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– Edible landscape

September 24, 2012

Why is it that as soon as it seems as if we are going to get something we’ve been looking forward to, the thrill of getting it starts to diminish?  Ever since the first intensely hot day of summer I’ve been looking forward to our compliment of autumnal storms.  All through the bright blue days of summer I’ve had this vision of grey velvet clouds creeping across the sun, the valley full of mist and the resonant rumble of fully blown thunder.  Now of course we’ve had our first storm and I’m all regretful about the inevitable passing of another summer.  Perverse doesn’t even come close to describing these thoughts does it?

I’m sure it has something to do with the strength of the weather, as if it has its own personality or character, with the intense heat and sun of summer, it’s hard not to imagine it’s happy relaxed personality encouraging us to slow down, to take a siesta even if it were possible to stay awake all day when the temperature hits 40 degrees plus.  Conversely when the brooding autumnal storms and torrential rain arrives it’s difficult not to worry about what might be washed or blown away, whether our solar panels might be struck by lightning or whether we’ll be able to get the van up the mudslide of a track.

Before we succumb to wet weather worry though we have to keep remembering that autumn is one of the loveliest seasons here.  It can be sunny and hot enough to walk about in t shirts while not dissolving in sweaty, sticky heaps.  The hillside greens up after that awful dull, dusty brown of summer and the whole place breaths and comes to life again.

It’s not easy to love a personality like summer here, despite the feeling that it’s urging us to relax, it’s way too harsh and overwhelming, the relentless and endless days of heat and yet more heat.  Whereas the autumn, even with its storms, seems more human somehow.  Now that I’ve so recently seen rain, I wonder if it’s to do with water.  In the summer, when we are without it for so long it’s possible to imagine life coming to an end for lack of water.  We are taken to our limit, but the autumn, with its incredible downpours restores us.  It’s possible to feel thirsty on behalf of the earth just watching the rain fall on the bone dry soil.

I know that we are attempting to live closer to nature, but sometimes I wonder what that means, what it looks and feels like.  Is it to do with just living away from other people, with only trees and hills for neighbours or is it being able to sink below the surface, get under the skin of nature and become the equivalent of the rocks or the weather?  If that is what we’re aiming for, I’d like to understand how we can get there.

Well, I think I had a moment of clarity on all of that this week when, with the help of a local man, we took some honey from our beehive.  We’ve had the hive for about eighteen months but until now hadn’t taken out any honey, mainly because we wanted the bees to settle in but also because they had turned out to be a particularly aggressive strain, so until we found the appropriate clothing going even close wasn’t an option.  Anyhow this was the week that we got to see inside the hive.  The incredible smell of honey and wax was intoxicating, the air around the hive thick with bees, buzzing louder and louder.  They seemed to be held in the air by a thickness of heat and scent.  The hive was welded shut with wax and it cracked apart when we levered open the top to see the frames inside.  Wax combs curled above the structure as the bees, having run out of frames, began building on top.  The golden yellow of the wax and deep brown of the propolis were such incredible colours and the precision of the cells in the honey comb were beyond amazing.  As quickly as possible we removed just one frame and replaced it with an empty one before closing the lid to let the bees reclaim their space and reorder the hive.

An empty frame for the hive has no weight to it at all, it’s just flimsy wood and a thin laminate of wax for the bees to work on.  The full frame which we removed weighed three and a half kilos, wax and honey.  Surprisingly we didn’t drip our way down the hill from the hive, there was no honey to see just a knobbly, matt, waxy cover on either side of the frame.

It was a relief to leave the hot, buzzy atmosphere around the hive and return to the cool interior of the house.  Now we could examine our treasure, see the thick cover which the bees had made to seal each cell of honey, marvel at the perfect shape of the empty cells near the edge of the frame and be amazed at the weight of the hidden honey.  We balanced the frame over a wide, shallow dish and carefully, with a heated knife, sliced away the wax seal and immediately the wonderfully golden liquid began to flow.  Honey isn’t new to us, but this was an entirely different experience.  The colour a rich blend of dark copper and summer yellow, a kind of transparent orangey gold, the texture thick, stretchy and sticky.  I imagined a spoonful would be as strong as half a jar of other honey.  Almost as soon as the honey was released the house was filled with the scent of summer on the hillside; the flowers, the trees and the heat that releases the oils from the cistus and the pines.  The dry dusty smell of the earth as it bakes under the sun and a thousand other scent traces which make up this place.  Then there was the taste.  It was irresistible not to dab fingers into the dripping honey, it was like a stack of smells transformed into an edible quality, kind of rich with fruit and a slightly bitter, a citrus, orangey flavour at the same time as being intensely sweet.  It was incredible, like eating summer or understanding what the landscape tastes like.  Weird really, but then, remembering my thoughts about living closer nature I realised that this was maybe it, sort of getting under the surface and experiencing, through the work of the bees, what it actually tastes like to live here, the flavour of the hillside, such a strange thought.

It reminded me of something I think I read a while back in a book by Richard Mabey called Nature Cure.  I’ve tried to find the reference but couldn’t track it down, anyway, I’m sure he mentioned eating the landscape and I thought at the time it was a bit odd, although I could almost understand what he meant, it was just difficult to hold on to the feeling, never having had the experience myself.  Theoretically I thought I’d got it, but now I really do.  It’s about being another part rather than an extraneous being in nature.  Now it feels as if we’ve had a close encounter or at least our closest yet, so when I am next wondering about living here I’ll always think of the help we had in understanding our relationship with it all from the humble or should I say, mighty honey bee.

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