In May Mary and I spent two weeks visiting beekeepers in Slovenia. Why there? In part because one out of every 210 Slovenians is a beekeeper, compared to 1:3250 in the US and 1:4100 in Pennsylvania. In other words the density
of beekeepers is almost sixteen times greater in Slovenia than in the US, and beekeeping is an integral part of the landscape and of the culture. This was made evident by an area map at a bus stop in a small village in the foothills of the Alps, the legend
of which included a symbol to show where local beekeepers and their products could be found within a twenty kilometer radius of the hamlet.
One of the reasons offered for this is that the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Slovenia
was a part (or the Duchy of Carniola as it was then known) was never a colonial power, never had sugar plantations nor a cheap supply of sugar, and so preserved a long relationship with honey.
We spent a morning with Marija Sivez and her
husband Dusan Zunke who, between them, run 500 colonies (or ‘families’ as they are called in Slovenia.) Over a delightful lunch that she had prepared for us, Marija explained a little of the country’s recent history in the following way :
her grandparents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and her parents in the new Yugoslavia that was created after the First World War. She and Dusan were born in the Second World War when Yugoslavia was occupied by the Axis powers, and because she
was born in the western region, and he in the east, she had to learn Italian and acquire an Italian name, and he similarly but in German.
Her children were born in communist Yugoslavia, ruled by Josep Tito, and her grandchildren in the
new independent republic of Slovenia created in 1993 which, in 2004, became part of the European Union.
So it is not all that rare for an elderly Slovenian to have lived in six different countries in his or her lifetime without every
having to leave the village of his or her birth.
Incidentally, at the Slovenian Beekeeping Center, the Secretary General, Anton Tometz, described with much pride how, despite the turmoil the past century, beekeepers had kept in constant
contact with their colleagues throughout Europe.
Despite this turbulent past, or perhaps because of it, we found the people of this beautiful country to be proud, gentle, kind and generous to a fault. It is almost as if the
present age of peace and relative prosperity is appreciated all the more because of the tumultuous times that preceded it. And this is expressed in the sheer cleanliness and quietness of the countryside, qualities that were reinforced on a walk
along a gravel path to a waterfall when I saw a discarded cigarette butt and found myself feeling outraged, even violated.
Like many millions of people I have had my fair share of pain, failure and losses in my life. As a twenty
year old I imagined working, retiring, and eventually dying, in the country in which I had grown up. I did not anticipate, for example, having to leave in the middle of a civil war and eventually working in five countries on three different continents.
But I did, and in retrospect I see it as a rare opportunity. Like many Slovenians, I now treasure and seek kindness, gentility and generosity in contrast to the turmoil and upheaval of earlier life events.
In his book, “Second
Wind : Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life,” Dr. Bill Thomas draws a distinction between adulthood and elderhood. In contrast to “the mania for adultish independence and achievement,” elders have
a life experience and an awareness of their own mortality that provides wisdom, serenity and an ability not only to be at peace with themselves but also the skill to be peacemakers among others.
Thomas suggests there are three perspectives
as one approaches the end of adulthood. The first, and most vociferous, are the Deniers, who proudly reject the changes that come with aging and posit a future where one can be forever young. Secondly are the Realists who admit they are changing but dislike
the process and are committed to resisting them. The third and smallest group are the Enthusiasts, who openly acknowledge the difficulties that lie ahead but are eager to explore the new opportunities for growth that the passage of time provides.
Can this perspectives apply to a country and to honey bees? If so, perhaps what Mary and I experienced in Slovenia was a culture of Enthusiasm in which the painful past is accepted, current difficulties are accepted and there is an
excitement about the future. And without wanting to be overly anthropomorphic, my guess is that most animals, insects and birds, including honey bees, live fully in the present (it has been suggested, for example, that for a dog there is no such thing
as a good or a bad walk ) which includes the necessity of preparing for the future, if not of individuals, at least of the species.
Certainly the three perspectives - Denial, Realism and Enthusiasm - provide the necessary paradigms
as I start my eighth decade, together with a determination to be consciously more of a grateful Enthusiast. And the honey bees are an essential part of that determination, whether as an example, a comfort or an inspiration.