Re-enchanting ourselves with the local

By Briony Penn, January 2012

The story of bees could possibly be the great allegory for our times.

It is a gorgeous Friday morning just outside of Bellingham. A flock of trumpeter swans are grazing in the fields, and I am with a large human flock hanging on every word of a hip young bee dude with a wicked sense of humour and two props—a collection of native bees and a bunch of sticks drilled with nest holes. The event is called Protecting Native Pollinators and there are farmers, students, scientists, teachers, grannies and young men jostling to learn the difference between a sweat bee and leafcutter bee; which native plants are best for bumblebees; and how to encourage mason bees (which mostly consists of doing nothing and being messy). 

The organizers from the Xerces Society, dedicated to the conservation of insects, weren’t anticipating quite so many people from so many corners of this region on both sides of the borders, and they tell me that there are no signs of the interest waning. 

Restoring and re-enchanting ourselves with the local and the native are becoming the most powerful antidote to globalization, inequity, corporatization, degradation, poverty and despair—of which there is no short supply. It is a simple mantra: stay local and support native in whatever you do and the structural foundations of inequity will begin to crumble, the water will flow, the meadow flowers will bloom, the neighbours will chat, and the birds and the bees will fill our lives again with music, food and sensuous times.

As we buzzed our way through the workshop, briefly exploring why there are disappearing pollinators (no mean feat), then moving on to solutions, I had a thought. The story of bees could possibly be the great allegory for our times—the rise and fall of one worldview and the restoration of another, older one. 

Take the characters first. The antagonists are largely humourless financiers who direct operations from their tall glass towers and send impoverished indentured labour to work long hours applying chemicals to genetically modified crops in ugly landscapes. As hedgerows and the last patches of habitat for our native pollinators—the bees, birds and butterflies—are wiped out, agro-industry has resorted to mono-pollinating with European honeybees. Mono-anything doesn’t work, and the poor overworked honeybees are now going down like flies (which they are not, flies have one pair of wings, bees have two). Viruses, the new synthetic pesticides, and general malaise from mall culture have caused colony collapse disorder in half of the hives already. There aren’t enough bees surviving to pollinate North America’s crops, so the industrialists have taken to importing bees from Australia (in China they hire children at $2/day to hand pollinate). But even the economists know that it all ends in tears. (And perhaps even the US Department of Agriculture, which has declared conserving pollinators a national priority due to the severity of the issue and allocated $30 million this year to subsidizing restoration of lands back to pollinator preserves.)

The protagonists in this story are hip young bee dudes like our presenter. This is a guy raised by a Dakotan farming family. He’s one of a breed of independent researchers who have proven that a farm makes more money (not to mention all the other advantages) if one-third or more of the land is put back into native habitat. This is because native pollinators greatly increase yield, productivity and pest management. And because the cost of all the chemicals and jetsetting bees around is rising at an exponential rate. 

The hip bee dude—whose name, by the way, is Eric Mader—has like many of his generation, discovered the correct formula for communication to the disenfranchised 99 percent—make it real, make it funny, make it local and make it a party, bro’. He talked about the various collective successes, like converting a pesticide-drenched blueberry farm in the middle of Michigan to a pollinator preserve (wildflower meadow) that also grows blueberries with a 30 percent increase in yield, or transforming his own working-class yard in Portland to an oasis that swarms with native blossoms, bees and girls.

Now take this same story, with a different set of characters, north and west to the heart of native blueberry country where the bees and butterflies still thrive—Fish Lake in the Chilcotin. The antagonist this time is Taseko Mines with the biggest mining proposal in North America—New Prosperity Mine. Last month, Taseko failed to win their injunction against the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation for blocking their road, and the consequences are huge for resource extractors in this province. 

The protagonist is Marilyn Baptiste, the new breed of hip young chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation. She can catch a wild trout or tame a wild horse with the same skill as she wins over a court to stop Taseko’s application for exploration at Fish Lake. The case was won on the basis that the blueberry, trout and pollinators in the area would be threatened.

From Bellingham to Fish Lake, the story is the same. Protagonists everywhere can win with their simple calls to a past ethic of the common good and the interconnectedness of life. What has changed from the old days is that the consequences for losing the wild are deadly, increasingly illegal, and decreasingly academic. 

Most of our food relies on the preservation of the wild, directly or indirectly. If we fail with diversifying the pollinators, then we start losing our food and we die in droves. Simple. There is no technological fix, nor global domesticated commodity species, nor silver bullet shot by a white knight to solve the problem, only the diversified efforts of the many at the local level. 

This is Mother Nature’s most basic kick-back. And it’s an easy solution to sell since the story also brings us back to discovery, action, beauty, companionship and joy. That is what the Occupy Movement has discovered and that is why they are so dangerous to the status quo.

Also add on, for more good news, the increasing intolerance of the public for divide-and-conquer tactics by the vested interests in the status quo and the mainstream media’s role in exacerbating that division. Readers got angry last month when the media headlined a questionable and relatively minor Gitxsan First Nation deal with Enbridge while sidelining the real story—that over 130 nations spanning the province were now signed on to the ban against pipelines and tankers. 

As a result, the issue backfired spectacularly and brought these tactics under the spotlight where they belong. The media erred in not checking the facts about alleged negotiator Mr Derrick, his ability to represent the Gitxsan nation and his connections with industry, before leading with his story; but their biggest mistake was in misjudging the public mood on this issue. 

Closer to home, that public mood was reflected in Nanoose where residents challenged the government and TimberWest for trying to divide and conquer the locals and First Nations over the logging of one of the last patches of Crown old-growth Douglas fir. 

Worldview is shifting because it has to. 

Back in the field with the farmers, trumpeter swans, scientists, bumblebees, teachers, grannies, blueberries and cool dudes, I look around and feel mildly hopeful for this new year.

For your new year’s resolution, pledge to protect or return any little patch you can back to native habitat for bees and butterflies.  Google Xerces Society or The Land Conservancy of BC for their pollinator programs.

Briony Penn cultivates wild bees on her wild piece of land by doing nothing—which she does very well.