Now that spring is finally showing signs of appearing after a long winter, we Canadians are at least annually united in breathing a welcome sigh of relief in being outside and seeing what we haven’t seen for months. For me today it was a solo bumblebee in our backyard. I saw one back in April as it snuck inside my slightly opened office window on that unseasonal warm spell. I didn’t want to kill it, given the scarcity of bees these days, and managed to use a tissue to gently wrap around it and return it outside, but not without receiving a slight sting from its irritation with me. I can’t blame the bee. Who knows, maybe it’s the same bee I just saw?
We worry about the alarming rate of the decimation of all kinds of bees, and the impending collapse of bee colonies world-wide as a consequence of the unregulated application of neonics and broad-spectrum pesticides, in addition to other familiar causes. By the time you read this, it might coincide with the United Nations declaration of May 20 as World Bee Day.
This bee reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Robert Sund. Bunch Grass #37 by Robert Sund from News of the Universe Poems of Twofold Consciousness by Robert Bly
The ranchers are selling their wheat early this year, not holding it over for a better price in the spring. Next year the government lifts restrictions on planting, and nobody is sure what will happen when wheat grows “fencerow to fencerow.” This morning another man has come out from the Grain Growers to help us out. John and I haven’t got time to cooper boxcars and handle trucks too.
At lunchtime, he takes his carpenter’s apron off and sits on a grain door in the shade of a boxcar, resting before he eats. I go out to join him and notice a Bible resting on the ledge under the rear window of his car. He says he doesn’t read it much, and because he is anxious not to appear narrowly Christian, I want to know more about him. He is sixty-five, about to retire; a lonely man, it seems. There is something unspoken in him. His eyes squint to keep out the bright sunlight falling now just where the boxcar’s shadow stops. I say, “There’s one thing in Mark that has always puzzled me.” He turns to face me, and I continue. “Where Jesus says, To them that have shall be given, and from them that have not shall be taken away. That always seemed cruel to me, but since the verb hasn’t got an object (have what? have not what?) if you supply an object, it’s really alive. Love. Money. Intelligence. Curiosity. Anything.”
In the bleached countryside of his mind, suddenly a new season washes over; common plants begin to blossom. And now, ideas fly back and forth between us, like bees, their legs thickening with pollen.
In the next hour we talk a lot and I learn that he has been reading Rufus Jones, Meister Eckhart, and The Cloud of Unknowing. He nearly trembles with a new joy he kept hidden. His wife writes poetry, he tells me, and adds—thrusting years recklessly aside—”I’ve worked here sixteen years, one harvest to another. I’ve seen a lot of young men come and go, and never had a decent conversation. It’s worse with the college kids. They don’t think, most of them.”
Trucks start coming in again, lunch is over. He puts his carpenter’s apron on again, but before we part he invites me home to dinner this evening, careful not to spoil it by appearing as happy as he really is.
Back inside the elevator, I’d like to lie down somewhere in a cool, dark corner, and weep. What are people doing with their lives? What are they doing?
Sund, like any good poet, takes a personal observation from the mundane and ostensibly profane world of work, in this case the demands of trucking and transporting wheat, and connects it imaginatively to the simultaneous rhythms of both the human and the more-than-human realm. Without being a spoiler alert, he writes:
“In the bleached countryside of his mind, suddenly a new season washes over; common plants begin to blossom. And now, ideas fly back and forth between us, like bees, their legs thickening with pollen.”
One of the immense joys of teaching and learning―and they go hand in hand in rhythms not unlike shovelling grain into cooper boxcars and trucks― comes from the truly intellectual as well as emotional exchange that transpires in the act of both. It is often a surprise and an utter delight. The visceral sensation of one’s curiosity and yearning to ‘go deeper’ is aroused by hearing stories and insights from those gathered around us. It warrants Sund’s corresponding images of the miracle of cross-fertilization and cross-pollination that literally makes all of life and our own human lives possible. How can we live without it? Sadly, from all the grim stats on isolation and depression among elderly generations and unprecedented suicide rates by younger people during the worst of Covid-19 and since, we can’t.
For all the benefits and possibilities made possible now by social media and online platforms like Zoom, they cannot replace the kind of spiritual community formed and fed by in-person and with-person gatherings. Besides the collapse of bee colonies, I worry about the decimation of small and rural communities and the kind of social and religious activities in which they have historically flourished. At the beginning of last year’s Rural Routes retreat, I recall the energy generated by the spirited discussions in groups of four in the World (Rural) Café process animated by hearing and reading Sund’s poem. No one complained, to me anyway, about getting stung. The convivial buzz and banter spread and likely fertilized the flowering of further World Café “holy conversations” that weekend—the very kind Sund knows we seldom experience and yet long to have, seed and lead in the spring time communion of our daily transactions with those who we live, work and worship.
I look forward to seeing those I met last year and meeting those of you who will join us this June at Camp Abby. As I am wont to say in my frequently unchecked enthusiasm, “it’s fun” and indeed both joy giving and receiving. I guarantee it, or your honey back.