Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Uncle Engel's Bees

Bees are returning to Uncle Engel’s hives.

In the northern tip of the Eifel, at the very edge of the national forest, in a hidden clearing you might never notice if you didn’t know what you were looking for or at, is a small bee house concealed by mounds of neatly stacked firewood. I saw it for the first time this past winter when HH and I went for a walk in the forest with his Great Uncle Engel. He seems a delicate man to look at him, now in his 70’s his back has begun it’s bend and his voice so soft it is just more than a whisper, but he is far stronger than he appears and every day he climbs the sloping trail from his house to tend his swath of forest, removing fallen trees then sawing them into firewood, and tending his bees.

I don’t know how it came to be that he was given this parcel of public land, perhaps because he’s been coming here since he was old enough to walk. He was raised in a farmhouse just beyond the border of the forest and he told me his grandfather would take him for walks in these same woods and talk to him of the trees and plants and birds, much as he does with HH. As he described it, the forest was his childhood playground and movie theatre and best friend. Perhaps the local fathers decided that Uncle Engel deserved a small patch of this forest for himself, or maybe it was simply that he and his ax and his bees provided an important service to the community. For whatever reason, he has worked there steadily for many years until recently when his bees disappeared.

Just after Easter we went up to the Eifel for a weekend. It was a Sunday morning but unlike his neighbors, for whom Sunday is a day of intense idleness, Engel was wearing work gloves and busy tending to a repair on the house when we came to visit. I had read news reports about the bee colony crisis in America and was curious about how Engel’s bees were weathering this ecological storm. His reply was brief; his bees were dead. My German is still rudimentary but I understood from his expression if not from his words, how devastating this was for him. He told me that beekeepers in the Netherlands were also loosing bees and that he had no idea why this was happening. Unlike some bees that are trucked from field to field in the high season to pollinate the crops, Engel’s bees live a life of relative calm, tucked away in the forest. If whatever it was that was decimating the bee population had reached it’s creepy hands into Engel’s hives, there must be something very wrong in the world.

On Mother’s Day we were back in the Eifel, celebrating the weekend with Oma and happened to see Uncle Engel. He was noticeably happier than during our last visit, he is seldom short of a smile but his eyes seemed just a bit brighter. He said the bees were returning, not his bees, but new bees that had somehow found his hives and were hard at work. Late Sunday afternoon I went for a walk alone in the fields of hops and raps and wheat that abut the forest and noticed here and there a honeybee. I don’t know how Uncle Engel can tell one bee from another, his bees from strangers, but I’m happy for him that the bees, some bees, are returning and that perhaps whatever it was that sent the others away wasn’t so terrible after all.

I’m happy too for HH who has grown accustomed to having a spoonful of Engel’s honey on his peanut butter sandwich in the morning and who looks forward to walking with his Great Uncle in the forest, listening to the gentle lilting dialect he falls into now and then as he guides him along the paths he has known all his life, paths that are even now becoming the stuff of my son’s recollections.

© German Diary 2007

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