Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Honey Bees .. a wonderful book

I've been browsing a book titled A Short History of the Honey Bee. I am amazed and enlightened by every detail about bees and about honey and about the beauty of flowers that go into honey.

Ilona McCarty's photographs are wonderful. One spectacular photo shows a bee foraging on the stamens of a borage flower: the bee's wings are dusted with pollen and its pollen sacs are full; exquisite blue petals translucent in golden sunshine. Another photo, so unlike the staged photos of craft magazines, shows the honey-covered, stained fingers of a beekeeper as he masses honey and wax together prior to extraction of honey.

Readicker-Henderson's text is clear and accurate. Further, his literate, poetical descriptions and anecdotes really underscore his passion and the importance of bees to the future of the world.

"...the bees were simply doing what bees do: acting as the gardeners of the world and making their incredibly generous gift of the landscape."

"[Father] drew his pocketknife across the wax caps, and the honey began to flow, an amber that made me think of what I'd heard in science class, that it was possible to slow light down so much that it became solid."

"...honey is memory, the landscape's own memory, as measured as a tree ring, as detailed as the pin feathers on a just-fledged bird..."

I've long known that pure local honey and beeswax candles were worth every dollar I pay for them. But now that I know the labour that goes into them, I consider them a bargain.

"Beeswax is made by young worker bees... in their second to third week of life ... They secrete it from eight glands on their abdomens, where it comes out in scale-like shapes ... The scales then get chewed by the worker bee, which turns them opaque; color comes from oils and propolis ... Making wax is biologically expensive for the bees ... it takes over a thousand of the secreted scales to make a single gram of wax..."

What does one taper weigh? 100 - 120 grams? 100,000 scales. Incredible!

The book certainly goes over the serious threats to bees by Colony Collapse Disorder, pesticides, and the disruption caused by transportation of hives. But I'll end this short book review with Aristotle's idea "that bees didn't actually make honey, but simply gathered it like dew from the leaves. Honey, he claimed, precipitated from the air when rainbows descended."

I share Readicker-Henderson's awe at this. Just imagine ephemeral rainbows becoming real by some magic; leaving their subtle colours as the tiniest droplets of honey on leaves, gifts for one of Nature's most hardworking creatures, the honeybee.

Happy Christmas to all from Why's Woman.

A Short History of the Honey Bee: humans, flowers, and bees in the eternal chase for Honey. Text by e. Readicker-Henderson with images by Ilona McCarty. 2009.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What form of protest? Who listens?

December 16, 2009. The first thing I heard on this morning's 6:00 a.m. news was that police and protesters were 'clashing' outside and inside the site of the Copenhagen talks. Lying in bed, unable to move for the shock of it, I tried to imagine an action that would be a true show of strength by climate change activists ... something that not sucker them into the societal norm of violent protest and anger. Some way they and their cause would not become just another news clip of angry voices and police drag-aways. I worried whether there was any co-ordination amongst the NGOs outside the gates. Had they trained their people in non-violent resistance methods? Did they have people ready to keep their own people determined in the face of police? Did they have a strategy of joining with other groups if trouble started? Strategies for this are as important as joint e-mail petitions, it seems to me.

Was it the late 1970s or 1980s when the idea of 'reweaving the web of life' came about? There's a photo I recall seeing, from a British peace protest. The women had all brought balls of yarn and they wove themselves into place, during a silent protest of nuclear arms - a witnessing against a force they saw as so bad and so overwhelming that there were no words they could use to protest or explain just how bad it was (although no doubt they had participated in letter-writing campaigns for a long time before arriving at that protest locale). At least, that was always my interpretation of it. The photo was black and white, but I imagine that this silent protest glowed with colours from the yarns ... that the women created something beautiful while witnessing silently the overwhelming evil of nuclear weaponry. There's something in this combination of horror against atrocity, need to protest and need to make beauty - all at the same time - that I understand, that touches me in tender places I seldom show when writing a cynical or factual letter of protest about something or other.

I've always been stressed by - well, probably frightened by and in - noisy crowds. When those crowds are protesting and shouting, I feel overwhelmed. I've been in protests and rallies, and marches too, but I'm not one of the shouters. I'm one of the quiet ones. Skipping any deep psychological explanations, I always figure there has to be a better way of protesting than shouting and fist waving; after all, aren't those the behaviours of the federal politicians we see on the late news ... you know, those men and women we criticize for making spectacle instead of solutions?

Would it make the late news if 5000 people outside the gates of the Copenhagen talks all sat down, quietly, in the dark evening, with candles lit, holding up photographs of their children and grandchildren, their neighbours' children? What if they all sang together? What if they all sat there, wrote out letters - pleas - to their governments, to the leaders inside - and affixed those letters to the gates around the building ... like the roadside memorials to traffic fatalities?

I respect the commitment and bravery of everyone who, at her or his own expense, is in Denmark in hopes that the big guys (and I bet 90% of them are men) will pay attention and do the right thing. These people will all go home and continue to work for change in their communities and countries. And their practical efforts will bring about a new order with our without the big guys.

And I hope there are no major injuries or fatalities if 'clashes' continue.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world - this makes it hard to plan the day" E.B. White

When I ran across this quotation I didn’t know whether to laugh at myself, or cry over the truth of it. I have not been following the ins and outs of the Copenhagen talks. I did the reading beforehand. Whatever happens at the talks will happen without my reading. So, I’ll put my thoughts to other things.

E.B. White, a long-time writer for the New Yorker magazine, is probably best known for his children's books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. His wife, Katherine Sargeant Angell, was an editor at the New Yorker, and she gardened. Her only published book, titled Onward and Upward in the Garden, is a compilation of her essays and reflections. I’ve read that she continued to plan for her garden in the last year of her life, when she knew she was dying. She ordered bulbs, oversaw their planting, planned new gardens. There is always hope in a garden.

Earlier this week, Bob, the husband of a co-worker, Mary, died of cancer. Bob had recently retired from a professional job with a large company. I have no doubt that Bob was wonderful at his job and easy to work with. But what intrigued me about him was that he grew trees at his home in the city. He grew trees from seeds, or propagated them. He nurtured them. He gave many away, and sold some to support this calling. He knew a lot about trees, a topic I am most ignorant on. People called him from all over; he knew everyone round about who loved trees. I want to honour Bob somehow. I think I’ll have to begin learning about trees, and find some places to plant trees. Perhaps the only thing I can do for Mary is to tell her that Bob’s good influence is leading me to learn and to do something.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Earlier this week I watched a wonderful film: InTransition. It's a documentary about the Transition movement begun by Rob Hopkins. The film uses simple graphics and visual changes at the beginning to go over some of the basics about climate change and fossil fuel use. There's never too much on the screen at any one time, which made me observe and listen to the voice-over more closely. I relate this because so many films rely on special effects and busyness to get our attention. This film uses our own abilities to focus on one thing at a time, the best way to take in information. (I belabor this point because I often do editing of documents and spend much time taking out big words which are used inaccurately and confuse a reader. ) The film goes on to show actions from a dozen or more towns that are beginning a Transition movement. One of the film's narrators is a wonderful little boy, who is peering through a piece of playground equipment (or it might be the frame of a small geodesic dome). He talks about environment issues in the world-weary tone of a an experienced university prof addressing a first year class, knowing he has to keep it simple. He knows way more than we do and must start slowly to bring us up to speed. Other clips show people explaining how their groups came together or describing activities they've gotten involved with. There is a lot of 'doing' and a lot of fun. One town held a parade that looked like a cross between Toronto's Chinese New Year parade and Caribana ... but all the hoop-skirted, flouncy costumes and colourful, fluttering banners were made from fringed plastic bags , dangling bottle caps and everything that after the parade would be dismantled and put in the blue bins. Another scene showed older people (mostly women) showing a school class how to select materials and sew bags. This seems to be a very simple activity ... until we realize that people of all ages are working together in a school classroom, children are using artistic skills (selection of texture and colour) to make something useful at school, several of the sewing machines are not electric, and overall the children are realizing that they can get 'designer' bags without spending a lot of time and money at a mall. Another project was a 'memorial to oil' set in the town square. A cylindrical display maybe 3 meters tall and 1 meter diameter had sliced-down-the-centre plastic jugs affixed all around it, spiralling down. Inside each plastic frame items made of oil were nailed down: cosmetics and containers, clothing pieces, toys, Barbie herself.

This screening of In Transition was London (Canada's) first event. By my count there were 110 people there. And over three quarters of the audience stayed on afterwards to talk a bit. People said what interested them. Making a commitment to our children and our future underlay many comments. Other passions included people-oriented and powered transportation, better use of materials, more care of things, being ready for change, being able to feed ourselves through community gardens and more varied agriculture. It was good. I felt that everyone in the audience was already finding ways to save the world in their spare time.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Today I ran across a Globe and Mail web piece by Reese Halter, titled Why Honeybees are Falling Through the Cracks. Over the last two years I've read a lot about honeybees and something called Colony Collapse Disorder. Halter's first line is blunt: 'Over the past three years, more than 50 billion honeybees have died.' His article goes on to talk about the wonderful things bees give us - $47 billion a year in food crops in the U.S. (sorry, I don't know the figure for here in Canada - 4.7 B?) ... honey, wax, and the absolute beauty of more flowers and plants. Colony Collapse Disorder is a funny thing ... one aspect of it is that the bees simply fly away from their hives, not to be found. Although I've read papers talking about multiple pesticide effects (especially the nerve poison neonicotinoids), lowered immune systems in bees, stresses caused by transportation - by truck - of colonies over long distances, hive humidity, and varroa mites ... individually and synergistically causes of CCD ... well, I cannot get past the part about the bees simply leaving their hives and disappearing. Perhaps the synergistic effects of all the above-mentioned things do cause disorientation. But my story-loving, fable-loving self believes that the bees have simply become tired of all the stresses - meaning they are tired of us - and have gone away. And we humans are left behind, bewildered and bereft, like the Ents when the Entwives left. The bee disappearances are like a 1950s science fiction short ... an unbelieveable event with an explanation that, when given, will be either such a twist or so obvious that we will shake our heads in disbelief of the cause or at our own stupidity in missing it. Halter ends his article by advocating for organic food production, and by encouraging us to plant native yellow and blue flowers. (no, I don't know why he doesn't mention reds...sorry). I'm all for anyone who tells me to plant flowers. Perhaps if we plant beauty the bees will come back.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hope and Action from Pain and Fear

We hurt when we watch the news and read the papers. We see children's bodies drifting down a street flooded by a hurricane, penguin bones stacked where they've been trapped and starved by shifting ice, polar bears drowning, children sorting trash while all around them industrial stacks rain deadly dusts. Media and governments consider commitment to action on global warming to be optional. As Canadians, we wonder how our environment minister can block actions at international meetings, and we are embarrassed that Canada has won more 'fossil of the week' awards than any other country.

Often, we do not know what to do. The bombardment of information - daily, relentless, negative, urgent - can leave us feeling despair and fear. It may make us turn away from the news. And when we are sad or feel helpless to do anything about big environment issues, we are unlikely to talk with friends, family or fellow activists.

Clive Hamilton (professor of ethics) and Tim Kasser (psychology) attended a conference back in September that looked at what it might be like in a world with a temperature 4 degrees warmer. Their presentation noted that there is little research on the possible social and psychological effects of the disruption expected in such a world - it is, after all, hard to assess what has not yet happened. However, they review the solid body of research into people's reactions to loss and grief and discuss the merits or problems associated with the level of information we receive, and how it is presented. The paper is well worth reading.

Further in regards to grief and despair, Joanna Macy's work about feelings and activism is important to know about. Macy is a scholar of deep ecology, Buddhism and general systems theory. Part of her activism for peace and environment has been to help people recognize the deep feelings they have concerning the future of the Earth and their connection to the Earth. She acknowledges that as we are confronted by one environmental disaster after another our strongest feelings are the ones we usually believe are negative ones: anger, loss, hopelessness. While these emotions may be strong - and scary - they are natural feelings. They are probably even sensible reactions in a thinking feeling person.

Macy believes that a profound issue underlies our feelings:

"With isolated exceptions, every generation prior to ours lived with the assumption that other generations would follow. It has become an integral part of human experience to take it for granted that the work of our hands and heads and hearts could live on through those who came after us, walking the same earth beneath the same sky. Plagues, wars, and personal death have always taken place within that wider context, the assurance of continuity. Now we have lost the certainty that there will be a future for humans. I believe that this loss, felt at some level of consciousness by everyone, regardless of political orientation, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time."

In Macy' view, when we allow ourselves to experience our own joy, grief, hope or fear we can understand why we act the way we do - or why we do not act. We let go of judging whether we do 'enough'. The energy freed up by letting go of the judging will probably go toward an action for practical good. Her work is worth a look.

Knowing one's Self and feelings is not a one afternoon, one essay or one conversation undertaking. The conversations can take a while, and feelings and actions will change over time. Stay connected with others. And, take to heart a message within Elin Kelsey's article about not overburdening children with too much information before they are ready. She believes that the most important gift we can give chidren is the gift of feeling connected to nature - that it is actual, joyous experience with the natural world that shows them it is real and worth caring about. I believe we adults need to give ourselves a connection with nature too. From this comes a healthier spirit, and an important step on the path to finding 'ananda' - the inner joy that is our interface with the joyous universe.

If some practical activism comes along with that ... bonus.

"The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world - we've actually been on the way for quite a while. it is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other." Joanna Macy

Hamilton, Clive and Tim Kasser. Psychological Adaptation to the Threats and Stresses of a Four Degree World. A paper for the 'Four Degrees and Beyond' conference Oxford University, Sept. 2009.
Joanna Macy's website:
Macy quotations from book: World as Lover, World as Self.
Elin Kelsey's paper, Climate Change and the Need for Responsible Education Reform. WorldChanging Team, Sept. 2008.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Good books to keep us going

There is a lot of information in the media about environment issues, including global warming. Most of us don’t listen to everything about global warming and the political lead-up to ‘Copenhagen’ - where nations will get together to try and agree on limitations to greenhouse gases. We might not know the latest innovations in high and low- tech solutions to environmental problems.

But most people around the world do know there are things wrong with the environment. They know there is too much pollution and that it affecting our health. They know that ‘the weather’ is wrong. They know that some people have too much and many people have too little.

A lot of news we hear is unsettling; other news is depressing and frightening. There's a huge amount of finger-pointing and a lot of people and countries saying 'the other guy should do' this, that or the other thing ... and do it first because the other guy has made more mess.

Well, I think we've all made messes and we all need to pitch in and clear them up.

The good thing is that there are already many individuals and organizations all over the world working to make a transition between serious environmental problems and a better world.

People need to know that they - people around the world - are their own greatest resource. And I want to note here some of the books I appreciate for keeping me on track. It gives me a lift just knowing that the authors have put their lives to the work they do, and even wrote it down for me and everyone else to read.

This Organic Life. Joan Dye Gussow
Small Wonder. Barbara Kingsolver
Right Relationship: building a whole earth economy. Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver
World as Lover, World as Self. Joanna Macy
Blessed Unrest. Paul Hawken
Muriel Duckworth, a very active pacifist. Marian Kerans

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Transition - Resilience - Traditional Crafts

Whether by dharma or coincidence, I've been to two meetings this week. One meeting had 23 social activists discussing community resilience and transition. So far, I know that some communities are beginning to plan how to become more self-reliant, before climate change and depletion of fossil fuels forces them to be so. Ideas are outlined in a book titled The Transition Handbook, by Rob Hopkins, and there is a website for the network. The movement sounds like it is open to any and all good strategies for scaling back what we consume, and for having more people actually talk with each other and work together on things. The Transition movement is a forum for doing good and doing better. (yes, those are two things) It is another aspect of the worldwide phenomenon of local groups forming to solve problems that are in their communities, and which reflect and connect to national and global issues. Local groups are becoming aware of each other, of how they can help each other.

I want to emphasize a small thing that happened at that one meeting. One of the speakers had recently seen someone use a drop spindle. A drop spindle is like an old fashioned spinning top. You attach carded wool to it, drop it down and it rotates in the air, putting a twist into the fibre. This spins a strand of wool. The tricky part is to be able to feed the fibre into the spinning length. It is magic to watch. And from this magic comes a length of yarn that one can knit into clothing. The fellow who had seen this magic had the most wonderful look on his face when he spoke about it. It was a joy to watch him talk about it.

In the early 1980s, I was lucky enough to work for a local history museum which ran all sorts of wonderful programs, including drop spindling. I never did get onto that, but through other classes I did learn a bit about using a spinning wheel and about looms and weaving. I know that our community has a District Weavers and Spinners association and that most provinces have such guilds. There are local farmers rearing sheep for quality wool. There are historic villages throughout Canada; they have their own organization within museum associations and have ties with people who are maintaining traditional crafts. The necessary crafts are alive and well, practised by people who love what they are doing and who love to teach.

Coming back to transition and resilience ... keep in mind that the world is full of people who already hold practical knowledge. What would you like to learn? Ask around. Start at your local library. You will find someone to teach you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why this woman needs to save the world

The world needs to be saved. I have a bit of spare time.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, has written a book titled How to Save the World in Your Spare Time. It is a brilliant book, a primer on how to go about social activism. In the first section she says that we have to plan the victory party, even as we plan the actions and do the work. I like this bit of positivity. It keeps me going. News media carry few stories where some good is done locally, nationally or internationally. I need good examples - people and situations - to keep me going in a world where there is serious damage being done to our environment. I am a gardener at heart. I read widely - from gardening to agriculture to environment. I want to more consciously make connections, ask questions and find the agents of change in the world.