Dumpster Honey

[Image: Photo courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab’s amazing Flickr set, via Science Friday].

In a poem I clipped from The New Yorker a while back, Davis McCombs describes what he memorably calls “Dumpster Honey.” It remains a great illustration of altered natures—and the fate of food—in the Anthropocene.

McCombs shows us bees wandering through a rubbish heap “of candy wrappers and the sticky rims / of dented cans, entering, as they might / a blossom, the ketchup-smeared burger // boxes,” mistaking a stained world of “food-grade waxes / mingling with Band-Aids” for healthy flora.

Hapless bees slip their little bodies past “solvents / and fresheners,” picking up industrial food dyes and “the high-fructose / corn nectars” of artificially processed edible waste.

With this in mind, recall several recent examples of bees feasting on edible chemicals in urban hinterlands, in one case actually turning their honey bright red.

As Susan Dominus wrote for The New York Times back in 2010, a stunned Brooklyn beekeeper “sent samples of the red substance that the bees were producing to an apiculturalist who works for New York State, and that expert, acting as a kind of forensic foodie, found the samples riddled with Red Dye No. 40, the same dye used in the maraschino cherry juice” being mixed at a nearby factory.

This had the dismaying effect, Dominus writes, that “an entire season that should have been devoted to honey yielded instead a red concoction that tasted metallic and then overly sweet.” (Amusingly, Brooklyn’s cherry-red honey also inadvertently revealed an illegal marijuana-growing operation.)

[Image: Photo by Vincent Kessler, courtesy of Reuters, via National Geographic].

Or, indeed, recall a group of French bees that fed on candy and thus produced vibrant honeys in unearthly shades of green and blue. This honey of the Anthropocene “could not be sold because it did not meet France’s standards of honey production,” perhaps a technicolor warning sign, as the very possibility of a nature independent of humanity comes into question.

In the post-natural microcosm of “Dumpster Honey,” meanwhile, McCombs depicts his polluted bees “returning, smudged with the dust / of industrial pollens, to, perhaps, some // rusted tailpipe hive where their queen / grew fat on the the froth of artificial sweeteners,” a vision at once apocalyptic and, I suppose, if one really wishes it to be, ruthlessly optimistic.

After all, perhaps, amidst the litter and ruin of a formerly teeming world, some new nature might yet spring forth, thriving on the sugared colors of factory sludge, beautifully adapting to a world remade in humanity’s chemical image.

It’s worth reading the poem in full. It stands on its own as a vivid encapsulation of these sorts of overlooked, peripheral transformations of the world as we forcibly transition an entire planet into a new geo- and biological era.

(Somewhat related: Architecture-by-Bee and Other Animal Printheads.)

To roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course

The blog Landscapism takes a look at the “integral but largely uncharted topography” of the combe, the “amphitheatre-like landform that can be found at the head of a valley.” There, the post’s author writes, amidst lichen-covered rubble and interrupted creeks, “these watery starting lines disguised as cul-de-sacs are a gift to the rural flâneur; sheep tracks, streams, crags, ruined sheep folds—all encourage the curious visitor to roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course.”

Below, buried beneath the very roots of the trees

[Image: Piranesi’s Rome].

Peter Ackroyd’s allusion to a landscape comparable to the tropical swamps of Borneo found in the sewers of London reminded me of a brief line in Gilbert Highet’s book Poets in a Landscape.

Describing the origins of Rome, a city built on the Tiber River, Highet writes that the landscape there was once as wild as any to be found on earth—indeed, offering evidence that writers seem consistently to fantasize of finding a new tropics in the very ground of Europe, Rome was founded in “those early idyllic days, when the Tiber was as primitive as the Upper Amazon today.”

Highet goes on to describe the city’s long-term devolution into the “heap of ruins” it became in the Middle Ages, a city “earth-choked, mutilated, silent,” one where weeded streets were lined with “the titanic palaces of later monarchs—arches which now look not so much like relics of human architecture as fragments of mountain-ranges into which dwellings have been built.”

“In those days,” Highet writes, a variant form of “primitive” landscape emerged, one in which forests returned and plants ran riot, when “Rome was a place of grassy ruins and elegant palaces and whispering melancholy churches, little changed from the strange half-visionary city immortalized in the engravings of Piranesi: tall pillars standing among rocks and mounds which prove to be the fallen walls and earthquake-shattered arches of some vast mansion; huge fields in which a few peasants stand gossiping while their goats scramble among carved pilasters, and which are at a great distance revealed as being, not fields, but the overgrown floors of temples and baths; lonely obelisks once designed to perpetuate some Roman glory, and now purposeless, mighty circular tombs converted during the Middle Ages into fortresses; hills which covered buried palaces.” The ruin, here, “earth-choked, mutilated, silent,” could thus be seen as a vertiginous act of misrecognition: architecture mistaken for the surface of the earth.

Even the supersized spatial affectations of someone like Emperor Nero, Highet continues, could not ultimately resist the inhuman pull of insects and vegetation that settled onto Rome: “so many centuries after Nero shocked his contemporaries by insisting on making a private landscape in the midst of a crowded metropolis, the ruins of his palace have gone back to nature. Bees hum through the roofless corridors; flowering weeds flourish among the imperial brickwork; from the sunlight above we hear the voices of children running and laughing on the grassy slopes.”

Highet was writing nearly half a century ago, but it’s still accurate that, as he writes, visitors to the city are able to “feel the ephemeral happiness of summer flowers and summer birds all around, to enjoy the fresh warm air and the genial quietness, and to reflect that below, buried beneath the very roots of the trees, clogged with hundreds of tons of earth and fallen masonry, shrouded in the darkness of many disastrous centuries, there lie some of the foundations of our world”—foundations built and implanted when the region was “Amazonian” in its humid and unsettled wildness.