Exploring: A word in favor of happy bees

Blooming sage with bee in windowbox
A blurry bee is a happy bee

In graduate school, my major professor, Dr. Sandra Melnick, gave me some good advice about moving to a new place:

“You have to find out what you can do there that you can’t do anywhere else. And then try it out.”

How do we thrive here? This advice is as true for gardening and writing as it is for exploring a new home. What thrives in this soil and this climate? What parts of my life hum along better here? What does this manuscript have that is new?

My balcony is an in-between place, an incubator. Our balcony is like a giant concrete bathtub with a red racing stripe. The balcony above protects us from the rain. There’s nothing remotely natural about it. It’s for a table and chairs, coffee and cake, Rhine wine and olives.

But little by little, the earth came to our balcony. First we hung up windowboxes, then insects came, then a few weeds, and the birds that dig up big clumps of dirt and chuck them over the side. Deep purple pansies transplanted themselves from the upstairs neighbor’s window boxes.

The other day I found a big, fat, caterpillar, a gift from one of the birds. Too heavy to take home to the kids? Uh, thanks.

Maybe this year is the year. We have a small peach tree in a pot and it’s making peaches again. Will they make it to peachdom this year or will they fall off like last year? A real peach would be a prize.

My daughter started 14 lemon trees from seed. There’s a world heritage site, Brühl palace near here, modelled after Versailles. Maybe they could use some lemon trees.

My tomato plants are full of promise. Their deep green leaves and stocky stems comfort me.

And so do the happy bees: I like the way their work absorbs them. They enjoy each flower on the sage. They stop in mid-flight and zigzag back to one they missed. They climb into each flower as if it were a cave full of treasure, which I suppose it is.

And the humming. Humming while you work is a good sign. Although they only hum between flowers. They also fly a little drunkenly. Are they really working? Or does the pollen load ruin their aerodynamics? It’s hard to look elegant when you have a lot to carry or a lot to learn.

Large black Wood Bee and sweet pea flowers in windowbox
A Wood Bee: even the bees are bigger in the North.

Last year, I had sweet peas in my window boxes and this Wood Bee visited often. It was so big and black I felt skittish around them, even when they were doing the happy bee thing. I thought they were some kind of GMO bee or Chernobyl bee, but they aren’t.

This year, we have different flowers so we have different bees. We live in a different place and culture and are learning to thrive. It gives me hope to see the blurry, buzzing bees on our balcony. Three are out there right now, exploring every flower they pass.

What can you do where you are that you can’t do anywhere else? What can you do with this novel, this project, this family, this class, these friends, this museum, this library, this forest that you can’t do with anyone or anything else?

Exploring: Hatzenport to Eltz Castle on the Path of Dreams

Grassy trail above Germany's Mosel river valley in a little bit of characteristic mist
Grassy trail above Mosel river valley in Germany.

One morning, in early spring, my husband and I decided to walk to Burg Eltz (Eltz castle) from the tiny village of Hatzenport. We had asked the innkeeper if he thought Burg Eltz was do-able and he said, “Why shouldn’t it be? It’s only 2 1/2 hours.” Oddly enough, that reassured me.

It was an unexpectedly sunny day with a cool breeze, miraculous after weeks of rain and gray skies. We set out on little goat trails and followed the course of the Mosel river, far below. We barely needed our topographic map because everything was so well labeled. That’s how many people live in this part of the world. The trail was called “Traumpfad”, the path of dreams.
We traversed the vineyards on a tractor-wide track, feeling like Heidi and Peter. A sign said goats were used to clear out overgrown vineyards when someone wanted to begin again. Abandoned, overgrown vineyards were called “Brazils” after their owners left for Brazil to start a new life.

In earlier times, wagons must have collected the grapes from the rows of vines. A rusty winch in one village must have been used to pull heavy loads of grapes up and down the steep slopes. In another, a tower near the Mosel supported the cables to run a ferry across. The ferry needed no power other than the river current.

At some point, we left the Mosel to turn into another valley. The path climbed gently until we found ourselves on a high plain. The Mosel cut a valley into the plain, so that the river bed was actually in a canyon. The broad meadow was just as inviting as the earlier paths and the sun was just as delightful. There was a ring of standing stones, either old or modern, in the distance. It was almost unreal.

A group of eight deer leapt across the meadow in front of us to cross a road in the distance. Seven made it across but the last one was spooked by a car and couldn’t find his way. He bounded back to the safety of the forest. The others didn’t come back for him, so maybe that was the beginning of his own adventure.

An older pair of hikers passed us. They didn’t seem to be going fast but they were soon in the distance ahead of us. We saw them much later, having a picnic by the trail side, just before we got to a lot of boring pavement. Experience must help people pick out picnic spots. Role models for adventure pop up in surprising places.

By the time we had walked a few hours, we had gotten less tired or had found our stride or felt virtuous because we didn’t need parking, because we felt we could walk forever. When I was 10, I used to explore with my brother in the same way. A peanut butter sandwich in a backpack, a walking stick, and eyes to see what is in front of you.

Burg Eltz actually has a longish–by American standards–hiking trail from the parking lot to the castle. On the trail, three miniature knights came toward us brandishing wooden swords and painted wooden shields. A baby in a stroller was teething on a wooden sword. We were getting close.

Stone castle on a hill surrounded by the river Eltz and more hills near the Mosel valley in Germany.
The Eltz castle

The castle gift shop was full of swords and shields and castle-related memorabilia. A hearty soup lunch at the castle and we were ready to continue down the valley. Here the trail looks down on the river Eltz below—a gray, green, glacier-colored river—but I think the color comes from algae, but not in a bad way.

We hiked down to the village and took the train back to the tiny village of Hatzenport. It was a dreamy day of talking, walking, taking things in, and spending time together becoming whole.

The next morning, I took a walk in our own neighborhood. At the far meadow, a black and white horse whinnied and trotted, then pounded the grass with his hooves and galloped the perimeters of electric fence. Was he going to leap over it? Did the sunny, cool weather make him long for wide spaces and adventure?

Then a shaggy, brown horse appeared on the trail and the black and white nodded his big black head up and down emphatically. He had been calling this friend.

My day with my husband was perfect for me. The weather and the availability of food made it a very convenient adventure, but not one I will forget. A perfect life is an adventure with a friend.

Exploring: the vineyard-covered Ahr valley

Vineyards in Mayschoß, GermanyThe village of Mayschoß in Germany’s lovely Ahr valley says “spring” all over. The name of the village means “lap of May” and even though it’s only April, you can see why.

It’s easy to imagine an earlier era. On top of the hill nearest the church tower is a ruined castle. One vineyard advertises horse-drawn wagon rides through the vineyards. My daughter told me they have to muzzle the horses to keep them from eating the grapes during harvest. I never thought about a horse eating grapes before.