Where we discern melody in bird or human song – shifting frequencies between notes – birds likely experience the rich nuances of the inner qualities of each note. David George Haskell
Days widen around the solstice. In stands of silver wattle, the sound of bees and other insects is loud as they crowd to feed from nectaries dotted along feathery leaf-fronds. Under the trees, bracken has grown head-high in the wet, and tiny creamy blooms open on spiky heads of Lomandra among sharp-edged leaves clumped near soaks and streambeds. Grasses are flowering. In honeybee colonies it’s swarming season. Nurse bees bring royal jelly – queen-making superfood – to larvae growing in bean-shaped queen cells attached to the edge of the brood comb. At the same time, workers give less food than usual to the adult, egg-laying queen of the colony. When the time comes, she won’t be too heavy to fly and can lead the swarm out, leaving a newly hatched queen to take over. On the first warm day, four swarms emerge roaring into the air around the garden as thousands of worker bees follow their queens to land somewhere nearby and wait while scouts look for a new place.
I find a football-sized mass of bees settled within easy reach in a young oak. A week of rain is forecast, so we hurry to prepare a home for them. I clean an empty hive and rub the inside with bee balm, and then, to show further that I mean well, add a picture of a bee-keeping saint from a church window in Bantry, home of my mother’s people. I go to the swarm and shake the warm, vibrating bee-self into a container, then carry it to the new hive. Soon workers begin to come and go from the entrance; the queen means to stay.
Beside the house, delicate heads of browntop bentgrass come up among irises and hellebores in the garden beds and release pale clouds of pollen, fine as smoke. Onion grass grows tall, taller and I pull it out in clumps before it has time to seed. Raspberries start to ripen, and strawberries; we dig the first potatoes and pick peas and broad beans, tomatoes and cucumbers, and so it’s summer. A bronzewing pigeon has nested in a shrubby birch a few steps from the door. Her round-breasted beauty is full, her eye is bright with all the life in her and under her and on her – she turns her eggs like worlds against the warmth of her belly; in her gut and under her shining feathers she carries microbes and nematodes and lice that have traveled and evolved with her kind since they were dinosaurs. Perfect worlds. The pardalote parents bring food into their gourd nest – they talk in there, and day by day the chicks’ part in the conversation gets clearer.Near full, the moon in a red circle wakes me from a dream in which I’m working with my old friend G who died more than a decade ago; we’re making ointment from beeswax and oil in a big pot on the stove, adding herbs and Amanita muscaria. To my knowledge, G never used psychoactives in her life – but she was born in the Ural Mountains near the Siberian border, during the Russian Revolution; perhaps she’s a shaman now. The dead are often in my dreams these nights – it seems they come to let me know how they’re doing: the boy I loved when I was fourteen visits to tell me he now ferries people back and forth in a little boat between Aotearoa and Hawaiki, the place where souls come from when they’re born, and where they go after they die. He says he likes the work; his troubled life has prepared him for it. Another night I go with my mother, who died six years ago, to pick up her new glasses – she’s pleased to be getting them and wants me to check that the prescription is right.
Strange skies continue – dusks and dawns are still purpled by dust and water vapour from the Tongan eruption that sent its plume far into the stratosphere nearly a year ago; sunspots spit out plasma flares that make particles in Earth’s upper atmosphere fluoresce, lighting the nighttime horizon with their glow. As the moon wanes I watch the Pleiades cross from east to west followed by Orion, and for the first time, feel the movement of the story as it unfolds – the star-sisters hurry through space, their campfires dwindling into the distance as they flee their looming hunter, who cartwheels after them, upside down here in the south.From under the windbreak, I barrow pine needles where they’ve formed drifts among rolls of rusted wire and piles of galvanised iron. I’ll put the needles under the strawberries to lift the leaves and ripening fruit off the ground so that they don’t rot. The bluetongue lizard, old strawberry-lover, hasn’t made an appearance yet but a tiger snake with shining new skin has been seen nearby, probably hunting frogs in the damp grass under the raspberry canes. The dog follows me, plodding behind the barrow, lying down in the sun with a groan of contentment as I mulch the berries and throw her a ripe one now and then. When I stop and lie down beside her, she leans into me and goes to sleep, twitching in her dream.
The bee-friend saint whose window is in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry is called Gobnait; her name is derived from the ironworking, bee-keeping, brewing deity Goibniu, and in fact there’s extensive evidence of ironworking around St Gobnait’s original shrine at Ballyvourney. Like culture heroes everywhere, Goibniu, through enactments of ritual imagination, combines magical substances and processes to give rise to new arts. Iron hot from its shaping at the forge is hardened by quenching in honey, which cools slowly and so ensures that the metal doesn’t become brittle – and these two alchemical substances interact to give rise to a third, alcohol, as the honey ferments in the warmth of the forge-space.
Bees gather about them images of travel to other realms, both of the living and the dead, whether as agents of ecstasy through intoxication or as souls in transition. Many early hives were made from pottery bowls (and still are, throughout the world), the same that could be used for quenching and brewing; hive is cognate with cup – the vessel whose contents assuage both metal and thirst, and also with hull – the boat in which the soul can journey in life and after death.
Clay pot hive (beekeepingintheworld.blogspot.com)I dream about transubstantiation, that old theological sticking point – can matter really god itself, can divinity materialise? In the dream it can, like a mycorrhizal network that spreads invisibly through everything – remediation that transforms our way of experiencing, and therefore our capacity to respond. Then, though habit favours melodic sequence and narrative that builds and resolves, we’re threaded all through with knowledge that meaning also opens note by note, that each step is a journey in deep space, that every drop of every life is a world, sweet and bitter on the tongue.
The angel sleeps
with its head in the crook of my arm,
the sky props open my ribcage
to make room for stars,
the bees come there to drink and
sip them down.
David George Haskell. Sounds Wild & Broken. Black Inc, 2022, p.17.