I was speaking with a friend today about the nature of range management and the restoration of California grasslands. Thinking about what California used to be like when the land was stewarded by its people. Thinking about the effects of non-native grasses or the loss of habitatfor our wild creatures.
I woke up Monday morning to sirens, smoke and a litany of texts from concerned family and friends. The first text I read was from my housemate telling me Santa Rosa, the city where I live, was on fire. The city itself. Within minutes I was dressed and throwing belonging into my car, searching the blackened skyline for flames, and trying to find out if I was in immediate danger.
The dreams were waking me up at night. Black widows inside my home. Black widows all over the ceiling. Black widows building webs closer and closer to me. No way out. I am not particularly afraid of spiders, although I am cautious of black widows, having grown up in an old 1930s home. I tried to reason out why I was having these nightmares. I read about black widow symbolism. I questioned my relationship to spider, web and venom. For two weeks my nights were filled with the dark ladies. Then, one morning, after other terrifying infestation dream, I opened my eyes and said aloud “It’s my bees. There is a black widow inside my hive.”
It’s going to be hot out there. No-option-but-naked kind of hot. Snake weather.
The bees will be gathering water from the banks of the Eel. The water ouzel will be dancing her grey-winged hop up and down the river. The bears wont come near. There are too many of us.
Tomorrow I’m going backpacking with thirteen dear friends. A reunion in the California wilderness. Ten years ago, we piled our bright eyes and burgeoning adulthood into a few likely-to-fail vehicles and set out on a four and a half month journey into the wilderness. I wouldn’t exactly call is a backpacking trip; it was less hike-through and more wilderness emersion. Alumni and friends of the Sierra Institute program, we went to learn about ourselves from the wilds and each other.
Three weeks fishing in the Marble Mountains, two weeks tucked under dripping canyon alcoves on the Dirty Devil river, three weeks following the creek lines through the frosty Whites, five days with grandmothers and ceremony in the Sonoran desert, twelve days vision fasting on the Kaibab Plateau with the School of Lost Boarders, a week along the sea battered edges of the Sinkyone. We sat in council, we ate wild watercress and wood sorrel, someone got lost for three days, people shared backcountry romance, people got sick, people got fed up and left, we disagreed, we laughed, we read stories aloud, wrote songs, met bears, wiggled into backcountry skin, made amends with our nature-starved souls, and broke ourselves against modern society.
We’re going back now. Thirteen busy adults with busy lives, affording ourselves four days to pay homage to four months of life altering earth-speak. For me this means snakes. Rattlesnakes. I find it a terrible irony that my favorite place in the wilderness is also one of the most snakey out there. To further the cosmic joke, I was born for wild places, yet life offered me a highly traumatic early childhood experience with death and a rattlesnake. Fast forward through twenty years of snake nightmares and debilitating phobia, and you find me dawning a heavy pack, hyperventilating in an Arizona parking lot, and hoofing it into the snake-rich springtime desert. I would not be defeated by phobia. I would stalk the wild feminine and surely and she stalks me.
Now, I am versed in venom. A woman of the bee, stung time and again. Since that journey, when I came face to face with my nightmare pursuer, I have negotiated a new relationship with bite and sting. I am not less afraid, but I less crippled. I am more whole. It has something to do with learning the language of dreams. With learning to read the story differently. Why does the serpent bite me, pursue me, threaten my sleep? Could it be the old magic, the earth magic, seeking a way in?
The Bees became my bridge to the Snake. In their hidden way, they revealed the old stories about the sacred serpent. She who moves through the earth. She who is pure creative power. Pure sexual life force. The embodiment of the divine feminine. In ancient Greece, the Oracle of Delphi, she who famously uttered prophecy, was known by two names: the Delphic Bee and the Pythia. She was a Melissae, a bee priestess, but she was also of the serpent, the earth-dragon. Pythia is a Greek name derived from Pytho, the old name for Delphi and our root for the snake species, Python. Pytho or Delphi was the center of Gaian mother culture; the navel of the world. This center point was represented by a stone, the omphalos, an egg-shaped carving guarded by Python and used in the uttering of prophecy.
As Patriarchy made it’s way into Greek culture, the Pythoness became a monster. Apollo, the sun god, slew the serpent and Pytho became the Temple of Apollo. The divine feminine force was overthrown, shamed, violated and erased. So, we have another story of how we split ourselves from the natural world. How we took the wholeness of human expression and divided it, driving the stake down through our own sense of who and what we are. Divorcing man from nature. Woman from man. Sexuality from the sacred. The female form, she who knows the language of the serpentine flow, is exiled from the holy. Exiled to the point that today, in American politics around health care, simply being a woman is considered a pre-existing condition.
It is no wonder that I have been stalked through my dreams by the snake. From a shamanic view, to be bit by an animals in dreams, often signifies taking on the animal's specific powers or medicine. It is an invitation, never mind how terrifying. When we dig in to the storied myth-lines of our dreams, when we look at them as more than simply the psychological detritus of our day, we find breadcrumbs towards a fuller expression of self. We find that the antidote is venom, and the poison is our own disconnect between self and nature.
I talk to my bees. I ask them to teach me. I dream with them. I dream of them. They show me through sting, nectar, pollen and hum how to be a more embodied woman. Let's call it earth magic. Tomorrow I will set out on the trail, and have my conversation with the snakes: “You’re beautiful. I love you. I love the way you move. I will not harm you. I am afraid of you. If you choose to show yourself to me, let it be gentle. I love you.” Who knows if it does any good, but it places me firmly in my body, and I begin to weave my way back into Wilderness Self. Perhaps our wild feminine needs to be approached as such, aware of the long exile and the fear that comes from not knowing how to be around a force of nature that is so powerful. Even when that force is expressed through our very form.
You’re beautiful. I love you. I love the way you move. I will not harm you. So mote it be.
We women of the bee work in cycles of six. Six-sided, six threads, six sisters, six revolutions. Six years. On this day, six year ago, I found out I was pregnant. It’s a old story really, one that’s been told before, in different words by different women, but it’s also my story with the bees, and therefore, it has a place here. I found out I was pregnant because of a dream. Not my own; that of a friend. On this morning, six years ago I woke feeling dizzy and out of sorts. I phoned up a friend, who gently informed me that she had a powerful dream. “There’s nothing wrong with you honey," she said. "You’re pregnant.” The spirit of my daughter had come to her in a dream the previous night asking her to tell me about her and remind me to trust.
In that moment, standing dumbstruck on a busy sidewalk, I felt the most euphoric wash of warmth spread over me, and I understood unconditional love for the first time. I knew she was right. I was pregnant. It was the happiest moment of my life.
Three months later, I lost the baby. She left on a spring day when a late April storm brought fat, lazy snowflakes drifting down on the roses lining the hospital courtyard. I spent two days in that hospital, on the maternity wing, loosing my baby while listening to other babies being born between bouts of sleep and an emergency surgery. I dreamed then, during surgery, of myself giving birth while the spirit of my lost daughter acted as midwife. We were in ancient Greece, surrounded by women and the scent of beeswax and crushed herbs. I was in an order of priestesses that worked with the principals of parthenogenesis. I heard again to trust. It was year later, when I found out these priestesshoods actually existed and that many were associated with the Melissae, or honey bee priestesses.
A recovery bed was prepared for me in the guest room of my parent’s home. A bed which shared a wall with a colony of honey bees. You see, the summer prior, I had gone to The Sacred Trust in England to study with a British shamanic tradition called The Path of Pollen. My introduction to bees was not in fact through beekeeping, but rather through a very old tradition that sees the women of its ways as Melissae, Greek for Honey Bees. While I was in the UK, a wild colony of bees moved into a hole in the exterior wall of my parents home. They built honey comb and raised their young in the space between my recovery bed, and the outside world. The bees kept me company through the darkest hour of my life.
Miscarriage is common. It’s a story that countless women carry in their bodies and memory, but it's not a thing we talk about very often. We are told it’s common, that we’re probably still fertile and to try again. What isn’t included is that for some women, it can include postpartum depression and PTSD, not to mention the unyielding torrent of grief.
I buried what was left of my pregnancy in the garden, beneath an new, empty beehive I built myself. I prayed to the spirit of my baby to bring me bees so that I could be a mother to something. Three days later, I received a call about a swarm. It was my first. The swarm was hanging in the shape of a heart from a blossoming apple tree. Honey bees swarm are an act of reproduction, a great issuing forth of fertile optimism. It happens in the spring, once hives have made it through the long dark winter and new forage abounds. The colony prepares the hive mother (queen bee) for flight and waits for an optimal spring day to rise from the hive is a swirling cloud of wings. A third to half of the hive will leave with the initial spring swarm and fly to a nearby perch, such as a tree, where they will hang in a cluster until a new home is collectively agreed upon. The remaining bees inside the hive will raise a new virgin queen and life will proliferate. It is a truly magical event to witness.
Six years ago I became a beekeeper. A bee mother, in as far as one can mother a highly intelligent super organism that’s been thriving for thousands of years without human intervention. A bee guardian perhaps. Or rather, I fell in love. For me, they became the anchor through which I slogged through PTSD and heartbreak. They kept me tethered to life, when on some level, I just wanted to bleed out. They taught me about the honey and the sting. They were patient with me. They forced me to be present, and sharply brought me back to my body if I drifted. They permeated my dreams. The hummed the song of life, fertility, forgiveness and order. The bees made sure I kept feeling.
The grief story is a human story, and a story we all share. As author and teacher Sobonfu Somé says, “We need to begin to see grief not as foreign entity and not as an alien to be held down or caged up, but as a natural process.” So here I am, still grieving someone I never met. Here I am with tears of the empty womb, for the lost ones, for the motherless ones and the childless ones. Here I am, sitting at the precipice of another swarm season and wondering at the strange synchronicity of life. Wondering about what makes you a mother and when does it count to call yourself one? Is it when your baby is born? Is it when you conceive? Is it when bring a child into your home? Is it when you say yes to raising and caring for another life form?
We bee women work in cycles of six, and today marks six years. Today things are more piercing than usual. Today the memory is close, and the journey of healing is arching out behind me in its multitude of colors. Since that day, when I discovered I held the most precious spirit within my womb, I have started a business dedicated natural beekeeping, initiated dream workshops centered around the honey bee, worked intimately with women and their womb-stories, traveled multiple times back to England to train with The Path of Pollen and found home in a new city. In one week, I will embark on my sixth trip to England to study once more at The Sacred Trust.
Moving into my sixth year as an apiculturist, I am acutely aware of the gift bee-centric beekeeping can be to the beekeeper. Bees can be a bridge between ourselves and the natural world. A way to address the collective grief of nature-deficit disorder by engaging with a species vital to the weave of life on this planet. A way to serve. Beekeeping has been utilized to treat PTSD in veterans and assist in nature-based therapy for inmates in prison. It offers a reason to watch the seasons, to connect to the cycles of life and flowering plants. Without meaning to, we become aware of the fertility of the earth, the places we need to tend and coax into thriving, the places that offer prolific life-sustaining nectar. We hear the hum of a healthy hive, and we are soothed, even if we don’t understand why.
So often, my question is how do we serve the colony? How do we become bee-centric, and not human-centric? How do we see through the lens of the bee. But bee guardianship is a relationship, a two way street, an agreement. Every once in a while, I take a moment to remember the grace of what the honey bee offers us, because, she is after all, central to the fecundity of all life.
My daughter’s hive lived for four years, dying during the summer I moved away. Now, a tree is planted on the site of that old womb/tomb. I became a bee guardian because my womb needed to heal. Because my heart needed to know about the other side of grief. Because even in sorrow, the bees bring me immeasurable peace. Because every day that I grieve my childlessness and dream of a new womb-story, I am also reminded that there is an ineffable joy in the love between a bee and a flower. From that love the earth remains a fertile mother, showering her children in meadows.
This morning I sat in a garden teaming with the birds and the bees. Humming birds noisily darted between creeping vines of nasturtiums, red raspberries hung plump and inviting from semi-orderly thickets, honeybees swooned in the fuzzy clumps of borage, and zucchini’s performed their summer competition for Most Alarmingly Large Vegetable.
So you want to keep bees, but aren’t quite sure where to start? When I decided to become a beekeeper, I had just barely managed to squeeze a weekend class and some dedicated YouTubing under my belt before I received an unexpected swarm call and my new life began. Catching my first swarm was exhilarating, intimidating and required a lot of patients. I made some mistakes, but the bees ended up safely settled into their new top bar hive, and I, beaming, fell utterly in love.
In Northern California there is still snow in the hills and rain on the weather forecast. However, despite the winter chill, it’s time to start thinking about getting bees. Regardless of where you live, late winter is the time most local bee breeders start selling bee packages and nuc. You wont receive your bees until the spring, but if you want to ensure you’re going to get bees this season, it’s best to buy them now.
My dream of the apiary exist at the Natural Beekeeping Trust. A place of serenity and joy, filled with the life-affirming site of flowers, colorful hives and humming bees. On an brilliant autumn day in September, the sky is clear and the sunshine awakens hives to a prosperous day of foraging.
Melissa bends low and plucks a small herb growing out of the cobble stones in front of her house. She holds it up to the light and shows me the tiny perforated holes in the leaves.
“That’s how you can tell it’s the medicinal St. John’s Wort.”
England is full of natural springs. Every time I come here, I seek them out. There is nothing like drinking pure water, straight from the depths of hte earth. Almost all of the springs and wells in England are dedicated in one for or another to the sacred.
Sometimes it's important to take a moment to simply appreciate beauty. Physical beauty. Beauty of nature. Beauty of place. Beauty of soul. I've been thinking a lot about beauty lately. Beauty as a power that evokes a sense of peace, wonder and love.