In August, 2013, Mary and I were in Alsace, France, for a family wedding and had the opportunity of a guided tour of the medieval center of the city of Colmar. It involved a small locomotive with four open carriages and attached
to each seat was a headset. There were fourteen languages one could choose from, with English third to French and German. There was Chinese and Japanese but no Arabic or Balkan languages. It was a truly multi-ethnic group of passengers
and Mary observed how everyone was dressed so similarly, the result no doubt of the outsourcing of the clothing industry to Asian factories where it is mass produced and then shipped back to the US, Europe, the Middle East, Asia ...
1995 I found myself in a small rural store in Zimbabwe; it was the only store of its kind for many miles and stocked almost everything in a quaint yet orderly way, including a shelf of school bags above and behind the storekeeper, each with the logo of the
Chicago Bulls imprinted on it. Michael Jordan in rural Zimbabwe, where very few houses had electricity, never mind television? To the school children it was an intriguing but meaningless design.
In the same year a BBC film crew
was anxious to document the effect of the war in Rwanda on the gorilla population and, because of the turmoil in East Africa, it had to come from the west, which meant a week long trip by boat up the Congo river followed by several more days in canoes beyond
the Stanley Falls. One night they stopped at a camp of pygmies in a quest to find guides who could lead them through the forests to the northern edge of the Mitambu mountains in Kivu province where the great apes could be found. As the camera panned
over the camp fire in this remotest of areas, a woman came into the picture. It was difficult to assess her age because, being small of stature anyway, the T-shirt she was wearing swept to the ground. On the orange T, in large black letters, was
inscribed “FREE OJ.”
The theme running through these experiences is the unintended effects of globalization. As writers like Wendell Berry, Michael Pollen and Bill Cronon point out repeatedly, most of us have become very
good at doing or producing one particular thing and at consuming everything else. Ironically, the further one gets from the actual product the greater the chance of economic success; one has to think only of the extravagant wages of many CEO’s
compared to those on the shop floor, even though ironically the latter probably has the practical skills to survive without the former, but not vice-versa.
It is painful that the millions of American workers laid off in the recent recession
are desperately seeking re-training so that they can re-enter the job market. Their previous experience and expertise seem to have no value of their own. And that initial expertise was the result of choices we made, often unwittingly, at a young age
that determined much of the rest of our lives. I can recall vividly, in the 1960’s, a wise man telling a group of assembled high school boys that about two thirds of the jobs that we would end up doing as adults did not then exist. We scoffed,
and yet today I would estimate that two thirds was a conservative estimate. I recall too the adage that if had been a computer in New York City in 1900 to consider what the city would look like in the year 2000, the answer might have been, “Six
feet deep in horse manure.‘
This division of labor makes us despair of ever changing the way we live. It is easy to feel that change can only come from outside, perhaps proactively from a higher authority like government
or reactively after some kind of disaster, because we no longer feel we can ourselves effect significant change.
Part of the frustration is that in this new outsource economy it is difficult to know how things are grown or made,
and to relate to those who grow and make them. Beekeeping, like gardening, cannot be outsourced. Putting aside queens and drones, who together make up about 3% of a colony, bees are not specialists. Each worker bee undertakes a series
of tasks during her brief life, starting with cleaning the cell from which she emerged and ending as a forager. Each one gets to experience almost all of the functions of a hive, and yet no bee can survive alone.
Many of us
are finding relief from this feeling of dependence on people and events outside of themselves by turning to activities which show that we can still self-provide, we can still create, manage and control a mini eco-system. Gardening is one such activity;
beekeeping is another. As Al Summers said in an interview with Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper, “Bees are a portal to a much wider view of the environment. Much as I like bees, and they do have a nostalgic appeal, that’s not
my dominant reason for beekeeping. It’s my style of being environmentally responsible.”
Being attentive to the needs of the bees leads to greater appreciation for the intricate work and interactions that makes life
possible, an awareness of the complexity of the many systems involved in producing say, an apple for the table or water from the faucets in Charleston, WV. This in turn changes our relationship to the environment, both immediate and wide
spread, and renews our appreciation for the people who provide what we accept unthinkingly as the necessities of life.