From poem 'Last Night As I Was Sleeping' (translated from Spanish), by Antonio Machado (about Antonio Machado)
Growing up in the Netherlands, and reading relatively much since young, I encountered the folk figure “Broer Konijn”, Dutch translation of “Br’er Rabbit”. This was in a comic series ‘Donald Duck’, from Walt Disney, sold in several stores (Dutch-language version) . I read this quite regularly, I remember, from between my 5th and 10th age.
I recall I always seemed to partly get the illustrated stories of different figures in that “Donald Duck” comic weekly. I found it overall entertaining, but with some stories even more intriguing, while not always getting all symbolic or contextual nuances, at that young age. The fictional town in the magazine was called “Duckstad” in Dutch, “Duck town”, with nonetheless heavy car traffic: humanized ducks behind the wheels. I did not always get main intentions of centralized figures, in these Disney comic strips: Mickey Mouse, the seemingly more socially clumsy Donald Duck, both with female version of the same animal. Then, there was a big rabbit walking with a bag-on-stick on his shoulder, doing something among other people (or animals, better said): Broer Konijn (Brother Rabbit).
Having done some studying since then I found out the historical and cultural context of Brother Rabbit or Br’er Rabbit. It is a figure in folk stories in the US South, originated among African Americans, with African origins. The rabbit or “hare” is in those stories mostly a trickster figure, outsmarting competing animals. This historical folk figure was in time more or less incorporated by the Disney company.
Relatedly, I found out about traditional Anansi (or: Anancy) tales in the Caribbean, also of African origin, with the spider being here the protagonist trickster animal. These are usually stories to tell children. The difference in animal stems from the different parts of Africa the stories originate from, related to where slaves ending up in the West came from. Anansi, the trickster spider comes from the Ghana region, whereas the hare (or rabbit) as trickster is more found in Central Africa (Congo) and Southern Africa. In certain parts of the US South there came indeed quite some slaves from the Congo region. The Anansi stories are found in mainly Jamaica, Suriname, and Curaçao, with relatively higher percentages of slaves from the Ghana region.
Having learned more in time, some aspects of it still puzzle me a bit. I guess you can say: left me with mixed (positive and negative) feelings. First of all: why should animals be tricksters?: animals tend to be straight-forward: they just want to eat, play, and rest. I kind of like that about them. Perhaps they need to invent tricks to get the food? I don’t know.. It is understandably related to the past of slavery; some slaves needed to be a trickster to outsmart the oppression and the master during slavery.
Anyway, being a trickster suggests a mental craftiness or “wickedness” not really characteristic of animals, as Haile Selassie I , Emperor of Ethiopia, once said: “It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked.”
Another “humanizing” aspect of the Brer Rabbit stories is the addition of Brer, from Brother. This could be a linguistic trait, but just as well a cultural one. Maybe in societies more in balance with nature and animals – such as in Africa historically, animals are earlier seen as “family” in some sense: a related and biologically connected being, a brother or sister.
Indeed, in many Reggae lyrics (from Jamaica) –and in the Jamaican Creole language in general – “Brother” (as Bredda) is often placed before animals, also outside of animal-based folk stories like Anansi. There are several examples in Reggae, but one is in the Israel Vibration song Vultures, using animals in interesting symbolic metaphors. One must know, though, that the word “bredda” is often also used among Jamaicans in the broader meaning of “friend” or “mate”. But still..
This all came to influence me, as I at times – mostly half-joking – now for some years refer to animals as such, adding Brother, Bredda (or the Dutch “Broer”) to the animal, as in: ”bredda bee on my book”, or “bredda cat (not my own) in my garden”, as happened sometimes when stray cats visited several home gardens in a row.
There is gender issue, so at time I thought: or Sista Bee, Bredda or Sista Bird?
Recently I paid more attention to the bee, loving in fact that breddas (or sistas?) bee sensed a free haven in my semi-wild garden.
The bee is after all endangered, and therefore we are endangered. That consciousness has begun to grow in recent times, as the importance of bees for pollination of fruits, plants, and vegetables is emphasized. Without the bees, our diet would have to change for 80%.. if we survive at all. If bees would truly disappear, the birds would be the first to follow in extinction, part of a general decline of our natural environment.
It is a cause for worry. Likewise it is simply part of the gradual man-made environmental destruction taking place since agriculture and industrialization.
QUEEN OF THE SUN
I knew this more or less: the threatened bees and its consequences for the natural world and human kind. I must admit, though, that this knowledge remained mostly quite superficial. A documentary I saw recently (the 23rd of May, 2018), 'Queen Of The Sun : what are the bees telling us?' (from 2009 already), dedicated to the threatened bee, therefore turned out to be quite informative for me. The kind of documentary that answers questions I wanted to be answered, without me being even aware that I had these questions.
A beekeeper working for a organic food store cooperation, Odin, in the Netherlands introduced the documentary film, and told about his beekeeping, and answered questions.
While there are objections from vegan activists and environmentalists regarding beekeeping for honey extraction and sale – after all disturbing the bees’ natural order, especially when the honey is not expensive – this beekeeper said honey profits were not his end goal, but rather bee preservation.
I have some vegan people in my circle, and I heard them say that the only way honey could not disturb the bees is when it was very pricey, as not to impact bee activities too much. Usually, however, the need for cheaper honey is such, that honey is taken away, replaced with sugar water for bees to consume, thereby disturbing more the natural order.
Though I thought I felt a “vegan vibe” among some of the people present to see the film (as often surrounding “organic food stores”), this honey production problematic was not touched so much in the said documentary Queen Of The Sun, but rather the general decline of and threat to the bee population, due to broader agricultural and economic developments, especially in the Western world.
The focus of the documentary was on the US, but broadened occasionally to the global situation. One main interviewee was a German activist farmer who went to live in the US, also to stimulate better bee environments (wilder vegetation, certain plants, variation), as part of general farming. This instead of the dominant large scale “mono-culture”, with only one type of crop, tree or plant. They gave the example of almond monocultures in California: bees don’t thrive there, because there is only one type of tree, no variation. As a consequence, they starve out, and become endangered. The German farmer in turn included a special bee haven part with varied, natural vegetation to have a good environment for bees, so necessary for the pollination of whatever crops grows on the rest of that farmland.
In the case of the Californian mass almond monoculture, bees are massively flown in from the entire US and even abroad – to pollinate the almond trees. Figures are staggering: something like 70% of all bees in the US are transported to there for almond production! A mass industrial operation. After that they disappear. Hardly a natural order, and of course disturbing.
Several beekeepers – some inevitably a bit too self-congratulatory – in different countries, US, France, New Zealand, Britain, Italy, talked about their activities with and/or for bees.
Also adding to bee disappearance is the issue of the varroa mite, an external parasitic mite that specializes in bees, using bees to reproduce. This parasitic mite has infested and diminished bee populations over time. Once only found in Asian bees, it spread to other bees when Asian bees were introduced on other continents – human interference with nature again! – causing problems.
One argument in the documentary was that this problem was confronted by the industries with chemical pesticide measures, hoping to get rid of the varroa mite. In the documentary was explained – however – that instead the varroa mite became resistant to the “miticide” chemicals, becoming even more resilient in the process. Again, letting nature follow its course: letting the bee endure and over time fight off the mite organically, would be more beneficial for the bees themselves, in the long run. The man-made chemicals only made it worse.
I learned more things, such as regarding bee biology. I thought that the honey bees were male, while the leading, large queen bee was their leader. It turns out that those worker bees are females, as also the beekeepers in the film referred to them. So Bredda AND Sista bee, I should call them. In fact, the leading queen bee goes out the hive on “mating trips”, to mate with several male drones. These are the male bees. She is certainly polygamous, and thus collects sperm of several drones for laying eggs of new male and female bees. I did not know that in English these sperm-delivering male bees are called “drones”. This gives me a strange feeling about the other airplane-camera-like things, called after all “drones” too. The bee drones’ function is anyway to mate and fertilize. This is what I mean with nature being straight-forward, haha.
Come to think of it, another use of the word “drone” I encountered is as musical one, as sustained sound or note. This goes back to an older linguistic, Germanic and English word meaning “to hum”. The airplane called drone is however named after the male bees (also just for the humming sound.. or so they say).
Most sources seem to separate this fertilizing/mating function from actually “working” as the female bees (outside the queen bee) do. Some may be of the opinion that it is work too. The queen bee tends to test the skill of the drones, anyway, during mating, such as by flying higher, thus selecting the best seed. So, it’s not all fun, haha (I am joking, sorry).
Maybe some humans get sexually aroused by this whole imagery, who knows, haha, but this is not my intention.
Further, in one of the featured cities, New York, there was a female beekeeper active, on a rooftop, pointing out that beekeeping was then (before 2009) outlawed in New York city. This prohibition was however lifted after protests. In London, also a “rooftop beekeeper” was interviewed.
Content-wise, this was more or less the core of the Queen of the Sun documentary, one that I would certainly recommend.
Q & A
Almost equally interesting, though, was the Q and A afterward with the Dutch beekeeper, who was not from Amsterdam, having his bees in another part of the Netherlands (near Tiel).
He worked for organic food tore cooperation Odin, having shops all over the Netherlands, though certainly less than well-known EkoPlaza, for instance: its biggest competitor store in the Netherlands.
He had some interesting things to tell, giving also useful tips and advice for those wanting to help bees even while in the city Amsterdam, such as by adding certain flora attracting bees to balconies and gardens. He pointed at the extreme natural sensibility of the bees, affected for instance even by explosions on the sun – far from the earth -, triggering their migrations.
The same sensibility applies to the human presence, notably the mobile phones and signals this involves, also crossing nature. This affects bees negatively, reason why the beekeeper keeps the mobile phone off or away from the place where he keeps the bee. These rays of mobile phone communication, by the way, has been proven to affect all nature and beings – not just bees -, including humans, to differing degrees negatively.
He also elaborated on the difficulty in outlawing internationally the chemical means – miticide - to fight the said parasitic varroa mite. This is hindered by certain powerful states (China, US) and big companies, with vested economic interests in either the chemicals or certain crops or honey. Sad and enraging, in some sense.
In introducing the documentary, the beekeeper – while highlighting the indeed beautiful poem opening the documentary, by Antonio Machado (actually part of a larger poem) – he also pointed out that one of the points made in it, such as by the said German farmer in the US, that a “change of mentality” toward the bees and nature among humans is what is ultimately most important.
Our relationship with animals and the natural environment is what is the issue, here. How to stop further environmental destruction. One might argue that in the Western, industrialized world, the balance with nature has been long lost, gradually since agricultural and industrial expansion, diminished forests and variation in ecosystems, all affecting negatively the bees, being so crucial in our food chain. The mentioned Brother Anancy/Anansi, or Br’er Rabbit stories, from Afro-American folk culture in that sense seem to point at a more balanced state between man and nature once in Africa, attributing after all kinship to animals, especially by adding “brother”. Animal stories are historically also found in other cultures, such as Europe and Asia, of course, often likewise “humanizing” animals.
FROM QUASHIE AND ANANCY TO RASTAFARI
The “trickster”, cunning figure of the Anancy spider is viewed more critically also within the same culture, such as among the Rastafari adherents in Jamaica.
This is described in the interesting 1998 article: ‘The epistemological significance of ”I-an-I” as a response to Quashie and Anancyism in Jamaican culture’, by Adrian Anthony McFarlane. This article was part of the academic collective volume ‘Chanting Down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (Temple University press, 1998), wherein several authors discuss different historical and cultural aspects of the Rastafari movement, that first arose in Jamaica in the 1930s. The Rastafari movement originated among poor Black people, and has a pro-Africa focus, a theological and spiritual nucleus in Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, further combined with a certain “nature-based” practical and spiritual world view, distancing itself thus from the Western system, enslaving them in the first place.
Aiming at emancipation and redemption through Africa, a righteous living, and a moral stance, many Rastas began to object against the Anancy “role model” within Jamaica, known for confusion and cunning. While this tries to escape the system, it neither is a clear, majestic moral stance against this Western, oppressive “Babylon” system, as Rastas call it. They prefer – animal-wise – the majestic African lion as a more moral and prouder model, rather than the trickster spider.
The trickster as hero in addition meets also objections among Rastas because the inherent divisiveness. Their trickery and fooling does not stop with actual powerful oppressors (White and Black, including the sell-out Quashies), but causes also internal strive. As also heard in many Reggae lyrics by Rastas, the “false” or “fake” Rastas within the Rastafari movement (often similarly wearing long dreadlocks), are a persistent problem, being not only too ignorant, but often even intruders with evil, selfish intentions against the Rastafari goals, from within.
I AND I
The Rasta expression “I and I”, listeners of Reggae hear this expression a lot, relates to their world view. It is a type of heightened consciousness beyond the trickery of Anancysim, or even more beyond what came before it, the “Quashie” figure in Jamaican folk stories, having lost its African, human soul in the West, and being a mere puppet. This is the line of argumentation in McFarlane’s said article: rising from Quashie, through Anancy, to the Rastafari’s I and I, and eventually heightened consciousness and pride.
This I-an-I philosophy among the Rastafari is actually relevant for this post. The I relates to other I’s (beings), pointing at a communal world view, between all humans, but also other living beings in nature. It is in that sense also an expressed preference of balance with nature, flora and fauna. Including of course the bees, having a crucial pollinating role. This also concerns the fruits, and other natural, vegetable foods from the earth the strictest of Rastas have as diet. Vegetarian and vegan, but really a step beyond it, many Rastas prefer also unprocessed, natural food, called Ital food. The bees are crucial in this, and relatively undisturbed contribute to it.
Rastafari principles and the earlier Rastafari example, I therefore argue, simply help provide directions for a change of mentality beneficial for bee survival, the documentary Queens of the Sun called for, in response to the increased awareness and deploration – also in the Western world - of the threatened bees as part of general environmental destruction.
Since we are dealing with symbols now, one could discern certain symbolism in the documentary Queens of the Sun too, in relation to all I said till now. The already discussed varroa mite belongs to the family of spiders (like Anansi/Anancy!). This inevitable parasitic mite is something the bee has to endure to prosper. Just like Rastas want to move beyond Anancyism. At the very least an interesting symbolic parallel.
Also suggested in the documentary is how certain wasps seem to give bees a bad name, by somehow being among them – looking a bit like them – but with more aggressive, negative behavior among them, and toward humans or other creatures. These can be somehow compared to the mentioned “false Rastas” as wolves in sheep clothing, for bad intentions (jealousy, own gain etc.).
On the other hand, in my experience - getting more of that since I am getting older of course - one must be cautious with “symbolism”: it can seem in your favour, but also later turn against you. This applies to all linguistic issues (as symbols are), after all manipulable and corruptible by self-interested humans.
The truth remains the same, however, and that – unpleasant - truth is that in this time the bees are as a species endangered, threatening humans and the environment.
The documentary Queens of the Sun explained this well and quite factual/educational and convincing, already in 2009. It also increased recently my knowledge of certain aspects, having seen it not long ago.