“Gradually, Toby stopped thinking she should leave the Gardeners,” begins Chapter 19 of Margaret Atwood’s book 2 of her Maddaddam Trilogy, The Year of the Flood.
The “flood” is the apocalyptic “Waterless Flood,” predicted by God’s Gardeners, a vegetarian sect, and created by Crake (Oryx and Crake, book 1 of the trilogy).
“One day, old walnut-faced Pilar—Eve Six—asked Toby if she wanted to learn about bees,” and Toby does. The scene includes Pilar’s “bee lore”—such as “Honey helps an open wound”—and highlights the fragility of those bees under the weight of human negligence: “It was the pesticides, or the hot weather, or a disease, or maybe all of these—nobody knew exactly.”
Atwood’s trilogy, and this novel specifically, is quite chilling—for me a reread—in the time of Covid-19; our 2020 pandemic at least forces humans to confront our fragility, but it should also provoke some humility for our role in the entire ecosystem, Nature, or as Emily Dickinson envisions, “Landscape.”
What human behavior costs bees also costs humanity—bees as harbingers of our own inflicted doom.
That God’s Gardners are vegetarian, not vegan, is a distinction captured by their devotion and tending to honey bees. For several years now, I have been learning about veganism, and one of the most surprising elements was discovering that for vegans, honey remains a point of debate.
The standard “eat nothing with a face” framing of veganism is a bit fair, and a bit careless. Vegans also shun eggs and milk, produced by creatures with faces, driven by a concern for sentient life that is central to the Gardner’s in Atwood’s novel.
Some of veganism can be grounded in consent—creatures other than humans being given the same grace of consent for their lives and that which they produce—while some is certainly anchored in the sanctity of life, a rejection of reading “dominion” in Genesis as nature and all living creatures subject to the folly of humans.
While bees producing honey seems the same as chickens producing eggs and cows producing milk, the gathering of and using honey continues to be allowed among some vegans and rejected by others.
Once unpacked, in fact, veganism becomes a nearly inextricable ethical spider’s web of contradictions. Fruits and vegetables are not above the workings of nature and living creatures, pollination for example.
How arbitrary is the line between pollination and honey/egg/milk production?
One morning, a little over three years ago, seemingly in a different universe than the world we live in during April of 2020, I was opening a small packet of honey to put in my coffee at Starbucks.
This may have been around the time that I learned some vegans rejected the use of honey (vegans do not, however, shun sugar). So I found myself overwhelmed in that moment with recognizing the arrogance of being human, the work of bees so neatly and cavalierly packaged for human consumption.
For many years, I had avoided processed granular sugar by using honey in my coffee. In recent years, along with the ethical dilemma, I have had to admit that sugar is sugar in the human body so the commitment to honey has always been fairly arbitrary and pointless.
After some health concerns highlighted by blood work last fall, I have renewed my quest to be sugar free, and have even abandoned my dear honey, drinking coffee with creamer only.
That morning at Starbucks began a poem, we rape the bees (because we can), because I stood there thinking about bees as workers, and the stark reality in the U.S. that workers are seen as autonomous beings even as our capitalistic consumer culture compels us to work or find ourselves less than human.
Health care and retirement along with our wages are directly tied to our status as workers. As the Covid-19 crisis is showing us, without the security of health care and wages, we are all dehumanized.
Our Waterless Flood has been a sort of reverse baptism that should wash us clean of the sin of the inhumanities of capitalism. This pandemic may as well call us to reconsider not only our basic humanity but our oversized role in all of nature.
For us in the South, we fear the invisible threat of Covid-19 as pollen covers over everything during an April that has brought us temperatures in the 80s, a swarm of tornadoes, and a frost and freeze warning.
Is making honey and serving the queen simply the beeness of being a bee, an existential fact like Sisyphus and his rock? Is working in the service of the U.S. economy simply the basic humanity of being human as well, a fate shared with the bees?
I included lyrics from “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (The National)—“I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees”—in my poem, and am often drawn to lyrics and poetry about bees.
So as I approach the end of book 2 of Atwood’s trilogy while I also live a new life guided more than normal by simply surviving our Waterless Flood, I venture outside everyday for some relief, some peace—everything yellow-dusted in pollen—and eventually I cough and sneeze, tempered then by the new paranoia we all feel from the basic human reactions that may signal the Waterless Flood is right there before us.
One of my favorite spots to sit outside my apartment, a converted cotton mill in the quickly gentrifying South, is among an assortment of bees and wasps in the rafters of the deck overhang. So far, we share the space in harmony, although I have to calm my own knee-jerk fears.
Now, I am tempered by Atwood’s speculative novels that seem all too real, but also Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now,” published the same year I wrote my bee poem, ending: “And then all the bees were dead.”
Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose, Naomi Shihab Nye
[The murmuring of bees has ceased], Emily Dickinson