Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Hive Dancer"

I’ve known Edie Rylander and her poetry since 1980. She writes about rural life, nature and natural history, family, marriage, farming, American history and culture, even football (though I don’t think that Brett Favre poem has been published yet) in a style that is both elegant and earthy.

“Hive Dancer” (see previous post), from her book of the same name, magically combines self-expression with factual information about hives and bees. Rylander compares herself and her lifespan of 69 years to a worker bee, with a lifespan of 45 days, distinguishing herself from the queen bee, which lives “one to three years,” and the male drones, which die after mating or eventually get driven out of the hive by the workers. She then compares her own lifespan to that of a worker bee: “…day one…would be about equal/To year twenty for me”; “Middle-aged workers (ten to twenty-one days)”; and “The old worker bees/On average, days eighteen to forty-five).”

While she was born “helpless” the worker bee “Emerges full armed with stinger…Honeypot, wax glands, pollen basket.” In each stage of life the worker bee carries out useful functions maintaining the hive, nourishing the queen and the larvae, making honey and storing it, protecting the hive from disease, and finally, in its old age, adventuring, foraging, scouting, bringing home “The pollen, the water, the plant resin, the nectar,/Everything that feeds the hive,” and doing “the bee dance,/Showing distance and direction to food sources…” At age 69 Rylander celebrates her identity as “Old Tatterwings the hive dancer…Humming off in search of sweetness/Borne on the song of her wings.”

In this self-identification with the worker bee, Rylander explicitly separates herself from the queen bee, who “Kills her sister queens, drives Mom away,/Flies, mates, multiple times, comes home,” and lives out the rest of her fertile days “Laying eggs, laying eggs, laying eggs—“ As mother of three, Rylander might have justifiably identified with the fertile queen, but rejects the dominant role and chooses that of sustainer, nurturer, builder, protector, one of “the tough old girls,” the dancers who “bring the good stuff home.”

Culturally speaking, the queen might be associated with our glamorous fertility symbols--the Marilyns, the Raquels, the Brittanys, the Lindseys, the Angelinas--who compete among themselves for adoration from their fans, followers, and would-be mates. And while they luxuriate in the honeycomb of celebrity status, the everyday women go about their work at home, in fields and offices, classrooms and hospitals, stores and factories, driving trucks, flying planes, sustaining, nurturing, protecting, building and bringing “the good stuff home.” “Hive Dancer” consciously rejects the role of woman as beauty queen and embraces a larger vision of “women’s work.”

Appropriately, it does so in a style that is down to earth and colloquial at the same time that it is soaringly lyrical and elegant, both familiar and educated, tough and sweet. It combines mundane information about bees and hives with personal story, metaphor and myth. Queens, drones, and worker bees emerge as both natural facts and mythical beings.

Hive Dancer is one of three volumes of Rylander poetry, the other two being Dancing Back the Cranes and Dance with the Darker Sister. See Red Dragonfly Press

Like a true dancer, this poet combines both muscle and magic.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Poem for "the tough old girls"

                        "Hive Dancer"

It seems all my life I've been a worker bee.
("Lifespan of the Worker Bee"
Says that poster at the Minnesota State Fair
Which I come back to every visit.)

Though there's no reasonable way
To compare the lives
Of old women and bees,

And anyway, why not be a queen?
Queens live one to three years;
Workers average forty-five days.

A queen struggles up out of the comb,
Kills her sister-queens, drives Mom away,
Flies, mates, multiple times, comes home,
And then that long last act
In the dark heart of the comb,
Fed and groomed by her little sterile daughters,
Laying eggs, on a good day, equal to her body weight,
Laying eggs, laying eggs, laying eggs--

Then of course there are drones--male--
Drones can't feed themselves, drones can't sting,
Drones fly when the queen flies,
Mate, if lucky, then die.
Some fail at queen-catching and bumble on home,
Hang around the hive cadging honey
Till summer ends, and the workers drive them away.

And there's no equivalent in human development
For that egg and larva business.
Sixty-nine years ago I came out helpless,
While a worker (three days an egg, twenty-one days
Curled in her cell in the comb)
Emerges full armed with stinger
Plus all those useful tools,
Honey-pot, wax glands, pollen basket.

But assume, for the sake of the poem
That day one for a worker bee
Would be about equal
To year twenty for me.

In days one to fifteen,
Young workers clean and polish cells,
Shovel out food to ever-hungry larvae,
Feed and groom the queen,
Cap the brood cells.

Middle-aged workers (ten to twenty-one days)
Build new comb, unload nectar from the foragers,
Convert it in their bodies into honey.
Ventilate the hive with their wings.
Some become undertaker bees,
Flying away the dead; diagnosing
Disease in the brood,
Flying sick larvae off
Where they cannot infect the rest.

Now comes the part I like. It is
The old worker bees
(On average, days eighteen to forty-five)
Who are the adventurers,
The foragers, the scouts.
It is the tough old girls bring the good stuff home,
The pollen, the water, the plant resin, the nectar,
Everthing that feeds the hive.
It is the old workers who do the bee dance,
Showing distance and direction to food sources,

And I, I am Old Tatterwings the hive dancer,
Having escaped a thousand dangers,
Zooming in with a golden load,
Making my circles and figure-eights,
   Basswood, two hundred yards south.
   Clover, north by northwest.
   Look out for bee-eating birds, for bad weather.
   Avoid two-leggers, unless they attack the hive.

I am the hive dancer,
Humming off in search of sweetness,
Borne on the song of her wings.

                                                       --Edith Rylander, Hive Dancer

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Three Cups of Tea

The recent 60 Minutes episode that challenges the accuracy of this 2006 narrative by David Relin and Greg Mortenson (Mortenson’s name is listed first on the title page, but Relin wrote the book with Mortenson as consultant) aired just as I was about to start reading it.

Questions about dates and time sequences raised by 60 Minutes and others are partially addressed by Relin in the introduction. After complaining about Mortenson’s habitual tardiness, Relin writes, “He operates on Mortenson time, a product, perhaps, of growing up in Africa and working much of each year in Pakistan.”

The question of whether Mortenson was actually kidnapped by Taliban as recounted in the book is another issue. Relin didn’t observe that incident but relied on Mortenson’s account. We may never know the truth about it unless it is settled in court, but even such a settlement would, no doubt, leave much that is unresolved.

The current brouhaha about this book raises the whole postmodern issue of “truth.” Even if there is such a thing as objective truth, is it knowable by the human mind, which can only know things subjectively, or at least only as our human powers allow us to know things, not as they independently exist? Rather than dwelling on truthfulness, the postmodernists say, let us focus on the way discourse functions socially and politically. Instead of asking, “Is it true?” let us ask, “What purpose does it serve? Who does it benefit in the ongoing power struggle that constitutes our social reality?” If Three Cups of Tea contributes to the betterment of impoverished, illiterate, uneducated communities in central Asia, then it is valuable discourse that is worth our time and admiration.

We could spend many hours debating the philosophical ins and outs of postmodernism, but it is worth noting that even postmodernists start with certain assumptions of “truth,” namely that we can’t know objective reality and that our entire social reality can be characterized in terms of a power struggle. (Note the blatant contradiction: If we can’t know objective reality, then how can we know that our entire social reality is a power struggle?)

My own view is that, while it is undoubtedly “true” that we cannot fully know objective reality, we can know it more or less objectively. Just because we cannot know absolute truth does not give us license to say anything we want and claim it is “true.” Our human task is to sort out which truth claims are most credible, based on experience, evidence, facts, and logic, and which are least credible, based on the same criteria. Our human dilemma is that even our most credible truths, based on those criteria, are partial truths, constantly subject to revision. Truth is a matter of probability, not certainty.

So, what of Three Cups of Tea? First, I want to suggest that, while it is presented as non-fiction narrative, the book might best be understood as persuasive discourse, not as a supposedly factual account of persons, places, and events.

This is not to say that factuality is not important to persuasion; indeed, the factual challenges that have been raised are damaging to the persuasiveness of the account. However, it is to say that factual precision may be less important to the effectiveness of the book than general credibility. Readers will forgive factual lapses if they find the overall narrative believable enough to support its thesis.

What is the thesis of Three Cups of Tea? I would say it is the claim that building relationships of trust with the Islamic world and helping that world reduce poverty, improve education, and increase access to multiple sources of information will do more to end terrorism than military solutions alone.

No one has questioned the accuracy of the book in terms of its representation of the local languages and culture or of the general mission that Mortenson carried out in the mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The overall impression it leaves of a friendly, generous, hospitable people who welcome strangers bringing gifts that they actually need and can actually use has gone unchallenged. If the publisher had included a disclaimer on the title page that the book is “based on Greg Mortenson’s true life experiences," that might have made it more acceptable to its critics, but I doubt it would have made a lot of difference to most readers.

As Samuel Johnson said to the 18th century neo-classical critics who insisted on the “unities of time and space” in the theater, most readers “are always in their senses.” Just as they know that “the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players,” so do they know that most purportedly non-fiction narratives are based on memory as much or more than fact, are selections from reality (not a replica of it), and are often exaggerated, embellished, or even fabricated in parts to enhance the story.

Whatever liberties the book takes with details are less important than the truth of the overall message about cross-cultural relationships and ways that Western, Christian nations can build trust and win friends among people who might otherwise be ripe for terrorist recruitment.

Nonetheless, Greg Mortenson’s creative memory and looseness with facts could and no doubt has damaged his credibility in some quarters. There are those who will say he “lied,” that is deliberately set out to deceive, and to the extent that such charges undermine his character, they will damage the persuasive effect of the book, the credibility of his work, and ultimately the success of his mission. Such is the risk of non-fiction.

Those readers who accept the representation by journalist David Relin of Mortenson’s character—that of a man full of soul and passion, sloppy with details, fuzzy about time and numbers, disorganized, impractical, no doubt na├»ve, but highly intuitive, empathetic and compassionate—will allow him the credibility that he is due and be amazed at what he has accomplished.

Facts and truthfulness do matter, but so do good story-telling, good character, good intentions, and good accomplishments. Readers must weigh these values and reach their own conclusions.

To close with a somewhat literary question, what is the significance of the title of the book? I think those three cups of tea refer to the hospitality of the mountain people that Mortenson encountered and their cultural practice of placing relationships above business transactions. They would conduct business only after time was taken for human social interaction and trust-building. Our own Western practice is more often to be on time and “get down to business” right away so we can go on to the next appointment. The title draws attention, not only to Mortenson’s understanding of that cultural difference, but perhaps also to his affinity for the central Asian way of life, which made him so effective there.