A few months after I started writing Crooked River, I signed up for a Backyard Beekeeping class through Portland Community College. The first part of the class was a lecture on the basics of beekeeping and the equipment needed to start a new hive. Later the class met at the instructor/beekeeper’s house a few minutes’ drive from downtown in Northeast Portland. The yard—a “Pesticide Free Zone”—was fenced and crowded with flowering bushes and fruit trees, and scattered between this lush vegetation were a half a dozen or more humming white boxes. The beekeeper told us he took great care in deciding where to set up each hive, choosing inconspicuous and camouflaged corners to keep his neighbors happy. If the city received too many complaints, even with all the proper permits and permissions, the bees would not be allowed to stay.
“Sometimes people have the wrong idea about bees,” he said, opening one of the hives.
He pulled out a frame and blew on the dark cluster amassed on the comb. The bees weren’t upset by this disturbance. They simply stepped aside, as if they recognized this man as someone who could be trusted. He showed us how to find the queen and her eggs and how to tell when honey is ready for harvest. As he talked, bees flew around him, weaving their way to the hive entrance where they whispered a secret, ancient language with their wings, told a familiar story with jerks, twists, and spirals, drew a map in the air to the largest flowers and sweetest nectar.
I tasted honey straight from the comb for the first time that day. Warm, melt-on-your-tongue sweet, the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. I read somewhere that honey varies in taste depending on which flowers bees visit, that it is a memory of a landscape and something to be savored. My lips still sticky, I began to imagine a role for bees in Crooked River, how they might help me tell a better story. The beekeeping class ended, but while it was enlightening, I wanted more than just knowledge. I wanted soul.
One charming and remarkable thing about honeybees is that you do not need to keep a hive to watch them work. I might have planted any number of other seeds, all colors and varieties—aster, alyssum, clover, cosmos, cornflowers, clematis, mock roses, dahlias—but I chose sunflowers for their striking beauty and height, for the large and vibrant petals that make such perfect landing strips. In the months that followed, whenever my eyes grew tired or I needed to stretch or I was struggling to find the right words, I set aside my writing and wandered out to my garden.
There among the woody stalks and ragged leaves, the yellows and oranges and reds, as honeybees skipped from petal to petal gathering summer and sweetness, I drew inspiration. And then one day, and finally, it all came together. The bees in Crooked River would be more than simple props and background noise—they would connect a father to his daughters, help reveal a natural and supernatural world, and even play a part in piecing a broken family back together again. Like the bees in my garden, they would be special and a little magic too.
Valerie Geary’s recommended reading about bees:
Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese
Honey Bees: Letters from the Hive by Stephan Buchmann
A Short History of the Honey Bee: Humans, Flowers, and Bees in the Eternal Chase for Honey by E. Readicker-Henderson
For more about Portland author Valerie Geary and her novel, we recommend this interview by Jeff Baker from The Oregonian and the author’s website. Crooked River is available at fine independent bookstores everywhere.