Musings in the garden
I’m taking a salt shaker out to the garden in a water tight coffee can. I don’t know why I hadn’t done this long ago. It’s for grazing.
Tomato time is starting, I’ve had several more Glaciers to eat, two or three Bloody Butchers, and the other evening I picked my first handful of cherry tomatoes from another of my favorites, Sungold, small bright yellow tomatoes that are sweet and flavorful. They are perfect for eating right in the garden and they seldom make it to the house. A second yellow cherry, another heirloom favorite named Aunt Ruby’s Yellow Cherry, is yet to come. Along with the tomatoes come radishes that were planting markers for the carrots that need to be thinned out, onions, both white and red, that need to be thinned. All of these go better with a little salt, at least to my taste buds.
Interestingly, it was the garden that led me to the bees. I’d left IBM and planned to decompress a little until the money ran out, see if I couldn’t find something more in line with what I wanted to do with my life. As it turned out, it was going to be a short decompression.
I’d built some birdhouses and one I had hung on the back side of the shop adjacent to the garden had attracted a small colony of yellow jackets. That got me thinking about bees. Since I had some time I thought it might be interesting to have a colony or two of bees to compliment the garden. This curiosity led me to Ted Johnson, who had started keeping bees in Boulder County in 1921 and had finally given up just a few years before when he was in his early 80s. I spent an afternoon with Ted and his wife and came away with three things that were going to change my life.
The first was the name and number of the man who had what was left of Ted’s beekeeping operation, Harlan Henderson of Longmont.
The second was a better understanding of what beekeeping involved. Up until that time my exposure to beekeeping had been limited. Bill Mearns, a neighbor across the road when I was growing up on the lake, had a small orchard behind his house, a few fruit trees and several colonies of bees. I can remember collecting a few friends and going over to throw green apples at the colonies. Of course we ran, with visions of an arrow of bees pursuing us, just like in the cartoons. I must have been 7 or 8.
The next exposure was when I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin and I’d taken a job with a PhD student in the College of Agriculture who was doing studies on radishes and kohlrabi. My job was to cross pollinate them, one flower at a time, with a camel hair brush that was dipped in a jar of alcohol after each cross pollination, then dried. I had several brushes I worked with in rotation. You and I may be eating radishes or kohlrabi today that I had a hand in the parentage of in the winter of 1960-1961. Anyway, I had my own small section of a greenhouse, at the end of a long line, and I worked in a t-shirt even when it was 30 below outside and I was one of the few students who had a healthy outdoor tan all winter. Anyway, one day while I was doing my pollinating a beekeeper came into the adjacent section with a one story colony of bees, which he proceeded to release. He obviously was pollinating some plant in that section of the greenhouse on a much grander scale than I was. I’ve often wondered what course my life might have taken had I asked a few questions of Mr. Mearns or stuck my head in that greenhouse door and said to the beekeeper “Hey, could I watch?”
But back to my afternoon with the Johnson’s. The third thing I came away with that summer afternoon, perhaps the most important of all, was the clear impression of the sense of love and reverence I saw in the Johnson’s when they talked about their life with bees. It was obvious that it was much more than just a way to earn some extra money, more than just a job that they took seriously and did well. As they talked they often drifted off to some distant memory and a little smile would start in the corner of their mouths. Beekeeping wasn’t just a job, just something they had done for over 50 years together, it was a love affair, a deep and abiding affection for the bees and beekeeping. I left that afternoon knowing that I might have stumbled upon something very special.
I exercised number one that evening, I called Harlan, introduced myself and asked if he could use some help in exchange for some experience. “Sure” Harlan said, we made arrangements to meet at the Honey House the next day and the rest is history, quite literally now.
Harlan was a great guy, gentle and soft spoken, with a wealth of practical experience, and we remained fast friends until the end of his life. He was about 25 years older than me so he was like a big brother/father figure for me, and at his hands I learned a lot of things I had missed growing up. He was a good mechanic and together we overhauled several vehicles. Harlan had kept bees with his father when he was a boy in Kearney, Neb., and had picked it up again to occupy himself three years before we met, when he had been medically retired from IBM.
I worked with Harlan in August and through the harvest in September, and during that time learned a little about the history of beekeeping and the fact that people had actually made money doing it. In October Harlan called one evening and asked if I wanted to buy half of his bees.
Barbara, bless her heart, had an almost unquestioning trust in my judgement, a scary proposition for me. I doubt there are too many women who would have been so agreeable to what I proposed, which was to take what money remained from my parting with IBM and buy BEES! “Sure Tom, we can do that” was her response, or something like that. How special she was.
It’s been 39 years since we took that leap together. Barbara is gone and I miss her every day, the bees are struggling and the fate of the bee business is uncertain, but I still have the garden and it continues to be a source of both satisfaction and inspiration. Who knows, any day it may lead me into some new curiosity that will occupy me for a few more years. And now, finally, I have a salt shaker in the garden. ❖
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