Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Bees

Only a few, curious and confused, linger by the opening now. The process has gone more quickly than they predicted. “Don’t be surprised if they’re still around for a few days,” said Gerhard. “When the workers return, they may gather at the opening and form a clump,” said Chris, “but then they’ll calm down and go inside.”

My daughter first noticed the bees: “MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! THERE ARE BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES IN MY CLOSET!” I shooed my daughter out of the room and then shooed the dozen bees out the window in her closet. Weird, I thought. Where did those bees come from?

I went outside, checked around, didn’t find anything. Hmmm, very weird.

The next morning, doing whatever it is I randomly do in the morning, I saw them: just a few--but very focused--bees working the corner of the house by the roofline. Some hovered and watched as others went in and out under the fascia between the top of the adobe and the eaves. A few buzzed around the connecting wall.

I knew this wasn’t good. Although there were only maybe 50 bees hanging around at this point, they had to be the first wave, and more were sure to come. Something had to be done.

Next stop, internet. I found out pretty quickly that googling <“bee removal” city> will just take you straight to extermination companies. I wanted something better for my bees. (By now, of course, they were “my bees.” Of course.)

Better was <”bee keepers” city>. That search led me to a local fellow, Pete Holtzen, who was incredibly helpful on the phone, though he said that given my circumstances (adobe house, tile roof), there was no way he could save the bees. He also mentioned that they were almost 100% certain to be Africanized bees.

So he referred me to Gerhard of All Cities Pest Control (the words “pest control” stinging my ears). He said Gerhard was the only person he referred to. After I checked out Gerhard’s credentials, I understood why.

Gerhard Gengelbach has been in the business since 1969. He knows his bees and was the only Southern California bee professional invited to participate in the California Africanized Bee Task Force by the state governor.

Plus, he’s a hell of a nice guy. Each time I talked with him on the phone (there were several calls back and forth), he told me bee stories. Despite other recommendations from dear friends, I knew Gerhard was my guy.

While waiting for Gerhard to call back and confirm our appointment, I did more homework. I suspected that I would receive additional DIY suggestions, so in a preemptive strike, I tried, “how to get rid of bees” (the kind of search I would never ordinarily do). I came across all kinds of crazy stuff (moth balls, bug zappers, fly strip, soapy water), but most of the stories ended with something like, “Well, we tried everything but then had to call in a professional who told us that if we’d waited another week the 500-pound hive would have come through our ceiling.”

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But these stories did help assuage my nagging conscience: As a general rule, I just plain do not kill things. Spiders are left unmolested, decorating my house with their webs; flies are politely escorted outdoors; errant rodents and reptiles are scooped up in coffee cans or toilet paper rolls and gently deposited in a secluded niche outside.

Tarantulas are safe here, as are rattlesnakes. So it was with tremendous cognitive dissonance that I embarked on this whole “bee problem” adventure.

I decide to check on the bees again (which I’ve been doing about every fifteen minutes since I noticed them), and as soon as I approach the front door, I know something is different. The hum is heavy, dense, unmistakable. Rounding the corner of the house, I see them: hundreds, no, thousands of bees coming home. They have gathered in such numbers that their sound makes it hard to think. Simultaneously thrilled and terrified, I watch the growing clump of bees on the roofline, their buzz rousing long-dead instincts . . . to what? I’m not sure, but I go inside to call Gerhard. “Ah,” says the woman who answers the phone, “they’re swarming.” I shouldn’t worry because Gerhard will be out the next day.

I grab my camera and return to the watch the bees. Everywhere, bees swarming, flying, buzzing—happy, it seems. The photographs I take show . . . stuff in the sky around the bees. I call it bee ectoplasm and ask on twitter if it could be bee poop. Yes, someone confirms, they do that when they’re excited.

So the bees are excited but also quite calm as I move in more closely to take additional pictures. I’m fairly certain at this point that they aren’t Africanized. In fact, I’m fairly certain these are the nicest and most intelligent bees that have ever existed. As the sun sets, the bees continue to gather, making their way inside the adobe walls of my home, their home.

Gerhard and his assistant Chris showed up right on time the next day. After a tour of the property—where Gerhard pointed out other areas of the house with signs of previous bee infestation—we returned to the bees. Gerhard confirmed my assessment of them. These were “nice Italian bees.” You can get really close to them. Not so nice are German bees—get within a couple feet, and they’ll notice. Africanized bees, of course, don’t want you in their space at all.

The “kill,” as they call it, was almost disturbingly uneventful: Chris went up the ladder and applied smoke to further calm the bees, then powder to kill them. I watch from a distance, again taking photographs. Gerhard has left by now, his curiosity about the adobe house satisfied. My stomach turns, and I take picture after picture, trying to distract myself from what is happening.

I relive my encounter with the bees so many times over the next few months that it becomes a sort of motif. For my birthday, a friend gives me a ring featuring a realistic illustration of a bee. In metals class, I make a pendant and earrings telling the story of the bees.

photo credit Anne Wolf

Another friend gives me a yoga mat with cartoonish bees on it, and after that first exhausting power yoga class, as I lie prone, eyes closed, relaxing for Savasana, the bees visit me. I can feel them in my hair, quietly, calmly buzzing. So real is the sensation, my throat catches. You are forgiven, their hum says. You are forgiven.
Months later, I will help friend Kim tend her bees as she checks the combs for harvest. Still later, we will head over to Cheryl’s ranch to work her long-neglected hives. I am happy—close in, sweating in the hot bee suit, relishing the buzz around my head, the bee bodies lightly tapping here and there, and I feel that we’re on the same side, the bees and I, as it should be, at last.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Twitter Scream: Plagiarism, Oh My!

this is original
Note: Although this post has absolutely nothing to do with chickens, it does relate to the other half of my sabbatical project, which is on "plagiarism." So it's goin' here.

One thread of my plagiarism project concerns the weirdness around notions of "originality," "individuality," and "ownership." We (westerners) have, I think, a tendency to see our actions and their results as gloriously unique.

Without belaboring the whole western-cult-of-the-individual concept, suffice it to say that we can hardly be blamed for this tendency--it's as "natural" to us as allowing 18 inches of speaking space per person in casual conversation (and just as arbitrary).

In actual practice, people come up with similar ideas all the time; we're in a similar environment, subject to similar influences, so why wouldn't we? And yet we remain convinced that "our" idea is our property.

I was first struck by this phenomenon several years ago while reading a thread on a Writing Center listserv (primarily used by college writing center coordinators, tutors, and composition teachers). One participant, a comp instructor, was outraged because another instructor had "stolen" her personal quote that she always put at the bottom of her handouts. The instructor was asking other listserv participants how she should broach this obvious lack of professional etiquette if not downright illegal behavior.

The quote? Something along the lines of "Writing is never done; it is just due."

Now, I'd heard that quote in many different versions over the course of my career, and I was pretty sure it wasn't from one of this instructor's handouts. So I did a Google search and found references to the same sentiment going back to at least the 1940s. Possibly the instructor had come across one of these versions, forgotten it, and then remembered it later as her own. Or maybe she came up with the idea "independently." Every writer knows the feeling of not having enough time to "finish" a piece; every writer knows that the deadline is often what determines "finished." It makes sense, then, that among thousands of individuals having this same experience, wanting to express it succinctly, a few would come up with something like "writing is never done; it is just due."

Recent case: Today (now yesterday, 26 May), Twitter (and subsequently, the rest of the 'net) went nuts with corporate hate when Etsy artist Stevie Koerner claimed her design of silver state pendants with a heart cut-out was stolen by Urban Outfitters. On her blog, i make shiny things, Koerner says that Urban Outfitters not only stole the design, but the name, and some of her copy.

Comparing the designs on Koerner's blog (the Urban Outfitters page is no longer up), you can see that the designs are almost identical. But is one so unique that the other can be called a rip-off? State charms have been around for ages. The outline of a state is not a work of art (at least not anymore). And the "I heart X" sentiment (or product name) can hardly be claimed to be original to Koerner. In fact I ♥ New York and I ♥ Vermont have been cliches for as long as I can remember.

As for Koerner's claims about the lifted copy, I was baffled until the Huffington Post enlightened me. Apparently "wear your locale love" (Urban Outfitters) is a blatant rip-off of "wear your love" (Koerner). A Google search of "wear your love," though, brings up over 13 million hits (many in reference to jewelry and clothing). Maybe not so original after all.

To support her claim that Urban Outfitters "have stolen designs from plenty of other artists," Koerner includes a link to a Village Voice blog piece, ironically itself a patchwork of other source material (linked, but mostly unnamed): The Brooklyn Paper points to a ribcage pendant, a shark jaw necklace--these objects are even more generic. Stylelist highlights a "legalize it" maple-leaf design . . . hmm, maybe they both ripped off the marijuana leaf guy? The Consumerist presents perhaps the best case against Urban Outfitters, a rip-off of Johnny Cupcake's cupcake-dropping-bomber t-shirt design (especially as he had submitted a similar design to Urban Outfitters). Then again, even this article points out "the whole 'dropping a bomb of x' concept isn't really new."

I think that as artists/writers/designers, we can be more aware of the cultural conditioning that casts us as "individuals" and denies our common ties. We can be more honest with ourselves about how "original" our stuff is. And we can be willing to acknowledge that even if we never thought of it before, it doesn't mean someone else hasn't. Jumping to conclusions about being ripped-off, whether it's plagiarism or design-stealing, diminishes the seriousness of these offenses. It also makes a lot of well-meaning people look pretty foolish.

Post-script: Just came across this wonderful post on the blog Regretsy, which goes into more detail on the "originality" question. Go read it right now!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chickens Will Break Your Heart ... just to prove you have one

Today was a sad day in chickerland.

First, @scrummycupcake's precious Dave and Pru were victims of a tragic and unforeseeable accident.

Then, @AFairCoop mysteriously lost a hen.

My heart broke for both, but then I found out that my own step-chicks were gone.

The origin of the step-chicks is actually a pretty funny (as in, odd) story: Hen shows up at the ranch (I should explain the ranch, Pete, the chickens, but that's another post; suffice it to say that Pete lives at the ranch. So do a lot of chickens) with three new chicks. Sundown nears, and Ma takes to the sycamore tree, as usual with all the other chickens, leaving her new brood cheepcheepcheeping behind. Pete brings them inside, and a routine is established: each day Ma will show up in the morning for her chicks, and each evening she will drop them off with Pete. (Oh, and cats are involved too: see the video.)

One of the three chicks expired, but Pete brought the other two over the first weekend. (Chickie sleepover!) Here's a pic:

Now, just about all of my chickens have come via the ranch--orphans, rejects, spawn of rejects. But Pete wouldn't let me keep these two. He said he was attached. So I let go (sorta) and enjoyed them from something of a distance. My step-chicks, I called them (no offense intended to step-people everywhere).

One weekend--I can't remember if Pete brought them here or just kept them inside at his place because he was here--the chicks were away from their ma for a couple days. After that, she moved on and didn't want anything to do with them. (Close-up chicken owners will be very familiar with this dynamic.) So then the chickies just hung out with Pete all the time--indoors and out, but especially in:

The chicks were getting bigger, so some of the time they spent in a coop set up for MR: Mangled Rooster, a casualty from the Great Rooster Wars of a couple weeks prior. MR himself had a nasty run-in with a possum, who managed to get in the coop. MR's cries alerted Pete, and he was able to save poor Uber-Mangled Roo.

I should note here that the ranch, while practically in the city, is Predator Central. Next to the Sweetwater River, it hosts possums, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, and numerous birds of prey. (Oddly, out here in the sticks, Jamul, the main problem is coyotes. I guess they ate everything else.)

At any rate, last night (while Pete was over here), something got into the coop again. All we know is that when he got home today, the coop door was ajar six inches, the chicks were gone, and all that was left were some feathers and innards. (MR was okay though.)

Anyone who has ever cared for chickens knows how devastating this scene is. Anyone who hasn't probably can't even begin to grasp the complexity of feelings that accompany it.

For most of the world, chickens are meat. Meet (no pun intended) a chicken--for real--and you'll be overwhelmed. Those of us who are overwhelmed try to do the best we can, whether it's free-range-and-take-your-chances, or house-chicken-is-not-an-entree. Or even free-range-and-yeah-you're-still-an-entree. As Annie Dillard once said, and I'm going by memory here, these things are not issues; they are mysteries.

If there's anything I want to do with what's left of my feeble writing skills, it's teasing out at least a few threads of this mystery. . . .

To close, here is the last pic of the chicks, taken (and adulterated by Pete) three days ago:

I miss them too. . . .

Saturday, January 31, 2009

more in response

Doug very kindly replied to my post. Read more at the link below. (I didn't mean to come off so nasty, but I agree with TC that I sounded in assault mode.)

Friday, January 30, 2009

In response

to Doug Green, “What Chickens?”

Whenever I run across someone who was reared or did some rearing on a chicken farm (and there are a surprising number of such folks), their assessment of the birds inevitably runs to the negative. They declare the birds stupid, mean, dirty, and stinky. I’m sure they are speaking partly from resentment of the chores they were required to do, but they are also speaking from fact.

Fact: Take any animal (including humans) and house it in cramped quarters, keep it bored, and treat it like crap, and yes, you will end up with a stupid, mean, dirty, stinky creature. Like, duh.

Let’s start with poop. People poop doesn’t smell so great. In fact, some of it is downright puke-inducing. Light a match, turn on the fan, it still stinks to high heaven. Ditto for dog poo. And who in their right mind would take a bunch of dogs, throw ‘em in a big cage with shavings on the floor, leave ‘em there, and not expect to faint at the result?

Don’t even get me started with cats. I’ve been working with cats my whole life, love them dearly, but not only is their poo foul in the extreme, their pee is The Smell That Will Not Die. Ever.

Now, let’s address danger, shall we? No doubt, any chicken, let alone a spurred rooster, can inflict some damage. This is serious, and a responsible chicken owner will take precautions. A pet hamster can also inflict damage, so a responsible hamster owner wouldn’t stuff it in the face of a two-year-old. You don’t have to win a Nobel Prize to figure these things out. And if you’re going to own an animal, you oughta know what makes it tick. Otherwise, you have no grounds to be upset when it doesn’t behave like a cartoon.

Meanwhile, the stats on dog bites and fatalities go up and up every year. Still, there’s all that “man’s best friend” stuff. Not that I have anything against dogs (well, nothing more than their smell, their destructive tendencies, and of course, their poop). But give me a break. This is an animal that kills more than a couple people a month in the U.S. alone. When was the last time you read about someone being mauled to death by a chicken? (Okay, I admit, it would be embarrassing, and the family would probably cover it up. But still!)

Intelligence: Doug’s reference to “just birds,” demonstrates an all too common lack of familiarity with birds. I spend a lot of time with a lot of different animals and respect them all, but hands down, birds are the most interesting. They have an intelligence that transcends anything we normally expect from “pets” (and that probably extends to reptiles as well, though my experience there is limited to a few lizards and a box turtle—who has more soul in her eyes than most of the educational administrators I encounter).

Oh, I forgot to mention barking/crowing. So roosters are loud? Try a dog that doesn’t stop the entire time its owner is at work or out on a date. At least a rooster has hours. And if you keep them inside at night, it’s no biggie.

The problem, I think, arises when we expect our animal friends to conform to the cardboard picture book we grew up with. Fluffy the Kitten will hiss and pee on things from time to time; Sammy the Dog will eat your favorite shoes . . . and the bread cooling on the counter . . . and the expensive chocolate truffles your significant other got you for your birthday; Chicken Little—or any bird—will disappoint you on occasion. Not because she’s stupid or mean or demonically possessed, but because she’s fallible. As are we all. And thank goodness for it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How Esme Got His Name

This is actually a repost of my reply to Rebecca O'Connor's query: So what’s the story behind your parrot’s name?

My “parrot” is actually a chicken. He came to me as an orphan, just a couple days old. Of course, at the time, I had no idea if I was dealing with a he or a she, but thinking positive, I decided to assume it was she; plus, I very superstitiously figured it would help encourage development in that direction. Or at least wouldn’t hurt.

So this little cheeper looked like a penguin–black with white “diaper”–and I like Spanish, so I thought maybe Ping├╝ino. Well, that’s as hard and awkward to say as it looks, so I needed something else. I looked up “tuxedo” in my Spanish dictionary: esmoquin. Hmmmmm, maybe Esme? Like the JD Salinger story? (Only now it would be with love and squawking?)

Names are important, though, so I had to be sure: I checked the dictionary again. Esmerarse: to take care; to do well.

And thus Esme became my first (but not my last) inappropriately named rooster. He’s a sweetheart who will ring his bell to get my attention, loves to play fetch, and follows me everywhere. Sometimes he’s just “Es” for short, but I can’t imagine him having any other name.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


So much going on right now . . . but the chickens are good. Sami is getting bigger, getting better at crowing. He's still a baby though. They all are.

Trying to get back into writing by taking a creative non-fiction class. So far, not feeling incredibly creative, but I think the exercises are good for me. I think . . .

Today, I was doing some research for a piece where I'll intertwine the sound of my grandmother saying grace with Vin Scully announcing a game. Researching a baseball transcript was simple compared to trying to reconstruct what Fern used to say. I can remember snippets but not the whole thing, and since I felt like I needed a little more, I spent most of the afternoon using key phrases to google prayers. Found some useful stuff, but this of course is my favorite:

There once was a cock and a hen,
Who gave lunch to a goose in a pen.
"Good Lord" said the goose,
"Bless this food for our use
And us to thy service. Amen."

Fern never said that, but she did have a lot of chicken figurines and crockery (which I inherited), so it's somehow fitting. And probably how I ended up with a lot of live chickens.