Friday, April 23, 2010

Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee

As an organic gardener, I am concerned with the health of the soil and the beneficial insects who pollinate crops and keep pests in check. "Colony Collapse Disorder", the mysterious die-off of honeybee hive populations, has been in the news for the past few years. Who are these insects and how did they come to be so important? Hattie Ellis’ Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee promises to answer that question but does so only imperfectly.

She starts out well enough, tracing first the evolutionary history of the honeybee, and then its relationship to humans. I was surprised to learn that in those same caves with the prehistoric paintings of bison and horses, are prehistoric paintings of honeybees and the collection of wild honey. She goes on to describe the most recent speculations as to how honeybees moved from the wild to become part of the domestic landscape, the use of honey in ancient cuisines and then traces the historical arc of beekeeping from ancient times to modern day, including the introduction of the honeybee to North America by European colonists.

My problem with this wealth of information is Ms. Ellis’ Eurocentric focus. She might better have subtitled her book "The Mysterious History of the Honeybee in Europe, North America and New Zealand", New Zealand having once been a British colony (Ms. Ellis is British). Other than a brief mention of Brazil in connection with killer bees and the Himalayas to illustrate her point that honeybees can withstand cold environments, she offers us no information on honeybees or beekeeping in Africa, Asia or South America.

I find it difficult to believe that Europeans were the only peoples to keep honeybees. Didn’t the Chinese invent just about everything? Why not beekeeping? And if wild honey is collected in the Himalayas by Nepalese, doesn’t it stand to reason that the more sophisticated civilizations on the Indian sub-continent would also have had a relationship of some kind with honey and honeybees?

Sweetness & Light is an excellent, but limited, history of honey and honeybees. It left me hungry for more information on these fascinating creatures and their relationships with their environment and humans.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England

One of the reasons that I like history so much is learning that people are the same no matter when they lived. They have the same hopes and dreams. They love their children and hate their in-laws. They have good bosses and bad bosses, and bouts of unemployment. They feud with their neighbors and their extended families. They are just like us but without indoor plumbing and cable.

Amanda Vickery has delved into the treasury trove of diaries, retail records, probate records and household account books to provide us with a detailed and intimate look at life during the Georgian period which she defines as 1660 to 1850. We catch glimpses into the lives of bachelors, spinsters, tradespeople and the wealthy. Changing tastes and habits are traced through styles of furniture and wallpaper. Most surprising to me were the number of "lodgers", people renting one or two rooms in a house, in cities during this period.

As fascinating as the details in this book are, I found myself vaguely disappointed. I realized that I already knew most of the information presented by Ms. Vickery through my reading of Jane Austen. In fact, Ms. Vickery quotes Jane Austen frequently in support for her conclusions. Jane Austen’s vivid descriptions of the homes and lives of her characters are perfect illustrations of the very people that Ms. Vickery is trying to bring to life for us.

Which leads me to wonder, do we really need this book? Are Jane Austen’s books not "history" because they are fiction? Perhaps Behind Closed Doors would better be described as finding the factual basis for Jane Austen’s fictional world. Budding novelists are always advised to write what they know which is exactly what Jane Austen did. How well she wrote about the world she knew, is shown by Ms. Vickery’s extensive research into the life and times of the people of Georgian England.