck. we’ve tried keeping him indoors (that was swell, he found an open third-floor skylight and took a leap at 6 o’clock one morning; i flew down the stairs upon hearing his desperate meeeooww amid descent, and met him unharmed but staggering around the side of our old city house).

just the other day, boy no. 1 suggested a chinese gong. strapped around his little neck, mind you. perhaps a high-tech advance warning system. a little air-raid siren for all the critters: “prowling cat, duck for cover.”

thing is, our cat is fast, our cat is super sly. he just might be the toughest cat around, it’s hard to know these things. what i do know is that many a morning he leaves an offering on the mat.

this morning as i let him out, i offered this: “no feathers.”

if he knows what’s good for him, that darn cat, he minded my admonition. discerned fur from feathers as he made his rounds.

i can’t say i cry over every mouse, or even chipmunk (yes, my cat has killed whole colonies of chipmunks), but when it comes to birds, i crumble. i shoosh and flutter. i don’t make nice. i thought for sure my cat would be in line for psychotherapy, poor thing. there he is doing his proud cat thing, there i am getting weepy. talk about conflicted id.

dr. freud would have a field day with my cat who does in field mice–and birds who flutter.

so here i sit in the season of my moral rumblings. i have a cat who kills. a murderous cat, most certainly. and i have birds i dearly love.

my mama, bless her, always tried to assuage my guilt, to tell me that the only birds who die are ones who aren’t so fit. my bird man, though, this winter set me straight. said that wasn’t so. said millions of birds–fit birds, fine birds–each year are killed from mean cats on the prowl.

it’s a mean spring out there, all right. if anyone’s keeping score, the fat cat’s ahead–at least by one to none. i haven’t ventured out this morn, to gather up who might be fallen.

i don’t think i want to know. how’s that for moral failing?

all right, people, any fine ideas for how to keep my cat at bay from unsuspecting birds?

illumination: bees’ no lesser labor

ah yes, back to the hive. back to the inner sanctum, the holy hollows, of hundreds of thousands of Apis mellifera, uncommonly known as the western honeybee. more often, simply, the bee.

it is the wax of the bee we consider today, hardly the lesser of the sweet honeybee’s labors.

there is so much to ponder about the great pollinators, your pontificator soon will be percolating. strike that. make it a buzz. as in your brain soon will be buzzing.

consider this: to produce a pound of beeswax, bees must consume roughly eight times that in honey. likened to a sumo wrestler packing on pounds by sucking down steaks before the big match, the bee intent on waxing might be found gas-guzzling nectar.

put another way, it is estimated by those who estimate such things that bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax.

or, this: 10,000 bees can produce one pound of beeswax in three days.

here’s how it works: the bee, known for short as A. mellifera, sucks up the nectar from les fleurs, from blossoms, from your own lowly rose bush, through a very long tongue. the nectar is then stored in a sac called the honey stomach. when the honey tummy is full, the besotted bee zig-zags back to the hive, and somehow transfers the not-yet-liquid-gold to young house bees, bees 12 to 17 days old, in case you’re counting. the house bees, not unlike a compulsive housekeeper, spread the nectar drop by drop into the honeycombs. while they’re at it, they add enzymes to the nectar to break it down from complex into simple sugars.

because the nectar, back at the blossom stage, is 80 percent water, the bees need to distill it down to its dehydrated essence, a fantastical feat they accomplish through, get this, the fanning of their little bee wings. flap, flap, flap, out goes the water, out of the nectar. turning watery nectar to syrupy honey.

here’s where the beeswax comes in: each little house bee has eight slits on her belly. when it’s time, teeny tiny shavings of wax–flakes the size of the head of a pin, one hundred of which are said to weigh hardly as much as a kernel of wheat–emerge on the bee belly.

what happens next is best put in the words of one holley bishop, author of the utterly mesmerizing, “robbing the bees: a biography of honey–the sweet liquid gold that seduced the world” (free press, $24).

she writes: “… like a construction worker pulling nails from her toolbelt, she reaches for a flake….in an advanced yoga move [she] transfers it to her mouth. there, she masticates it, chewing and working the wax like a baker kneading dough…all around her, other masons are patting and caressing their own scales of wax into place.”

never mind that she switches similes faster than a bee beats its wings. what she’s telling us here is fairly straight-forward: the bees do a helluva job constructing their hexagonally-heavy honey palace. and not only that: each she-bee minds her own beeswax.

when each honeycomb is filled, the ol’ house bees drop one final wax blob, sort of the tupperware lid on the sweet golden goo. in fact, one lid, about the size of a split pea, can take several hours and dozens of bees to assemble.

it is hard not to be awed, not to be wowed, by the fannings and droppings of the wax-wielding bees.

it is ancient, this hushed veneration of bees and beeswax. daedalus of course used beeswax for his flawed wings. and ulysses, in the odyssey, stuffed ears with the stuff, in hopes of blocking the call of the sirens. and, at the cusp of the first millennia, candles as we now know them were born, and, without haste, made their way to the front of the pews. the roman catholics insisted on beeswax. the greek orthodox, too.

in 1855, a thinker named karl von leoprechting wrote: “the bee is the only creature which has come to us unchanged from paradise, therefore she gathers the wax for sacred services.”

clearly, we are not the first to draw a line between the divine and the communal chaos of the hive where, through mystery and miracle, the sap of the back forty is turned into the golden sweet goop we spread on our toast. and the fall-out from the shelter is melted down and dipped into sticks that shine light on our lives.

perhaps this is all more than you wanted to know about bees and their pre-plastic, all-purpose wax. perhaps it’s making your head buzz.

but, in the end, i know one thing for certain: the next time i strike a match to a wick, i will marvel, will drop my head in a deep bow of reverence for the little winged things that laid down their lives for my sweet incandescence.

what if we all did away with those paraffin fillers? what if we vowed that the only candle worth burning was one built the hard way, through the flapping of hundreds of thousands of wings, for hundreds of thousands of miles, through the hard work and labor of A. mellifera & friends?
cast your vote here….

from tasha’s bees to me

a box arrived over the weekend from vermont. anything from vermont makes me happy. but this particular box said it was from tasha tudor, who is pretty much my hero. she might be the loveliest illustrator of children’s books that ever there was. think “secret garden.” she’s the one who painted the garden that pulled you in, and all these years later has never let you go.

tasha is my hero as much for how she lives as for how she puts color to paper. she lives at the end of a perilously-steep, much-potholed road, in a timeworn cedar-planked farmhouse–just like one built in 1740 in concord, new hampshire, one that caught her considerable fancy.

but her house, on the crest of a hill, the inside a labyrinth of rooms with low-slung doorways and uneven floorboards, is one that her son seth built for her, using only hand tools.

seth and his mama are both, they like to say, “a bit reluctant to live in the twentieth century.”

tasha, who is 91, lives purely. you might say she lives simply, but that would be to discount the bone-thinning work it takes to live the way she lives. she is old yankee through and through.

she cooks on an old black cookstove, roasts a turkey in a “tin kitchen,” a contraption she describes as a reflector oven, set in front of the fire. (“barricade the bird from corgies and cats with a firescreen,” she warns, right in the midst of her roasted turkey recipe, a recipe for which she insists a fireplace is required, not optional.)

she eats what she grows in her tumbly riotous garden. raises goats for milk and butter and cheese. wraps herself in shawls to keep away the cold.

when dusk rolls in through the windows, she lights her rooms with beeswax candles, candles she has dipped in autumn, after she cleans the hives so the bees can begin again.

which brings us back to the box that came from vermont over the weekend. it was sent by my sister who is married to my brother in maine (don’t be frightened by that construction; i just constructed it, but it seems right, more right than saying, sister-in-law, a term too clinical for me). it was sent by becca. but it came from tasha.

yes, tasha dipped the candles that now are at my house, now lying on my window seat. maybe it was her children who did the dipping, or maybe one of her grandchildren, some of whom live in cottages nearby. whoever dipped, it’s close enough for me.

and so, as i opened the box, unrolled the sturdy brown paper, i watched six nubby, knobby hand-dipped sticks of beeswax roll toward me. they are in pairs, their wicks still joined, their wicks all tumbled together.

i was dumbstruck by the candlesticks. by the bees’ hard work. by their purity. by the fact that they were dipped and came from tasha’s bees, bees that sucked the nectar from tasha’s enviable and magnificent garden, the garden that has long been the muse for all her painting. the garden that is a muse for me.

the candles got me to thinking about bees. i happen to love bees. i did some reading. soaked up all kinds of wonderful things about bees, about beeswax. i will tell you all about it tomorrow, because this seems to have turned into a tale about tasha. which is a good thing.

which is a pure thing.

please come back tomorrow for another pure thing, a bit about bees, a bit about beeswax, the less considered thing about bees and their labors. honey, of course, being the bee thing that tends to get more of our time and attention. because it’s a sweet thing. of course.