Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of Thimbleberry Magazine
I walked out into the yard this morning, fresh snow and a brief reprieve from twenty below, big dog bouncing and rolling, little dog trudging gingerly in my footprints. It took a long time before I grew accustomed to the short days here. In my first winter I became despondent, and my then husband told me “you just need to make sure you get outside during the daylight,” and I snapped back “that shouldn’t be difficult since it’s only light between twelve and one pm.” I like it now. I like the early dark and the slow mornings, I like the way the sun gets hung up in the branches of the trees, and the orange stripe that circles the horizon from November til March. I like the kids climbing the snow banks at the ends of their driveways, the cars fishtailing around icy corners, the giant flocks of Bohemian waxwings that descend on the mountain ash in the neighbour’s yard, swirling and clamouring, and then disappear over the rooftops. When I go out to check on my beehive, I like that I can feel the warmth of the colony under their cover.
The light in December is thick, and it rolls across the snow and it pools in some places and slides away in others. It’s a joy to stand in shin deep snow in the company of dogs, and to survey the dropped twigs and broken grasses under the trees, the feathers of the waxwings and the chickadees. I looked down and there was a tiny wing magnifying the liquid light, throwing a little light of its own, so I picked it up and attached was a bee, still so bright and shiny eyed I thought it might be alive. I warmed it in my hand and suddenly I saw them all around me, a hundred little wings throwing a hundred little lights of their own, all lying at the very top of the fresh snow, this morning’s casualties. Everywhere I looked there were bees in the snow, so I gathered them up in my hands, snowflakes clinging to legs and antennae and melting in my palm, creating tiny movements in the lightness of their bodies, making them feel alive to my skin. This is the second round of drone evictions this year, and it surprises me- it’s awfully late and I don’t know why it should be today. The drones are beautiful: a little bigger than their sisters, a little more robust, with larger eyes- the kind of bees you want to pet or kiss or draw. I opened the sliding door with my elbow and sat down in the living room and looked at them for a while, thought I would give them a chance to wake up, to come back to their bodies. Imagined feeding them sugar water and letting them live in the kitchen, imagined a house with a hundred resident bees overwintering.
This is a form that my hope sometimes takes. Sometimes hope is a romantic and impossible fantasy, a daydream of dead bees resurrected. This kind of hope is a little bit embarrassing, it says something about me, about my willingness to abandon what I know about bees and how they live and what they need in favour of a saccharine, cartoonish version of bees. When I think about the future of the planet, or even of the future of the people I love, I am prone to these fantasies. I am given to imagining a miraculously restored salmon run, a smokeless summer, bears safe in their dens. I hope for the whole and healthy lives of my children the way I might hope to win a lottery: a blessing, a miracle, no ticket necessary.
But a dead bee is a dead bee, and no sugar water will resurrect it. A dead river is a dead river and an extinction is usually an extinction. This summer I read of a sighting of an Ivory Billed Woodpecker. A blessing, a miracle. I wonder about the people who search for the last of the endangered animals, I wonder how they convince themselves to keep traipsing through some Louisiana swamp looking for a bird no one has photographed since 1944. Wouldn’t it get to you, year after woodpeckerless year? And I am sure there’s the sense of a mystery, and there’s the lure of being the one, the first and only one to capture a photograph in almost eight decades. And I am most sure that it’s just hope, the kind of hope that I am interested in now. Because surely it’s exhausting and surely it’s uncomfortable; surely it’s downright depressing to walk through the world now and imagine it just a few decades ago when it contained thousands of species we’ve heedlessly exterminated, many before we ever knew they existed.
The kind of hope that holds its palms up to catch the miracle must also submit to the mortification of the loss. An Ivory Billed Woodpecker in a world that no longer makes space for an Ivory Billed Woodpecker is a wonderful thing, a dream come true, a whisper of unimaginable resiliency, a message of what might be if we just work things out with nature. It is also a tragedy in flight, an animal who must necessarily know so few of its own kin that it’s a stranger to its species, a refugee from its only home. It’s a bee living in a kitchen. What does it say about hope? For itself, it says nothing. It simply is, an animal living the only life it has ever known. For someone who has spent their life looking for the merest glimpse of it, it must say something else. It has to say something about the search, about the landscape as it was eighty, two hundred, eight hundred years ago. A no longer extinct woodpecker implies a biome that remembers itself, a million past lives, a million extinctions. And it implies a present, a fragile tiny seed of possibility. It is more than a discovery, it is a command to remember and to hope, to work for what’s left of the teeming world, to believe in its capacity to hold on to life. It’s a reminder that living is not a comfortable business and the job of hope is not to be rewarded. The job of hope is the work, the knowledge of the loss, the grieving of a million losses, the close attention, the care, and the love. The reward, if one comes, is the least of it. In a Louisiana swamp it’s the briefest flash of a white edged wing. In a handful of snow spangled bees, it’s the one whose kaleidoscope wing twitches once, twice, the impossible flicker of real life.