Charles Foster reviews Helen Jukes’s ‘A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Year of Keeping Bees’ (hardback, 293 pages, published by Scribner and out now).
I’m suspicious of those stories in which someone is redeemed by an epiphanic encounter with the natural world. There are plenty of them around. Ground down by deadlines and tube trains, living for shareholders and halitotic middle managers, and forced to worship at the altars of profit and reductionism, the typical author, prompted by a therapist, a concerned friend, or the knowing eye of a sparrow in a Balham garden, goes to a wood. There she meets the old gods of earth, wind, and sun (if not Pan himself), and reconsecrates herself. She realises, in a dramatic moment in an ancient glade, that she is part of a system bigger, older and kinder than Neo-Liberalism. The birds and the sheep pledge kinship. The author returns (probably vegan) to the office, and finds it strangely bearable. Or becomes an aromatherapist. As the curtain goes down, Kumbaya plays poignantly.
I’m suspicious because these stories rarely note that the natural world is out to eat us, and one day will. If you tell me that your life has been changed by the sheen of a crow’s wing, I’ll find it hard to take you seriously unless you’re enthusiastically looking forward to sky-burial. I’ll gladly take lessons about the restorative power of the wild from a shaman who has been ritually dismembered and then reborn in a Siberian cave, or a Tibetan monk who meditates for a month in total darkness and drinks from a cup made of a human skull. I’ll be less convinced if they come from a re-illusioned commuter who wears a hemp shirt at the weekend and reads Thoreau on the Northern Line.
Yes, I know about forest bathing. I don’t doubt that patients recover faster if the window of the ward looks out on a field, or that a stroll in the park raises your serotonin level. I accept that John Buchan’s anti-heroes were better people, less dangerous to world peace, after they’d been dragged through the wilderness, and that Henry Williamson, back from the trenches of France, felt a lot better once he’d run down the beach and dived into the waves at Putsborough. I understand Richard Mabey’s ontological vertigo as he felt his umbilical connection with the wild sludging up. I’d like to think that no one believes more fervently than I do that humans, even if they are wearing a suit and a whole set of ludicrous urban presumptions, are necessarily and inalienably wild creatures, and function a lot better if they admit it.
But to claim epiphany – and hence really radical transformation – on the basis of a holiday from the office, is to misunderstand. The world, generous though it is, does not give up its treasures so cheaply. Or, to put it another way, our modern malaise is too profound for quick and painless cures.
It was with these cynical misgivings that I opened Helen Jukes’ book. Here we go again, I thought. A young woman, caged in an airless cubicle with a teetering in-tray, is given some bees by a group of friends. She becomes obsessed with the bees, her life improves, and she even gets her ideal man. It all sounded like Bridget Jones’ Bee Diary – though (as revealed by the first skim) without Jones’ whining self-pity or fatal poverty of judgment.
I was terribly wrong. This is a moving, elegantly poised exercise in diffidence and under-statement. Jukes knows, or discovers, that the one way to ensure that you’ll never be happy is to search for happiness. Happiness, if hunted, will go to ground and can never be dug out. It can only ever be approached indirectly. And it is always and only a gift, like those bees.
The great epics of the pre-modern world, before humans and the natural world became dislocated, typically denounce hubris. There’s no quicker route to disaster than to try to become a god. Less common than these denunciations (at least outside the literature of the Abrahamic monotheisms) are the other side of the hubristic coin – the testimonials to the power of humility. Yet humility works as a route to human thriving. In fact nothing else does. Jukes’ book is an unusual, unfashionable, and compelling reminder.
She doesn’t go hell for leather for redemption. She expects nothing and, therefore, ends up with everything. She doesn’t seek out theophany. Instead she waits tremulously for her bees, reading everything about bees she can find. And when they arrive, she merely observes them. The use of the word ‘mere’ should by now give the game away, for everything that is ‘mere’ has the capacity to become great, and everything that is not is doomed.
Jukes’ observation had the nature and effect of staring at a candle flame in a darkened room, or of learning to watch the breath pouring into and out of the body. It gathered together all the disparate strands of herself into one place. It became possible for her to locate herself; to speak meaningfully about herself as a sensual entity, a moral agent, and, clearly, it gave her her own voice – the voice, as it turns out, of a quietly remarkable writer.
This, then, is a chronicle of humanization; of personalization; of becoming oneself. One has to become oneself before one can relate to anyone or anything else, and (humans being quintessentially relational beings) one becomes oneself by relating to things other than oneself. You can only be edified by contemplating your own navel if you realise that you are not your navel.
The book starts wistfully. Mircea Eliade noted that, in traditional societies (which, all romantic noble-savagery aside, are far healthier than our own) the home is the place from which the world makes sense. It stands at the junction of two axes: a vertical axis, connecting this world with that of the gods and the dead, and a horizontal axis, along which all of this world’s journeys are made. If that’s right, muses Jukes, thinking about her spinsterish shared house in Oxford, ‘what do you do when, even standing in your own house, your senses feel lost, or blocked, or broken down?’ She gives no immediate answer, but goes on to comment, hopefully, that Eliade didn’t stop there, but held that home was not a physical place, but a state of being: a place from which worlds could be founded and in which meanings are forged.
The bees helped her to create a new state of being; to found a new world; to forge new meanings. They made her focus not on ‘feeling better, but on feeling better’. The new world was vibrant with mystery: ‘Nothing was as it appeared when we went beekeeping’. Her beekeeping friend Luke started noticing colours differently: bees see more blue than we do, and they switched on blue vision in him. He saw previously invisible blues not only in lavender bushes, but in watch straps and bottle tops. And Jukes seems to have grown as a poet. Pliny thought that honey was the ‘saliva of stars’ or the ‘perspiration of the sky’. I suspect that Jukes now agrees. The bees gave her the home she wanted: As she opened the hive she had a ‘sense of escape, of touching the edge of something foreign and new; and also the feeling – as I look – of gathering focus and attention. As though I retreat to the hive so as to come together; escape in order to find some re-assemblage. Which is a kind of homing, I suppose.’
It’s a tale of reciprocity. The book is subtitled ‘A Year of Keeping Bees’. That’s inaccurate. It’s actually a tale of how Jukes, and her year, were kept by the bees. They taught her how to look; to define herself by reference to the network of relationships of which she was a part. She worried that she was relying too much on her bees: ‘…I’ve been foisting a lot of my own anxieties onto the bees. Wanting them to stay, to be okay, to show me that wildness can dwell here’. She was constantly fearful of the heresy of ownership. The bees are wild animals, she kept reminding herself. They were not like her and not hers. And, again, this points up a crucial lesson: that all proper relationships are grounded on an express acknowledgement and celebration of otherness.
Yet, although the book is full of such potent lessons, Jukes never preaches, declares, denounces or contends. She summarises, without comment, the research of Martin Lindaver, who raised a colony of bees inside a closed room with a fixed light bulb. When they were released outside, they got lost. They had never learned to orientate themselves in relation to a light source whose position changed relative to them. If I’d been telling that story I doubt I’d have resisted the temptation to sermonise – to observe that that’s a good metaphor for the disorientation of modern humans (and look, I haven’t resisted the temptation now). But the book is all the better for Jukes’ restraint.
There’s never any attempt to dramatize. Each chapter ends modestly, with the truth, rather than with one of the synthetic cliff-hangers beloved of editors. She avoids the alluringly obvious parallels between her own relationships and the apotheosis of relationship which is the hive. All this denotes an unusual confidence in her material – in the natural world itself. If the world is rendered honestly, there is never any need for hype. A good nature writer tries to be invisible and artless. Jukes never strides; she tiptoes reverently. She never wrenches; she eases and unpicks. She hides her own light under many bushels. And so, through holy paradox, she is all the more luminously visible.
Any account of enhanced human thriving (and this certainly is such an account), will necessarily have something to say about ethics. And this does too, though obliquely. Jukes recurrently uses words with moral colour. When she first looks inside a hive she is hooked: ‘By the bees, and by the beekeeping too – those precise and careful movements that were not unlike tenderness; not unlike a kind of intimacy’. She is punctilious and dutiful at work, although it is drudgery. The targets in the office are offensive because ‘they don’t cultivate trust, or care….’ It is important to know how a bee perceives the world not just because it is interesting and will maximise her honey harvest, but because relationship is good in itself, and because understanding facilitates relationship.
Yet on the feasibility of deriving rules of human conduct from the natural world (a subject of ancient and enduring interest and importance) Jukes is characteristically but rather frustratingly silent. She does mention, with apparent approval, the old myths that see bees as messengers who can shuttle between worlds (perhaps implying that they bear ethical messages from other realms); and with evident interest Plutarch’s story of bees being bad tempered towards men who had recently had sex; and Rucella (who thought that bees could identity the unchaste by the repellent smell of their breath), and the Eastern European conviction that a girl’s virginity would be vindicated if she walked near a hive and was ignored rather than stung. But that’s it. We are left to wonder.
Of course it is right that we are. It is a book full of wonders and wondering.
Jukes knows, as the authors of those dubious natural epiphanies do not, the limits of the comfort that the natural world can give: ‘[t]he hive was not about escape at all, but about the upwards thrust of my own hard-fought belief that something else was possible – a different kind of perception, of relation within this less-than-perfect range.’
Now that I can believe.
Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, and the author of Being a Beast.