Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What the Bee Knows



My favorite honey is from bees working basswood (American linden) trees: dark, rich, sweet, flavorful. Basswood is also one of my favorite woods for woodworking projects: light, strong, very fine-grained, pale but lightly honey-colored. I have a custom-made worktable made from basswood, adjusted to my height, that allows me to stand upright and write or work on art projects without any back or posture issues.

Your average supermarket honey is still honey, usually clover honey, but what I love best is the honey from individual beekeepers selling their wares at the farmers' markets, or small local shops, or similar-scale venues. Local commerce. My favorite candles to burn are handmade beeswax candles; the scent is divine. I make candles from time to time; when I make beeswax candles, I tend to make them for myself rather than to give away. Then there's the whole thing about the healing properties of honey, in various uses and cultural systems.



PL Travers is one of my favorite essayists and writers. Her "thinking is linking" style has had an impact on my own essay style. Of course, she's best known for creating Mary Poppins, but I think the numerous essays she did for Parabola Magazine are essential reading. Since 1976, when Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition began publication, Travers was a regular contributor and consultant editor. In 1989, a collection of her numerous essays from Parabola (with a few from other sources) was published as What the Bee Knows, Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story. This is one of my treasured books; it's long out of print, but if you run across it, wade in and be glad.

The title essay, "What the Bee Knows," was originally published in Parabola, Vol. VI No. 1, February 1981, in the issue themed on Earth and Spirit. This remains one of the best documents on the significance of bees that I've ever encountered. Travers begins this luminous essay completely sideways, an essay tactic I adore:

“Myth, Symbol, and Tradition” was the phrase I originally wrote at the top of the page, for editors like large, cloudy titles. Then I looked at what I had written and, wordlessly, the words reproached me. I hope I had the grace to blush at my own presumption and their portentousness. How could I, if I lived for a thousand years, attempt to cover more than a hectare of that enormous landscape?

So, I let out the air, in a manner of speaking, dwindled to my appropriate size, and gave myself over to that process which, for lack of a more erudite term, I have coined the phrase “Thinking is linking.” I thought of Kerenyi—“Mythology occupies a higher position in the bios, the Existence, of a people in which it is still alive than poetry, storytelling or any other art.” And of Malinowski—“Myth is not merely a story told, but a reality lived.” And, along with those, the word “Pollen,” the most pervasive substance in the world, kept knocking at my ear. Or rather, not knocking, but humming. What hums? What buzzes? What travels the world? Suddenly I found what I sought. “What the bee knows,” I told myself. “That is what I’m after.”

But even as I patted my back, I found myself cursing, and not for the first time, the artful trickiness of words, their capriciousness, their lack of conscience. Betray them and they will betray you. Be true to them and, without compunction, they will also betray you, foxily turning all the tables, thumbing syntactical noses. For—note bene!—if you speak or write about What The Bee Knows, what the listener, or the reader, will get—indeed, cannot help but get—is Myth, Symbol, and Tradition! You see the paradox? The words, by their very perfidy—which is also their honorable intention—have brought us to where we need to be. For, to stand in the presence of paradox, to be spiked on the horns of dilemma, between what is small and what is great, microcosm and macrocosm, or, if you like, the two ends of the stick, is the only posture we can assume in front of this ancient knowledge—one could even say everlasting knowledge.


After this, Travers gets into bee lore per se, but always with a slightly sideways skew to her viewpoint. This is the essence of poetry. I always think of what E.M. Forster wrote about the poet Constantine Cavafy as

a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing at a slight angle to the universe.

It seems to me that poets always stand at a slight angle to the universe. Travers most certainly did as well as Cavafy. Whenever I re-read one of her essays, I often feel my own perspective has shifted somewhat; a thing to seek out, for poets.

Later on in her essay, Travers talks about talking to the bees, as well as listening to the news they give us of the land, the soil, the sky, and the earth itself; bees are keepers of the earth-knowing:

But this apprising of the bees, telling them, for all one knows, what they already know, is not the business merely of great ones. The bees are constantly being told. No beekeeper would fail to do it. For if they are not courteously kept informed of everything that happens, they will take umbrage, swarm, and fly away, or die of grief or resentment. In the British Isles and all over Europe, the folk continually keep the bees abreast of the news, at national as well as local level; decking the hives with crepe or ribbon, whichever fits the case. On one occasion, an ancient great-aunt of mine, hieratically assuming a headdress of feather and globules of jet, required me to accompany her to the beehives. “But you surely don’t need a hat, Aunt Jane! They’re only at the end of the garden.” “It is the custom,” she said, grandly. “Put a scarf over your head.” Arrived, she stood in silence for a moment. Then—“I have to tell you,” she said, formally, “that King George the Fifth is dead. You may be sorry, but I am not. He was not an interesting man. Besides,” she added—as though the bees needed the telling!—“everyone has to die.”

Again, at a wedding reception in an Irish garden, I found the gardener, a family retainer, morosely surveying the scene. “All this colloguing and gallivanting, and never a word to the bees!” he grumbled. “Why not tell them yourself?” I asked him. “Is it me to be doing such a thing? It needs to be one of the kin.” “Well,” I told him, “the bride and the groom are my godchildren. Would I be near enough?” “Ah, you would!” he said, with a brightening eye. “Yer a bit of a bee yerself.” So, puffed up with this piece of flattery, I went and told the hive and it hummed. The news would be spread abroad and doubtless commented upon.


And this leads her eventually, circuitously, her essay following the bee's own weaving path—thinking is linking, after all—to the heart of the matter: that we must have the earth-knowledge, the chthonic myth-knowledge in our bones, in order to live:

Our profane life is full of these hidden meanings, of clues that we are at pains to find but pass by, not knowing what to look for—or, more exactly, how to let meaning discover us. For this to happen we need to become aware, as our forefathers were well aware, that by the fact of being born, each of us has assumed a place in the cosmos and is part of all that is. But not only that.

Myth, by design, makes it clear that we are meant to be something more than our own personal history. It places us—and it is not a comfortable position—squarely between the opposing forces that keep us, and the world, in balance—the two Earth Shapers, benign and malignant, checking and disciplining each other to produce a viable whole. One has only to think of Prometheus, forethought, and Epimetheus, his unfortunate brother; or Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the light and dark of Zoroastrianism; of the Hindu Vishnu and Shiva, preserver and destroyer; of the Navajo Water-Child, born of the rivers, and Monster-Slayer, born of fire—the cool flowing sap of one and the solar heat of the other; the angels and devils of Christianity.

How pleasant it would be, and easeful, to be able to choose between them; to fall to one side or the other and so escape the conflict. But the myth allows us no soft option, at any time in our lives. A child of three once said to me, “I am two boys, Goodly and Badly.” Alas! too young for this, I thought, but at the same time realized that truth requires us to be young, no matter what our age. And then came the faltering, anxious question—“Which do you like best?” I knew the answer, and all the breadth and depth of it, but I had to appear to pay it mind. If I chose Goodly, then Badly would be in the wilderness, alone with his badliness and lost. If Badly, then Goodly would be in the same plight, alone with his goodliness. “Joy and woe are woven fine/A clothing for the soul divine.” “To tell the truth,” I said gravely, “I like them both the same.” The look of anxiety turned to relief and a trustful hand met mine.


We are both light and dark, Ahriman and Ormazd. We are both the Hunter, Orion, and the Seven Sisters, the Pursued, the Pleiades, the Sisters pursued into the sky.

Myth is essential to us: we must always be aware of it, and of its story in our lives:

For if man does not, of intention, enact it, keep alive its rituals, preserve unbroken the chain of its being, myth will enact itself through man. It is doing this now, all over the world, with ambivalent intensity—the tidal wave of births and deaths; the devil invoked in the name of God; instant heroes and instant villains; gods masquerading—myth has its wit and irony—as Chairman, President, or Mullah; Persephone abducted to the Underworld, eating the symbionic pomegranate and her mother searching for her child through the California fields; the Great Goddess rising in wrath, dressing up as female priest or terrorist; she who is terror as well as beauty—the Hindu Kali, the Celtic Morrigan, La Belle Dame Sans Merci—and be her very nature priestess with no need of dogcollar to proclaim it, is calling herself, not such honorifics of nobility as Gaia, Isis, Hecate, Hera, but Women’s Liberation. All these show myth in action. For good or ill? That is not the question. It is always for good AND ill.

And at last, Travers reaches the conclusion of her pursuit of myth, by returning to what the bees know, and can tell us:

So, we are left in question, which is where the myth is designed to leave us. Time, space, and matter are mutable realities. The Sphinx, the Pyramids, the stone temples are, all of them, ultimately, as flimsy as London Bridge; our cities but tents set up in the cosmos. We pass. But what the bees know, the wisdom that sustains our passing life—however much we deny or ignore it—that forever remains. Begotten, not made, it is here to declare to us, in the words of the old Greek poet Aratus, that “Full of Zeus are all the ways of men.” That word “full” means what it says, and therefore, with the ambiguity of myth, reminds us, too, that the sky is always falling, that the bough inevitably will break and the rain it raineth every day.

What does one do with these trifles, not unconsidered, that are snapped up from the bloodstream? Throw them back, as the fisherman does the riddler, to let them grow and breed! So—I toss them into a tributary of that whole planetary vein, that flows just around the corner; from which, long wandering beside it, I have learned so much. And also thrown into it so much—lamentation, doubt, question, gratitude, and joy. Let it all go, river, to the sea to be made over, absolved and dissolved, suffer the sea-change and return as bee-stuff.

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song!


Bees are also symbols for industriously accomplishing the impossible. Witness the long conundrum in science of understanding how the bumblebee is able to fly; for a long time it was a great mystery. It was only high-speed stop-motion photography that allowed us to understand that the high wing-beat-rate was how it was possible at all. But the improbable mystery remains.

Then there is pollination. Bees are not the only pollinators, no, but they are the major pollinators, worldwide. They gather and they pollinate; so all bees are essentially "honey" bees. (Talking myth here, even if science disagrees.) So: symbiosis with the rest of life; without them the plants would have a problem. Bees also furnish food, and prey on other insects, as part of the food chain. Bees that nest underground help churn the soil, over time, and replenish it. So: fecundity; life-force; nourishment.

Bees are another sign of spring, of life returning to the land. Like the first robin, the first redwing blackbird, the first crocus flower poking up through the snow or carpet of last year's leaves, sighting the first bee of the season is a revelation, and an affirmation. I haven't died. The world is coming back to life. Maybe someday I will too.

As Ted Andrews says in his book about totem animal powers, Animal-Speak:

If a bee has shown up in your life, examine your own productivity. Are you doing all you can to make your life more fertile? Are you busy enough? Are you taking the time to savor the honey of your endeavours or are you being a workaholic? Are you attempting to do too much? Are you keeping your desires in check so they can be more productive? Are you taking time to enjoy the labors and activities you involve yourself in?

Bee is obviously about celebration and organization, too. They live in organized colonies, with social, sexual, and functional roles laid out clearly; a diverse yet purposeful commmunity. Bees tell us that we can all live together in harmony, however impossible that sometimes seems. Perhaps the way to do that is to dance the bees' dance, orient ourselves to the sun, moon, and stars, center ourselves and our lives around Spirit and the Goddess (the Queen Bee), and work together in community. The Celtic tradition says that bees are the secret wisdom coming from the other world. In Jungian as well as Celtic terms, the archetypal perfect society is centered around the Queen, the Great Mother, paying homage to the sun in sacred dance, and producing from the fields and woods a substance that can both feed and heal and intoxicate.

Then there's mead—fermented honey. Mead is one of the oldest fermented alcoholic beverages in the world. Some recipes still in use are truly ancient: old enough to out-date the first cities. So: celebration. When we see the Queen Bee as the Queen of Faerie, then perhaps judicious draughts of mead might assist the "second sight" or the celebrant's transition to the faerie world Underhill.

And wax: for polishing, for light, for many other uses including waterproofing, threading needles to make clothing. And the antiseptic and medicinal properties of honey were surely known to the Old Ones. To think that we mostly usually it only for a sweetener these days! Wax for candles casts the smell of beeswax throughout the room, an intoxicating, sweet scent that opens the mind as well as the senses.

The bees humming and buzzing, thrumming and churning. The soft hum lulls us to sleep, and draws us into the Dreamtime, into the dreamworld, the Summerland, paradise. In the Welsh bardic tradition, a harp is known as a teillin, which is altered form of an t-seillean, "a bee."

Bees benefit from blossoms, practice useful things, work in the daytime, do not eat food gathered by others, dislike dirt and bad smells, and obey their ruler; they dislike the darkness of indiscretion, the clouds of doubt, the storm of revolt, the smoke of the prohibited, the water of superfluity, the fire of lust. —Ibn al-Athir

Our relationship to the bee is very old. Bees appear in ancient sacred geometry, maps, and earthworks. Who knows? Perhaps early humans, at the start of the agricultural revolution, when they started banding together in communities, noticed that the bees were also banded together in communities. Maybe they studied them as models of community; hence, the early usage of bee-symbols as far back as human temple architecture goes. Perhaps we were influenced to form communities because we noticed other communities already existed. Bees are certainly agricultural role-models, on some levels.

So, what the bee knows is what the earth itself knows. We must continue to talk to the bees—but we must also listen. There is lore the bees can whisper in our ears. Let them land on you, don't brush them off from fear. Let them crawl into your ear and whisper-buzz that ancient wisdom, that quiet voice that only comes to us when we sink most deeply into time, into the sinking and cooling that is Mystery, that is the Godhead, that is what the bee already knows is there.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Elizabeth Ayres said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Was searching the web for something on this book by P.L. Travers. The new movie has piqued my interest but I am learning she was so much more than what the movie projects. The piece you share of her essay are lovely and wise. Your comments are thoughtful and easy. Your website is a rare find. Humble thanks.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks in return. I'm not sure what I will think about the movie, other than that it's probably going to be another Disney movie wherein the real stories get a little watered down and homogenized. PL Travers was so much more of a myth-maker than I think most readers realize, and I go back to her Parabola essays every so often myself, to dip fresh water from that deep well.

2:02 AM  

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