Bees (for Katherine)

by Jeff Oaks


I walk a trail that runs alongside the Allegheny River every day with my dog. When I first moved to the area, this trail was wilder, a place more or less abandoned even though it was in a fairly populated neighborhood–Lawrenceville. I let my dog off leash whenever we went there, and he got to have a good time smelling around for rabbits and squirrels and a variety of wild creatures. On one side of the trail was the river and its attendant water-loving weeds and sycamores, which occasionally obscured but more often beautifully framed the river’s undulations. On the other side of the trail grew trees and thick bushes, which then gave way to a dense meadow of clover and other weedy flowers whose abundance in that quiet little space of about a tenth of a mile could be overwhelmingly beautiful in June and July. Past the clover were old train tracks owned by the Allegheny Valley Railroad. They were seldom used for anything other than parking the odd train car for a week.

It was a lovely place to go in those old days, by which I mean around 2006, not even ten years ago. In the intervening years, though, as the city has begun to think of ways to re-brand itself, to attract new citizens to itself, build its tax base, reassess its assets, the little meadow that stretched between the 40th Street Bridge and 36th Street has been disappearing, has been being disappeared. First came the efforts by the city to create a long trail all the way from the Point downtown, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers embrace each other and create the Ohio, all the way up to the 62nd Bridge. A flurry of bikers and walkers rejoiced at the prospect of a beautiful place to exercise, meditate, flirt with lovers, and take post-dinner digestive strolls by the beautiful Allegheny. Who wouldn’t?

But that idea of beauty required the city to find out who owned all the riverfront property, and mostly, to I think most people’s surprise, it was not the city. The railroad for instance owned quite a lot of it or had rights to it. A few corporations owned other lots. When the city suggested that, since so much of the land was going unused and there were no plans for use, it could or might claim eminent domain, suddenly said corporations went into overdrive and, like the Buncher Corporation, built an unnecessary warehouse on what could have been a lovely city park, or, in the case of the AVRR, the company renovated the tracks near the meadow, which required them to dig up half the meadow, and clear away any bushes and trees that were too close to the tracks. So we lost about half of the beauty of the place in a few weeks. Those of us who went there regularly noticed the loss but we felt we couldn’t say anything because we didn’t own it. We had no power to wield. Still, we continued to go down there because there was enough wildness left to feel that sense of transport away from the impersonal nature of the city and into the twittering, flying, buzzing, hopping, and humming, living other kind of nature. For a while, while the railroad company was replacing old ties, they left behind a stack of ties that became a kind of safe house for the local rabbits and woodchucks. We’d walk by it hoping to see a pair of eyes or ears vanish suddenly. The dogs went straight for its compost of exciting smells, especially in the winter when there was so little to chase.

This was supposed to be about bees, and in part it is. All these changes to this little patch of clover and the trail beside the river coincided with the news that bees were disappearing, that butterflies were disappearing, that worldwide frogs were disappearing. The loss of the meadow, our meadow as my friends and I wrongly but affectionately think of it, is entwined with those larger disappearances for me. Those of us whose lives are close to our animals and so therefore to the environment around us–the grass the dogs eat and pee into; the trees where squirrels can be found and so leashes cinched up in our fists; the sources of water, good and bad, dogs might try to drink from; the small bursts of beautiful wild flowers or honeysuckle smell or hidden cache of blackcaps; the spots where morels have been found–feel the small changes to it more quickly than other citizens but are often dismissed as being too sentimental or silly about what other people, especially that particularly predator kind of “developer”, feel to be true. It’s just nature, after all. It’s not necessary anymore. Or: it doesn’t have feelings to consider. Certainly it has no voting block to consider.

In general, I agree that the natural world isn’t at all sentimental. If the butterflies disappear, they won’t mind. The few who will try to make their yearly rendezvous with milkweed will seem pitiful when, as happens all the time, city workers clearing out weeds from a park destroy scores of milkweed plants along with everything else. But the butterflies won’t feel pity for themselves. The bees too won’t mind not being here anymore when for instance national, state, and city officials don’t act to stop the use of chemicals it’s all but certain are causing immense damage to hives all over the country. But I don’t agree that nothing much will be lost.

In the last couple of years, we’ve lost almost half the old meadow to the construction of a dog run, which was enthusiastically supported by everyone except those of us who already ran our dogs down here. Up went fences, down went an enormous amount of brush and grass and clover and vine so that humans could bring their dogs down here for contained outdoor exercise. How could you complain about that? It’s brought some people together who might not have talked to one another before.

But it’s also a huge loss for the insects and the birds and the rabbits who made the trail a real place of wonder and delight. It’s a more human place now. The amount of plastic, as poop bags, as destroyed toys, and as the usual plastic human garbage of wrappers and bottles and cigarette packs, has increased. Garbage cans had be put up at regular intervals on the path. And this year, in order to empty all that trash most easily, the city workers have started driving their trucks up along the tracks and finally over the last remaining part of the meadow, crushing the clover and Queen Anne’s lace and assorted flowers indiscriminately. Because it’s the easiest way to deal with the problem of garbage of course, and apparently not one of the men is able to see that what they’re driving over is something and not just weeds.

I despair often about humanity. I have so many friends who are good, kind, thoughtful beings who give me hope, but I know that my friends have little control over the world. We want to do our work, writing, reading, thinking deeply about the uses and abuses of language’s power. In so many ways, we’re like bees ourselves, going out into the world and bringing back into classrooms and coffeehouses and kitchens small bits of news to share. We describe, we take photos with our iPhones, we invent petitions, we gather signatures. We have done great work. We contribute to a cross-pollination of the world’s ideas, voices, cultures, experiences. We create art out of ordinary experience.

But those who want the easiest way forward, who think the easiest thing to do is the only thing that can be done seem unconvinced. In my university, we can all see the administration’s move to make everything about profit, as opposed to education. There is a certain level beyond which most people don’t want to consider the consequences of their actions. I’d love to say it’s only certain billionaires who in fact have lost all connection to what’s real and are only after an abstraction–Wealth– but it also seems true of the maintenance guys who didn’t have to drive over the clover in order to get to the garbage cans. So many of us are tired and feel as if we can only really deal with one problem at a time. If you’re worried about your job, why consider the difference between a milkweed and nightshade? If you can’t imagine paying off your college debt, why imagine the long-term effects one species’ extinction might cause? Most people can’t even tell the difference between bees, wasps, hornets, and certain other winged creatures. They swat whatever looks like it might sting. How to break that habit? How to leave some wildness alone?