Working In The Dark
An interdisciplinary, interspecies collaboration: Click any image for a larger view
Di Brandt, Aganetha Dyck and the honeybees
from "& then everything goes bee: A Poet's Journal"
"Aganetha, you have re-invented what it means to make art."
This is what I wrote in Aganetha Dyck's guest book at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, in 1995.
She had just opened her spectacular multimedia installation, "The Extended Wedding Party," created over several years in collaboration with honeybees.
The exhibition gave her instant international fame and invitations to show worldwide.
Little did I know that my excited brief comment would lead to my own involvement in Aganetha's bee project a few years later.
Aganetha Dyck began collaborating with bees in 1991. She had been working with beeswax for a few years, and gradually became interested in the bees themselves, their amazing complex labour, and ritually complicated lives.
Aganetha initiated the collaboration by asking the bees which materials they liked to work with. She asked them this by placing 23 found and made objects into 17 hives. The bees answered back, they didn't much like styrofoam or cardboard. They shredded these materials in short order and spit them out of the hive.
But, the bees said, they loved working with woven cotton, and porcelain and glass. These they decorated with mysterious tracks and lavish waves of honeycomb.
The tracks resemble ancient hieroglyphic text markings. Or perhaps they are more like the tracks made by wind, or the sea, on sand. Sometimes they look like the fossil remains of small skeletons. In their more extravagant modes, the honeycombs appear regal, like frothy ocean waves. Or like beautiful handwoven lace.
Perhaps, these bee markings suggest in their utter and simple beauty, we all write in the same languages after all, live in the same world, animals, humans, the elements, feel the same sun, the same wind at our backs, understand the same joys, despite our profound species differences.
What, after all, is text? "The stratigraphy of rocks, layers of pollen in a swamp, the outward expanding circles in the trunk of a tree," writes Gary Snyder,"can be seen as texts. The calligraphy of rivers winding back and forth over the land leaving layer upon layer of traces of previous riverbeds is text." (Snyder 66)
"The Extended Wedding Party" featured a room full of beautiful hive garments suspended between wax decorated screens. The installation included food for the wedding feast, gifts, and a multitude of shoes, all molded with beeswax.
The centerpiece was "Lady in Waiting," a gorgeous four foot glass dress, filled with honeycomb, & decorated with exquisite bee lace. It took the bees several summers and dozens of bee generations to decorate the dress.
"Lady in Waiting" was exhibited as a work-in-progress, with thousands of honeybees still swarming over it, intently sculpting its bridal lace. The bees were separated from the viewers by a plexiglass case with a tunnel to the roof of the gallery, so the bees could fly in and out. The bees quickly discovered where the best sources of nectar and pollen were in their new urban location. They were particularly attracted to the manicured gardens of the Manitoba Legislative Building nearby, which coincidentally happens to be a popular cruising ground for rubbies during the day, and the Winnipeg gay underground at night.
A few dozen bees were lying at the hem of the bridal skirt, their brief lives already over, dead.
The presence of the bees created an eerie, magical effect in the gallery. The gallery space became mystical, even sacred, redolent with the heady scent of honey, exuding from the beeswax. There was a deep sense of waiting, of reverence for the bride. or perhaps of mourning, a shiver at the mysterious absence of the wedding guests.
Had we missed the wedding, or was it about to begin?
The gallery visitors were hushed, listening to the bees humming intently over the sculpture, completely absorbed in their work. Perhaps it was we who were the wedding guests, about to assume our designated roles as friends and relatives, paying homage to the archetypal presence of the bride and her ardent worshippers, the bees.
The large gallery space was filled with the mysterious droning, humming, buzzing song of the bees.
Canadian novelist Sandra Birdsell called the work "macabre" (cited in Dahle 23).
Curator Sigrid Dahle, reflecting on the dark side of hive life in an interview with Aganetha Dyck, called it a "dystopia," a menacing social arrangement.
She was thinking, she said, of the way unproductive bees are shoved out of the hive at the end of the summer without ceremony, to die, and the way the bees sometimes have to defend themselves to the death against rivals and outsiders: as do we all.
Tennyson's nature with its dark underside,"red in tooth and claw," Darwin's relentless reproductive process, the "survival of the fittest," spectres of a natural order ruthlessly devoid of spirit that haunted our 19th century forbears and still haunt us today, nakedly displayed.
Aganetha herself, talking with Sigrid, compared the queen bee, hidden, trapped at the centre of the hive, to the young mothers in The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's dark futuristic novel, in which single fertile women are held in bondage by a powerful but infertile married ruling class, to produce heirs for it (Dahle 23).
Curator Joan Borsa observed in the exhibition catalogue, "Aganetha Dyck's work seems to follow bees to the limits of human understanding. A place where death and decay, sensory cognition and the necessity of externalizing the troubling interior realms that the body has concealed are acknowledged." (Borsa 58)
The bees as a site of the coming apart of human consciousness, its unravelling, into the knowledge of mortality, of our physical limits as humans, despite our fantasies and ceremonies of transcendence and cultural or spiritual immortality.
The edge of the human, that is, understood first of all as the site of decay, of death.
I was happy, relieved, to know that Aganetha did not altogether share these negative valuations of the bees or their work.
I remembered the way she described her first encounter with the bees, her admiration and awe in their presence:
"Being able to open the hive and stand there was such a rush, such an adventure. I thought I had climbed the tallest mountain! Just to be able to stand there...in my regular clothes and know I wouldn't get attacked! What really amazed me once I knew this was possible, was the power of something so small...We always talk about brute force; but the bees are so small and yet they have more power than a whole football team" (Dahle 22).
I remembered other tender descriptions by Aganetha, of the bees:
"Part of working with the bees is just playing. It's just the most amazing thing to have this connection to this warm creature that massages your hands and makes you feel alive. Especially if you are in the sun and it's very beautiful and the flowers are blooming and you think the world's OK....
"Those bees have a lot of fun. They don't work all of the time.... You know that saying, 'busy as a bee'? Well, you find the workers sitting around, talking, and their life of seven weeks might be like ours of 79 years. So I'm sure they have a lot of fun. I love the bees." (Dahle 26)
So this was one of the questions I asked myself, when I began thinking about writing for the bees:
Why are people reminded of disease and deformity when they encounter the bees? Why would they describe this incredibly successful and intricate social arrangement, dating back to at least the time of the dinosaurs, and considered essential to global vegetation cycles and human food sources (Heinerman 1), as dystopian, a world gone wrong?
A question made all the more striking when you reflect that bees were worshipped by many ancient cultures as incarnations of the divine, whose artworks, both beeswax and honey, are prized around the world for their beauty, sensuousness and marvellous healing properties?
What exactly is it, I asked myself, that has gone wrong? Why would Aganetha or the curator have described the bees' work in such strikingly clinical, industrial, even military terms? Filled, drained, cleansed, painted, prodded, invaded, monitored.
And why would people think of the limits of the human, that edge, that interface between humans and other, the animal, the natural, first as a place of decay, of death?
Aren't there other ways of thinking about the edges of the human, I asked. Isn't the place where we encounter the other, where we meet the face of the stranger who is not us, the not human, isn't this the place of adventure, engagement? The place of risk, of danger, yes, but also, surely, the place of nurturing, where we are reflected back to ourselves, where we are fed.
Isn't this place, I reflected, this edge, where I ends and the rest of the world begins, isn't this where we are born? Isn't this where we give ourselves to the other? Isn't this, as Emmanuel Levinas and Helene Cixous and other sages have said, supremely, the place of love?
Of course Aganetha Dyck wasn't the first person in the world to collaborate with bees. The whole history of bee-farming, you might say, is a collaboration between humans and bees.
The ancient Druids revered bees as the bringers of honeymead, which they considered a divine solar drink, and for their ideal community centered around their Mother Queen. Six times a year celebrants gathered at Tech Midchuarta, the House of Mead Circling, a hive-shaped assembly hall, to pay homage to the Goddess, imitating the bees' divinely inspired sun dance, and drinking potent golden intoxicating honeymead, which they passed around in a circle until every drop was consumed. (Carr-Gom 110-113)
Plato, Mohammed and Porphyry all included bees in their portraits of heaven, considering them the bearers of souls. (Simons 26)
Many of Bernini's sculptures included images of bees. The tomb of Urban the VIII, Bernini's patron, in St. Peter's in Rome, is decorated with an ornate sculpture featuring, among its figurines, bronze bees, the size of pigeons.
An indigenous Mayan community fighting military occupation in Chiapas, Mexico, calls itself Las Abejas, or The Bees. Unlike its armed counterpart, the Zapatistas, Las Abejas believes in nonviolent resistance to exploitation and displacement. "We are a multitude," explains one of its members, "and we want to build our house like the honeycomb where we all work collectively... producing honey for everyone...We all march together with our queen, who is the reign of God." (Lehman 9)
In the European middle ages, it was customary to include the bees in funeral and wedding rites. Here is a description of the age-old folk custom of "telling the bees":
"If a member of the family marries, the bees should be told, or they will leave the hive and not return. If a member of the family dies, the bees in their hives must be told, or they will die. The procedure is that as soon as the master or mistress has breathed his or her last, a younger member of the household, often a child, is told to visit the hives and rattling a chain of small keys taps on the hive and whispers three times:
Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead
Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead
Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead
Silence is then observed for a few moments. If the bees begin to hum, they have consented to continue living. A piece of funeral crepe is then tied to the hive and later sweet drink or a piece of funeral cake is brought to the hives for the bees to feed upon. In addition the bees are often invited to the funeral. The letter to them is written in the same hand and terms as that to relatives of the deceased: "You are invited to the funeral of --- which is to take place at ---, &c, &c" (Simons 25).
It breaks your heart when you think about what it is we tell the bees nowadays. Standard North American farming practice, for example, for the past few decades has been to gas the entire hive at the end of the summer, and send for a new shipment, complete with queen the next spring. Cheaper than figuring out how to winter the bees after taking all their honey. (Though I am happy to say that Aganetha's bees, including the queen, are kept safe and warm in the hive through the long harsh Manitoba winter.)
The drastic increase in the use of toxic pesticides in industrialized countries has also taken their terrible toll on bees. According to a recent estimate, 95% of the wild bees in North America have died in the last few years due to lowered resistance to mites, and farmed honeybees are being kept alive, as Aganetha puts it, by "all sorts of trial and error and tons of medication" (Dyck 1999). And now there is the new worry that genetically modified crops are killing and/or mutating butterflies and other insects in disastrous numbers.
What does it do to the bees' sense of history, to kill their great queen, keeper of hive memory, after only one summer, when she should live for a good three, threading her great ancestral presence through the honeybees' brief lives of seven weeks? Does it break the bees' hearts, to be treated with such cruelty, such rudeness, by their human collaborators? (What does it do to the bees' delicate complex inner workings, to absorb and pass on chemically modified transgenic, herbicide resistant genes?)
And after you've seen the bees' lavish, beautiful, dreamy sculptures, you can't help thinking how frustrating it must be to work in the standard boxed beehive, with its fixed trays of honeycomb starters. Every time they just fill the trays with their industrious nectar gathering and honeycomb building and honeymaking, just before they get to that moment of extravagant artistic expression, not to mention drunken honeymead celebration afterward, it gets snatched from under their noses, and they have to begin all over again.
Do they ever worry, the elders of the hive, watching the progress of history around them, about losing their ancient arts, their lavish folk customs, so carefully preserved over time? Do the bees know how threatened their ancient livelihood is in the toxic environment of contemporary farming practices? Do they understand their ancient lineage, their royal stature, their pivotal role as pollinators of the green world, that if they go down, the green world goes down? Does all this human destructiveness make them sad, or despairing, or angry? No wonder they come zinging at us sometimes when we approach them, stinging mad.
How do you write for bees?
This was the intriguing, disturbing, exciting question Aganetha posed for me when she decided to extend her multimedia cross-species collaboration to include human written text. I was thrilled to be invited to write a poem for her bees.
To tell the truth I was terrified.
There is, in the mysterious, ritualized space of "The Extended Wedding Party," a gesturing toward the ancient ritual of homage to the Great Mother, the earth goddess, along with a celebration and interrogation of modern women's elaborate rituals of fashion and food preparation, for what remains one of the most highly regarded ceremonies in our time, the wedding.
Shirley Madill, curator for the exhibition, traces the genealogy of the bride as follows:
"In the Western tradition the bride has many guises, from the ancient goddess, Isis and Asherah, the bride of Baal and classical mythology's multiplicity of heavenly marriages, though the Shehinah, or God's consort in the Jerusalem Temple of the Biblical Hebrews to the Virgin Bride, the Mother of God, Mary. These Brides follow a common narrative in their histories. The story is of a continual diminishment of the place of the Bride, from Mother of God, our feminine Creator to the present almost non-existent role in a time when the need for compassion and the salvation of Mother Earth are so great." (Madill 13)
American poet Sylvia Plath wrote a famous poetic sequence about bees.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.
Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,
Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? she is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and
she knows it..." (Plath, cited in Boruch 51-52)
"A poem, Plath insisted, 'excludes and stuns.' And the precise strangeness of the imagery here," comments Marianne Boruch, writing about Plath's bees, " - the hive 'quietly humming, the bees' confused flight as 'hysterical elastics' and later, in the final stanza, the mob of them rising as 'a blackout of knives' - does stun. The significance of this passage can be understood if by excludes she means that our witness has ruined us, at least briefly, for polite conversation, that we are outside, abruptly hypnotized by beauty that, as Rilke putit, isterror, orratherthatpartofterrorthatwecan - butbarely - endure." (Boruch 52)
According to European folklore, bees issuing from the mouths of sleeping persons could take their spirits on enlightening journeys while they slept. In one such story, repeated by folklorist Sarah Simons,
"The sleeping person was moved by a companion. A few moments later, a bee returned to the spot and scurried hither and thither in terror looking for the sleeping form, but failed to know it. When the sleeper was nudged in her new resting place, she was found to be dead.
"This belief that the bee is a soul of one departed," the storyteller concludes, "is the origin of the belief of ''Telling the bees,' for souls of the departed, are they not in communion with God?" (Simons 26)
I was terrified to meet the face of the bees, the face of God, perhaps, because I was ashamed of my own human face. Imagining myself ambassador to the bees, I could feel only shame, and guilt, and terror, at the way we're living on the earth now, our massive human egoism and runaway selfishness, the way we're treating the bees, and everything else now, with such relentless cruelty, such unthinking barbarity, such unwitting, dead-ended despair.
How did we come to forget all our ancient wisdom about how to be in the world, how to make room for each other, how to talk, laugh, play together, how to honour the lands we share with so many other creatures, the earth that is our mother, how to invest in a long slow future that spans many many generations after us?
My human shame made me speechless.
I thought the bees must surely want to kill me, if they could possibly get their stingers on me. What message could I possibly want to give to them, that they could possibly want to hear?
I was staying at the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Center just outside Winnipeg, which is situated in a renovated Trappist monastery. The grounds include a beautiful flower and herb garden, and scenic cathedral ruins looking out onto the prairie, which are used all summer as an outdoor performance space for visiting artists.
Running through the grounds is the sluggish Red River, named for its coppery colour, flanked by the remains of an old forest. A few years ago this forest was threatened by a golf course project, which was happily defeated by a group of concerned St. Norbert residents led by the SNACC community under the leadership of its visionary founding director, Louise May.
Everywhere at SNACC you can hear the sounds of Celtic harps carried on the wind, and glimpse the swaying forms of dancers through the trees. The serene spirit of the departed monks, for whom this location proved too close to encroaching urbanization a scant fifty years ago, is palpable in the air.
And if you put your ear to the ground, you can hear just beyond the edge of consciousness, the faint echo of drumming buffalo hooves, horses, sharp hunters' cries, the thud of bodies hitting earth, 30 thousand years of Indian life surging through the long rooted prairie grass, the century old memory of Métis rebels falling on this very site flashing in the sun.
The bees lived just down the road, in a little grassy clearing next to the forest, surrounded by what on the prairies is called bush, small Manitoba maples and birch and trembling aspen, and varieties of scrub brush.
My first glimpse of the bees was there, above the hives, small swarms of them playing in the sun, as the occasional small wind rustled through the surrounding branches and wafted through the grass.
Nothing prepared me, not Aganetha's words, not all the books I'd read, for the dark rush of the opened hive, its powerful current of energy, its aliveness, the overwhelming intensity of the bees, crawling around, completely absorbed in their work.
"To be invisible." writes Marianne Boruch, trying to get hold of the fiery magical process whereby Sylvia Plath wrote her famous poetic sequence about bees. "To be observer.
'How shall I describe it?--' Plath wrote that last year about poetry itself, 'a door opens, a door shuts. In between you have had a glimpse: a garden, a person, a rainstorm, a dragonfly, a heart, a city...So a poem takes place.'
But nothing is as brief or as happenstance," comments Boruch, "nothing so unasked for. It starts stubbornly in the body, and beyond - father and mother, even back of that. Which is to say, it starts in memory; we want to repeat. 'What do I remember/that was shaped/as this thing is shaped?' Williams keeps insisting in 'Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.' A door opens and shuts, a glimpse. And it begins -- the long unfolding into image, specific image culled from a life, two lives or more. Faced without sentiment or nostalgia, such images release. " (Boruch 48-49)
Not just images, I want to add, but also sound, line, breath, spacing, curvature, to use Phyllis Webb's haunting term, synactivity, intertext with its infinitely resonating outward reach, rhythm with its primal pull.
I spent the summer watching Aganetha's bees, trying to see the world as they saw it, trying to shrink myself to bee size, to become "invisible."
Barbara Shipman, combining the disciplines of mathematics & biology, theorizes that the bees' famous waggle dance is a form of quantum behaviour.
After observing the complexity of the dance code in relation to the relatively simple brain structure of the bees, Shipman turned her attention to the mathematical dimensions of the dance. She noticed that the shape of the dance corresponds exactly to the curves of a manifold, or six-dimensional space.
Shipman claims that the bees are able to interact with quantum fields, & use not only nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), but also quarks, or potential particles, in some way as a script for their dance.
If this is so, then the honeybees are able to do something remarkable that no other living being we know of can do, that is, "touch" the quantum field without breaking it.
Shipman's groundbreaking discovery makes her, as Adam Frank observes, a modern-day Kepler, offering a single framework to explain what until now have existed as discrete disciplines and perceived phenomena. In Shipman's own words, she has discovered "a mathematics that takes all the different forms of the dance and embraces them in a single coherent geometric structure." (Frank 84)
In fact, her work outreaches Kepler's in its creative marriage of mathematics and biology, reversing the fatal mind-body, right brain-left brain split that marked the beginning of modern philosophy and science, on the one hand, and art and religion, on the other, putting them back into creative, dare I say erotic, conversation with one another.
Aganetha explained to me her plans for the poem. I will have it transcribed into Braille, she said, a language of dots the bees will surely know how to read, because they too make dots on surfaces every time they begin a new honeycomb, and touch them over and over in the darkness of the hive with their hands/feet. Who knows, we thought, what the bees will do with the poem after they've read it? Or what they will want to say or write back to us?
Or as Aganetha put it, "What transformations and transmutations...will occur in this translation and transcription process," this "Working in the Dark"? (Dyck 1998,1)
British born Rupert Sheldrake began his career as a biologist in the conventional manner, torturing, then gassing and incinerating animals for the sake of experimentation. Eventually he rejected this method in favour of studying live animals in a more empathetic manner.
Sheldrake is currently trying to develop a theory of "morphic fields" to explain the highly intuitive and seemingly precognitive connection that he has observed between certain animals, for example, mothers and their young, but also, cross-species, for example, between dogs and their owners. He has collected thousands of stories from around the world, of dogs who saved their owners' lives by warning them in advance of impending dangers, such as fires, car accidents, and even earthquakes, and who know when their owners are coming home even when there is no physical evidence for it.
Sheldrake suggests that members of social groups, whether or not they belong to a single species, are "parts of the same system. They share food, breathe the same air, are interlinked through their minds and senses, and interact continually. When they are separated, the parts of the social system may retain a nonlocal or nonseparable connectedness comparable to that observed in quantum physics.
"If this is the case," writes Sheldrake, "then morphic fields could be reinterpreted in terms of quantum theory. This would involve an enormous extension of quantum theory to cover biological and social organization." (Sheldrake 307)
Sheldrake's inquiry has taken him to the margins of institutional science, but he likes it there. He believes that scientific inquiry should be widely democratic instead of hierarchically and institutionally controlled, as it is at present. He is interested in opening the conversation to people of any persuasion or discipline around the world, and invites anyone who's interested to participate in his experiments through his website: www.sheldrake.org.
I saw at once that for the bees, there could not be the same distinction between flowers and weeds we humans make:
Marigolds, delphiniums, pansies, daisies, petunias, amaranth, starflowers, borage, comfrey, oregano, chives, angel's trumpets, scarlet runner, alyssum, dill, sunflowers, goatsbeard, lamb's ears, yarrow, waterlilies, tigerlilies, motherwort, gallardia, pansies, mint, irises, anise, hyssop, echinacea, evening primrose, beans, snapdragons, pumpkin, kale, swiss chard, creeping thyme, forget-me-not, verbena, purslane, black-eyed Susan, showy milkweed, swamp milkweed, wild mustard, goldenrod, shepherd's purse, horsetail, pigweed. All these would appear together in the bees' eye, despite our careful culling of one from another.
Of course the bees would have their own preferences among them, would zero in on calendula and goldenrod more often than pigweed, culling for nectar.
I rather liked the calendula myself, after finding out that its blossoms were edible to humans. I spent long hours sitting in the sun, sipping delicious calendula blossoms, thinking about bees.
Letting traces of my colonialist farm upbringing, our immigrant settler project to break the wild prairie into agricultural submission with mechanical efficiency and violence, seep out of me into the serene summer air.
Sometimes, on our visits to the hive, Aganetha gave me chunks of dripping honeycomb. The fresh honey tasted, as the Druids would have said, divine. After a few mouthfuls, the poison ivy on my legs, a recurring malady I have taken many harmful drugs to control in past summers, miraculously vanished.
Native American poet and philosopher Paula Gunn Allen observes that poetry is the only professional Western discourse that has preserved, along with nonverbal artistic media such as painting and music and dance, the multi-layered, spiritually informed, feminine-centered sense of reality that once came naturally to all people, and is still practiced in shamanic cultures around the world (Allen 1986)..
American quantum physicist Fred Alan Wolf agrees. He has recently turned to shamanism as a more adequate conceptual system than that of conventional science, to explain, for example, the "observer effect," an important aspect of Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle. "If you take quantum mechanics as it's presently understood, that's magic. You have a cloud of possibilities that suddenly manifest into one actuality" (Wolf, cited in Leviton 53).
Add a dimension of spirit, Allen would say, and that's poetry. That's worship. That's art.
A few summers ago "Lady in Waiting" was damaged in shipping. Aganetha gave the dress back to the bees for the summer.
The accident proved fortuitous. By the beginning of August the bees had not only repaired the dress, they had far surpassed their first attempt at bridal fashion design.
The dress was exquisitely transformed. The lace now billowed grandly, elegantly, where before it had curtsied.
Do bees have consciousness, do they know what they're doing, do they have feelings and intentions? Do they experience love, and grief, and happiness? Can bees make art?
Ecologist Jim Nollman, citing Donald Griffin's work on "Animal Thinking," asserts that it is "anthropomorphic absurdity" for entomologists to deny intentionality in insect behaviour.
When ants, for example, dance the fighting dance to incite each other to fight, it is absurd to say that it is merely coincidence that the fighting dance actually succeeds in preparing the ants for fighting rather than food gathering.
"It seems," observes Nollman, "the same ingrained thinking that leads our nuclear industry to state that it is merely coincidental that the building of nuclear weapons also prepares human beings for nuclear war" (Nollman 64).
In the case of bees, we know that the waggle dance communicates sun position, a system of measure, direction, and the desirability of the nectar source. The waggle dance can also communicate the location of water to cool an overheated hive, and even the location of materials to repair a damaged hive.
Isn't this, exclaims Nollman, what we humans call art, language, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, adjectives and adverbs, and even thermodynamic engineering and architecture? (Nollman 66)
And when the yellow jackets in Nollman's yard came to carry away their dead who had been accidentally hit by his woodsaw, it is willfully blind, is it not, for us to assume, as the entomologists Nollman talked to insisted, that they were led by instinct alone, without any grief or compassion or love whatsoever for their fallen kin.
Reading Canadian prairie writer Tim Lilburn's philosophical essays on the knowability of the world, I can't help being struck by the deep sense of alienation running through them, his deep lament for the way we humans have lost our sense of community with animals and the land:
"Contemplative knowing of the deer and the hill must gather about the conviction that neither can be known. It is the resolute taking of a stance before the world, a positioning of oneself in desire-filled unknowing before the hill and deer, that refuses all consolation." (Lilburn 18-19) By contrast, Indigenous prairie poet Louise Halfe, whose Cree name is Sky Dancer and who is also a mother, a caretaker and giver of life, moves easily in and out of realms of consciousness which span dream, ancestral voices, and animal spirits, amid a spirited retelling of family stories. Her poems protest eloquently the colonizing efforts of white settlers on her Native community, with its close ties to the land:
"Still in my walks, the mountains beneath my feet, I picked feathers as I climbed, the wolves gentle in their following. Soon the mountain too had feet. I swam down her clear water and stood naked beneath her falls.
Nearby, wind-burned fences enclosed crosses, their hinged grey arms dangled. I heard screams and gunshot in the early dawn. After the fierce weeping of thunder and mad dash of lightning, the robins danced with the drumming of the Little People. I woke as the brilliant ribbon of Northern Lights melted into a sunrise." (Halfe 1)
"She came in a Vision, flipped many faces. Stone-aged wrinkled, creased like a stretch drum, thin flesh, sharp nose. When the Sun sleeps she takes faded rays, dresses her gown. She's the burnt rose of autumn, a blue-winged warbler. The awakened river flanked in every woman, rolling pebbles over and over till stone eggs are left. I travel with her youth, this Night Mistress. Hair fresh, sweet grass braided in perfection. Long ago Grandmother danced in glades, women crushed chokecherries, saved the blood, cleaned porcupine quills, wove them into birch baskets, chewed sinew. They drummed, danced, lifted their dreams. Ribboned the Sky. Raw-boned, they left their blood. In these moccasin gardens I pick my medicines...." (Halfe 89)
I am walking through the forest at Quetico Park, in Ontario, along an old explorers' trail, surrounded by the rushing sound of trees, rustling their branches above me, delighting in the smell of moss and jackpine, accompanied by the clear startling notes of jays and woodthrush.
The first line throws me off guard. No, I whisper, no, I didn't intend it to be like this. I meant to remain discreet, human, humble, invisible.
And then it takes hold of me, the knowledge of the bees rushing into me, their plenitude, their grace, their message of hope and beauty and terror. I try to stay with it as it wings through me, this glimpse, this fleeting vision, lifting me airborne through the trees.
Back at the camp, I take out pen and paper and try to write down this too brief illumination, follow its particular nuances and rhythms, go where the words take me, try to make a poem of it.
& then everything goes bee
sun exploding into green
the mad sky dive
thru shards of diamond light
earth veering left then right
then left sweet scented
the honing in
the yes no dance
the quantum leap into
open swoon of calendula
yellow orange delphinium starflower
ultraviolet milkweed forget-me-not
caress of corolla carpel calyx
sharp tongue flick into nectar
delicious rub of belly against silk
shudder of pollenheavy thighs
the long slow sip of honeymead
sigh of sated petals in the wind
the drunken stagger hiveward
confused weave thru
ribboned corridors of poisoned
insectless late afternoon air
drumbee doombledore hummabee
the familiar brush swarm crawl
of bee on bee on bee on bee
this honeyed home
this droning harem
this feminine monarchie
the mother deep in her dark cell
quivering licked & adored
O mother bride
O queen of earth & sky
at the end of this dark century
of human destruction
as always of joyful delirious
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Aganetha Dyck — www.members.shaw.ca/ahtenaga
Burnaby Art Gallery — www.burnabyartgallery.ca
NeWest Press — www.newestpress.com
De Leon White Gallery/ Ecotecture Canada — www.ecotecturecanada.org
Smaro Kamboureli — www.chairs.gc.ca/web/chairholders/viewprofile_e.html?id=1795