"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Sons of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding metaphors and journalism and art, for readers in 150 countries.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pages of February--Life and death on the wing


I've found a "new" John McPhee.
That might not be fair to Hannah Nordhaus because she stands alone as an accomplished writer and author.
But I'd never heard of her until my former student Lauren Vargas on Facebook extolled the impact of her book, "The Beekeeper's Lament--How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America."
I can't keep up with Vargas'  continuous consumption of books, but this one caught my attention, because she used the term "non-fiction."
I looked the book up on Amazon, and a review mentioned McPhee, who is my favorite living author. He writes about what I would call "everyday science"--geology, oranges, birch bark canoes, wildlife, conservation, long haul truckers in such compelling narratives  I've read almost everything he writes. He writes for the New Yorker and teaches non-fiction writing at Princeton. As a journalist, I'm hooked. Comparing her to him is just pure admiration.
So I bought Nordhaus's book. She's written for the Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Outside Magazine and more. The book grew out of an article in High  Country News. Her writing reminds me of McPhee's, and is just as captivating.
Unlike Vargas who probably buzzed through the book in a day or two, it took me about a week, enjoying every page.
This is a book about the commercial beekeepers who help feed you as they provide bees to pollinate America's crops...and the dangers to our food supply.
Actually, it's about more than bees--it's about life and dying.
Specifically, it's a story about one beekeeper, John Miller as he travels from California to North Dakota with bees, and his, and his fellow keepers', travails.
It opened new world. How honey is really made? How a hive is constructed? Where the queens come from? The history of beekeeping?  The diseases and dangers to bees? "Colony collapse"? It's all here, with plenty of metaphor to apply to humans too.
First three sentences:
"John Miller isn't fond of death. He takes it personally. A few years ago he even bought a Corvette, as if that could stave it off."
One of my favorite sections is about the declining North Dakota town where Miller sets up shop in June, the chapter titled, "The Human Swarm." Having lived in rural Iowa and Oklahoma, this was personal.
Snippets:
"Rural communities, like inner cities, have ceded membership in the nation's ownership society."
"It was like a sepia, soft-focus campaign ad: morning in an America most Americans have never had the privilege to know."
"We cleave to the way things are, not only to hold back a chaotic future, and not only because that is what we know...There is value in returning to the one who loves you, in keeping the family farm going, in living where you grew up, in keeping bees when no amount of common sense and self preservation can justify it The colony is collapsing in North Dakota, but not everyone is flying off."
There's more:
"He worries that beekeepers have evolved too slowly, 'a room full of old men'--senescent, like worker bees that have outlived their usefulness."
Nordhaus has also written  American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the American Southwest. I'll be buying it.

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