Too Big to Understand

Too Big to Comprehend

In 1986, while with a group of high school students in the beautiful, romantic medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, in Bavaria, one of my colleagues suggested to some students that they should “Stay close to Mr. Barnes so he can tell you what he is seeing.”   We were walking atop the wall that surrounds the town, much of which was laboriously and lovingly reconstructed after the Second World War, and no doubt my colleague meant well but I realized I didn’t want to talk. It was only much later that I understood that what I did want to do was to feel, to absorb the atmosphere of what had happened there over the past millennia, to imagine and empathize with those generations of villagers whose lives and experiences were very real even if they will never be recorded in the history books.  To talk would have been to release and minimize and curtail those emotions, and as I recall, I did indeed keep quiet.  Doubtfully very few, if any, of the students understood.


I get the same feelings in a Gothic cathedral, not least as happened at Chartres when a lone guitarist was playing gently at the back of the nave, the remarkable acoustics wafting his gentle melody throughout the sanctuary.   And I think now, in retrospect, that underlying my teaching was an unconscious attempt to encourage each student in the classroom to find a sense of awe within some aspect of the curriculum, an aspect that I could not predict or anticipate.  I suspect that too did not happen as much as I would have liked. 


Edmund Burke used the word sublime, for Sigmund Freud it was oceanic feelings and Abraham Maslow talked about peak experiences, but each refers to the experience of encountering something so vast in size, skill, beauty, intensity or significance that we struggle to comprehend it; indeed we may have to adjust our world view to accommodate it. 


In the seventeenth century on the southern coast of Africa, the survivors of a people then known as the Hottentots were asked of their impressions when they saw the first Dutch caravels rounding the Cape of Good Hope.  “They were so big,” responded one man, “that we could not see them.”  It was an awesome sighting, too big to understand initially, but their worldview would be changed forever.


At roughly the same time Francis Bacon suggested that “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” Beekeeping is an art as well as a science, and invariably the more one gets acquainted with honey bees not only does the sense of wonder and mystery deepen but  our worldview expands and our egos shrink by comparison. Psychologists Patty Van Cappellen and Vassilis Saroglou showed that awe makes people feel a greater sense of oneness with others, while Paul Piff and his colleagues have shown that putting people in an awe-inducing situation increased their feelings of generosity. Peter Suedfeld, in an analysis of the memoirs of 56 astronauts, showed that their awesome experience increased their belief in an interconnected humanity. 


Practical application, as Randy Oliver might say.  Is this why new beekeepers invariably comment on how friendly, welcoming and helpful beekeepers are?  That the awe that develops as one becomes increasingly familiar with honey bees encourages feelings of oneness, generosity and interconnection that extend beyond the hive?  


The observations of some significant beekeeper/scientists enhance that sense of awe.   The Swiss naturalist, François Huber, was only fifteen years old when he began to suffer from a disease which gradually resulted in total blindness; but, with the aid of his wife, Marie Aimée Lullin, and his servant, François Burrens, he carried out investigations that laid the scientific foundations of the life history of the honey bee.  


Karl von Frisch was an Austrian ethologist who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for his investigation of the sensory perceptions of the honey bee and in particular his decoding of the  meaning of the waggle dance.


And then there is Dr. Tom Seeley of Cornell University whose prime  focus has been on  understanding the phenomenon of swarm intelligence, culminating in the superb publication, “Honey Bee Democracy.”  More recently he has been the inspiration for, and part of the team that developed,  the Honey Bee Algorithm  which uses observations of honey bee foraging behavior to allocate shared web servers to internet traffic.


The current trend in honey bee research is genomics.  At the Third International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Health and Policy, held here in Pennsylvania last July,  it was noticeable how the honey bee genome featured in almost all of the presentations.  It may be a reflection of my limited understanding but I did not feel the same sense of reverence and esteem as when listening to Lucy King’s explanation of the behavior of elephants that were confronted with log hives suspended by wires around a crop field. 


In a speech at Georgetown University on May 4, 2011, focused on our loss of connection with the land and the sense of awe that that connection evokes,  Wendell Berry argued that we need a change in the teaching of biology in schools K - 12 with an emphasis on what used to be called ‘natural history.’  We need field biologists, practical naturalists, who will take their students outdoors for more than just the occasional field trip, teaching them to read their local landscape so that economic and ecological responsibility become a single practice until they realize “… that the habitat of every creature in our home countryside is also our habitat, and to make it less inhabitable for other creatures makes it less inhabitable as well for us.” Because, in nature, everything is connected.


Barbara Hagerty, writing in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of The Atlantic, and citing George H. Bush as the poster child of a happy second act, describes what midlife research suggests is the secret to fulfillment : shifting away from ambition and acquisition and toward activities that have lasting and intrinsic worth, such as investing in important relationships and causes or hobbies that give joy and meaning to one’s life.”  For me that hobby is beekeeping, not only for the awe that it evokes but equally the human relationships that develop because of it. 


We cannot all go to space to experience that sense of interconnectivity,  or perhaps witness at first hand the miracle of childbirth, but we can go for a walk in the woods, enjoy a waterfall, marvel at a colony of honey bees, or spend time with special friends, and thus find the generosity, the sense of oneness, even the awe, that brings meaning to life and may even change our world view. 


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my