Thoughts from a remarkable book written in 1938: The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher and inventor.
Every word has a life and a personality. A writer always has an instinctive interest in words.
Writing is but the expression of one’s own nature or character… style is not a method, a system or even a decoration; it is but the total impression that the reader gets of the quality of the writer’s mind.
A writer in the ‘familiar’ style speaks in an unbuttoned mood. He completely exposes his weaknesses, and is therefore disarming.
A literary masterpiece is like a stretch of nature itself, well-formed in its formlessness…
The ancient peoples called books ‘limp volumes’ and ‘soft volumes’; therefore the best style of reading a book is the leisurely style. In this mood, one develops patience for everything.
I regard the discovery of one’s favourite author as the most critical event in one’s intellectual development. Like a man falling in love with his sweetheart at first sight, everything is right…
A good reader turns an author inside out, like a beggar turning his coat inside out in search of fleas… an itch is a great thing.
Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy, or one with less heart than I have! – Pinocchio
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1882) is a rare thing: an archetypal story for children. The puppet-boy is every disobedient, lazy child who must face hardships, find parental love and grow up. It can also be read as a snapshot of Tuscan society, a Christian allegory or a myth. The language of this classic has barely dated. The best recent version is illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, capturing the all the pathos and drama of the tale – his iconic artwork combines painterly detail with cinematic angles. This darkly humourous adventure is far from the sanitized Disney version (one of the most beautiful animated films).
Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll were the first children’s novels to create a complete fantasy world. Before Alice, children’s books were mostly moralistic or religious, with titles such as ‘An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children’. The Alice books are infused with word play, parody of Victorian society, anarchy, and creepy characters (courtesy of Tenniel’s illustrations; the knitting sheep is my favourite). The books revolutionized children’s literature.
Best Alice versions:
- Lovely hardback version with Zadie Smith’s intro and Mervyn Peake’s pictures.
- The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner is the definitive geek’s guide.
- Salvador Dali’s illustrated Alice is a collaboration of two of the ‘ultimate explorers of dreams and imagination’. View the paintings here.
- The weird 1966 movie version captures the dreamy torpor of the fantasy.
Children’s fiction about honey bees is rare and this gem from 1957 is hard to find. A Swarm in June by Rosemary Garland is a charming junior novel that beautifully combines bee lore with childhood wonder. Seven year old Jonathan finds a wild swarm in June (‘worth a silver spoon’) but a visiting cousin is scared of bees. It takes an attack by a stoat to unite the cousins in the end. It’s an innocent tale and the bee wisdom is timeless: beating a gong to attract a swarm; tracking bees with thistledown; and ‘telling the bees’ about important events in our lives. Best of all is the way the boy is so comfortable around the bees.
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour – Isaac Watts
For a long life, breakfast daily on honey. – Pythagoras
Human beings have fabricated the illusion that they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to 7 billion people. – Achim Steiner
Life is all one – as big as the world and as small as a honey bee. – Hattie Ellis
Bees … their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers. – Ray Bradbury
We have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light. – Jonathan Swift
The comb of the hive bee is absolutely perfect. – Charles Darwin
Just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may also very well need contact with nature.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv is an inspiring book about how to prevent ‘nature deficit’ in children. Children today are often more aware of threats to the environment – climate change, extinction, pollution– than they are of the environment itself.
If we fill our classrooms with examples of environmental abuse, we may be engendering a subtle form of dissociation. Lacking direct experience of nature children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse.
Louv, brings together a body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development. He takes a positive approach by offering practical solutions in your own backyard.
Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts…It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world. – Rachel Carson
‘Neonicotinoids’ … a clunky word, but one that everybody should know. They (‘neonics’ for short) are the most widely used insecticides in the world – they’re now found in almost every managed landscape from farms to home gardens (and use is increasing rapidly). Neonics are non-targeted (ie.lazy) pest control: they’re usually coated on seeds and the poison stays in the plant as it grows. And the residue can remain in plant tissue, pollen, soil and water for years – it’s these residues that can kill beneficial wildlife: bees, birds, soil creatures and helper insects. That makes neonics a threat to our food supply because:
- Bees and other pollinators directly provide much of our food
- Soil creatures (worms, microbes) are vital for soil health
- Helper insects (predatory and parasitic species) provide natural pest control
Why would we want to harm any of these? The EU has put a two year ban on neonics (because of damage to bees)but they are still used in NZ and are available to the public. Let’s ask garden and hardware shops to stop selling them (Placemakers and The Warehouse have recently withdrawn them) and the EPA to ban them.
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched…
So begins The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. But some did believe it 75 years ago on Halloween in 1938. Orson Welles’ fake radio news report based on the novel panicked many people into thinking it was a real invasion, if not by the Martians then by the Germans. The broadcast remains scarily realistic (listen to a clip here). It made Welles famous, and even Hitler referred to the hoax, calling it an example of ‘the decadence of democracy’. H.G.Wells once met Orson Welles and recorded a nicely understated interview. The novel is one of the most influential of all sci-fi stories although it displays the some of the racist attitudes of its time (1898). It gave the world its extraterrestrial consciousness and opened narrative wells that have produced a host of alien stories. And the existence of alien life seems more than likely amongst the billions of ‘Goldilocks’ (suitable) planets, stars and galaxies.
Am I really made of stardust? Most atoms were made in dying stars… when the stars exploded (supernova) the atoms were flung into the universe and became planets and plankton and people… the atoms themselves don’t change but are constantly recycled into different bits of matter… so the exact same atoms of supernova dust still make up 93% of my body mass. It’s difficult to grasp that the ancient universe is somehow ‘me’, but it’s also oddly hopeful.
‘Our presence in the universe is deeply rooted in this cosmic history.’– Marco Bersanelli, physicist.
Honey, Nature’s Golden Healer by Gloria Havenhand is a superb book that deftly balances bee science, beekeeping expertise, folklore and health tips. Honey is more than just another spread for your toast:
‘Most people know very little about honey and its healing powers… Research has shown honey deserves to move into the serious league for healing.’
I thought I knew every fascinating fact about honey but I found many new insights here:
- Beeswax is made by bees only 10 to 18 days old who consume about 10 kg of honey to make 1 kg of wax.
- A little honey before bedtime fuels the brain overnight because the live stores the sugar (fructose).
- Raw honey is best to eat. Most supermarket honey is treated which removes vitamins, anti-bacterials and pollen nutrients.
- Always scrape out the honey jar – that last 1/10 of teaspoon represents the honey collected by one bee in her entire lifetime.
The Day Boy and the Night Girl (1879) is a classic short fairy tale by George MacDonald (left) about a witch who raises two children in a bizarre experiment – the girl, Nycteris, has never seen the sunlight, and the boy, Photogen, has no knowledge of the night. The two escape and meet at twilight to help each other overcome their fears of dark and light. It’s a lovely romantic allegory which also subverts male/female fairy tale roles. MacDonald was an unorthodox preacher turned writer whose fantasy tales inspired both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. His other fairy tales are equally fascinating, my favourite being The Light Princess (1864) a witty story about a feisty princess who has lost her gravity – she floats like a helium balloon and can’t can’t take anything seriously, even a prince who gives up his life for her.
MacDonald occupied a major position in the intellectual life of his Victorian contemporaries. MacDonald’s stories are profoundly experimental and subversive. – (The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald)
City life can distance people from nature and from the consequences of environmental damage. One solution is to bring nature to people’s door-steps, such as bringing beehives into the city. Murray and Heidi Rixon rent beehives into home gardens. They visit the hives regularly and teach their clients how to manage the bees and provide protective bee suits for the whole family. People can choose their degree of involvement with the hives and most are very keen to learn.
They say the Rentahive business has a ”massive feel-good factor” and people are driven by the urge to do something positive and proactive about the bee crisis. Customers are also excited to get a share of the honey. Murray and Heidi have just launched a schools’ project to teach children about bees. The children can partake in beehive construction, help with care of the hive and honey extraction.
There are many benefits having hives in an urban setting: bees get a longer flowering season and a wider variety of pollen/nectar sources; gardens are well-pollinated; honey flavours are unique; and best of all, people more fully engage with the environment.
A female bee lives for only about six weeks in summer. But it’s a life lived to the full because she’s constantly changing jobs: from cleaner to babysitter, builder, honey-chef, queen-groomer, guard, forager, undertaker and scout. Here is the diary of a teen bee:
Week 1 Dear Diary, So unfair! The work started the moment I hatched. I had to clean out my birth cell (ew!), then spend the whole week tidying the rest of the hive. My older sisters call me a ‘house bee’ and say I’m not allowed outside ‘til I’m 21 days. And I’m like, no way sister!
Week 2 Dear Diary, Yay! I’m a babysitter. The babies are sooo cute but totally exhausting. I have to check them 1300 times a day (okay, call me obsessive) to make sure they’re okay. Meanwhile the comb cleaning goes on 4EVAH…
Week 3 Dear Diary, I’ve graduated to building honeycomb, and I have to admit my hexagons are pretty groovy. I make honey in my so-called spare time – when I’m not still CLEANING!! Celebrated my 21st with my first flight and harvested nectar from flowers – it’s such a sweet job!
Rare is the American child who finishes school without at least once being asked to write a story based on one of the eerie, enigmatically captioned illustrations from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.– Meghan Gurdon
I suspect the same is true around the world; certainly of schools in New Zealand. Picture books by Chris van Allsburg are not only beautifully illustrated, the stories are open to interpretation, which makes them ideal for children to explore. It’s impossible to look at the pictures in Harris Burdick without imagining a story. It has generated a spinoff, Chronicles of Harris Burdick, wonderful short stories by writers including Stephen King, Lois Lowry and Lemony Snickett. Jumanji is van Allsburg’s other classic but my favourites are a couple of more surreal ones. Bad Day at Riverbend is a about a black and white cowboy town attacked by crayon graffiti; and in the postmodern ending the characters realise they are subjects in a colouring book! The Wretched Stone is set on a 19th century sailing ship, where a strange glowing stone makes the crew regress intellectually – is this a symbol of modern screen technologies?
TINA = There Is No Alternative
TARA = There Are Realistic Alternatives
When a politician says TINA, I say TARA. There are many potent alternatives to military intervention which are often not pursued. The peace scholar, Gene Sharp, listed 198 non-violent alternatives including noncooperation, protest, persuasion, and nonviolent intervention. The world spends $1.5 trillion a year on the machinery of war – imagine if this was invested in peace initiatives such as fighting poverty. The evidence of the last century is that non-violent action can change the world. When unarmed civilians gather in their thousands on the streets, people power has an impact.
It is the great challenge of our time: how to achieve justice — with struggle, but without war.– Howard Zinn
In the 1960s, Jane Goodall was criticised for saying chimpanzees have emotions. Today the evidence suggests she’s right, although scientists remain wary of anthropomorphism (associating human traits with animals). Of course animals don’t see the world exactly we do, but we shouldn’t ignore what we have in common with them:
Anthropo-denial: A blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves. – F. de Waal
The weight of scientific evidence is that animal have thoughts, feelings and intelligence – animals are not mere ‘survival machines’. It’s now accepted that humans and animals share many traits, and Marc Bekoff (The Emotional Lives of Animals) even suggests some anthropomorphism is inevitable. This all fits nicely with evolution which teaches us animals are our relatives and all life is connected. Forgetting this relationship has led to the honey bee crisis, for example, as people have treated bees as tools rather than partners in pollination.
Acknowledged as individuals, those sparrows, salamanders and squirrels are not interchangeable parts of a species machine. They are beings with their own inner lives and experiences. – Brandon Keim (Animal Consciousness)
A little anthropomorphism can help give children empathy with the natural world. When writing Flight of the Honey Bee I wanted accurate science yet also a sense of a bee’s experience. Should I use human concepts such as ‘know’, ‘remember’, captivate’, and ‘story’? Should I even call the bees ‘sisters’? The answer was yes. Honey bees have language, intelligence, and memory (and maybe something like emotions); and they’re more genetically sisters than humans.
They are not us, but to look into their eyes is to know that someone is in there. Imposing our own specific thoughts and feelings on that someone is in one sense too imaginative, in presuming he could receive the world in the way we do, and in another not imaginative enough, in not opening our minds to the full possibilities of his difference.- Caitrin Nicol (Do Elephants Have Souls?)
1. The bee and its place in history: article by Claire Preston, author of new book, Bee.
The bee is the only creature on the planet that is a true creative artisan. It gathers materials and transforms them to make not only architecture but food.– Claire Preston
2. The Trouble With Beekeeping in the Anthropocene: summary of Time Magazine’s feature on bees.
We are a species that increasingly has omnipotence without omniscience. – Bryan Walsh
Reading and brain development are linked almost from birth. A baby’s brain grows quickly, tripling in size during the preschool years – it grows when the brain cells make connections with each other. What creates those connections? Reading and singing to a baby; playing with a baby; touch and eye contact. By six years old, a child has the most brain connections he or she will ever have. A child who has been introduced to books as a baby will start school with many of the the skills needed for literacy.
The amount of time the child spends listening to parents and other loved ones read continues to be one of the best predictors of later reading.– Maryanne Wolf
Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf is a fascinating book that explains how reading and thinking can enhance each other. It’s our brain’s ‘plasticity’ that enables us to learn to read – reading creates new neural pathways and these then become the basis for new thinking. (More reading quotes here).
Spencer and his Dad
Tell all the truth but tell it slant – Emily Dickinson
Science can be difficult to describe: the maths, the weird words, and then there’s quantum physics. That’s why analogies and metaphors are so useful in science writing. And comforting for the mind:
We find it easier to reason by comparing unfamiliar with familiar, falling back on experience, looking for links between things, and seeking out pattern and meaning. – Joel Levy, A Bee in a Cathedral
Science abounds in comparisons: a greenhouse to explain global warming; a cat to illustrate a sub-atomic paradox; Kepler’s clockwork solar system. One of my favourites compares quantum physics to jumpy jazz and general relativety to a smooth waltz:
General relativity is like Strauss — deep, dignified and graceful. Quantum theory, like jazz, is disconnected, syncopated, and dazzlingly modern. – Margaret Wertheim, Physics’s Pangolin
And I love Dance for Two by Alan Lightman, a book of elegant science essays that has some cool metaphors: ballet dancer physics, a city of scientists and a world made of iron.
Photo: Shrödinger’s Cat in a super position
There are very few butterflies in New Zealand but there are over 1,650 species of moths, and most are found only in this country. They can often be seen in the daytime and are important pollinators of flowers.The largest moth is the beautiful puriri, which can measure up to fifteen centimetres across its wings. It spends four years as a caterpillar eating rotten wood, then changes into a velvety, green moth that lives for only a few days.
Daleks exterminate, and humans do too:
We’re killing the bees, who make our food.
Bees make us honey, and food for free,
But Daleks love bees, so why can’t we?
Perhaps it’s because the Daleks have a ‘hive mind’, a collective consciousness – like honey bees which communicate by smell, touch, and democratic systems.
Listen to the Dalek High Commander speak:
Honey bees are the glue that holds our agricultural system together…Hannah Nordhaus
There’s a real tenderness and occasional profundity stitched into them. – Helen Brown (Telegraph)
It shouldn’t work but it does. Classic novels including War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist as board books for babies. Each book is cleverly condensed into twelve words suitable for very young children. The secret is in the charming photographs which tell the story with hand-made felt dolls posed in famous scenes from the novels (not the gruesome bits). The books are simple, funny and will appeal to adults as much as children. The series is Cozy Classics.
Picture 2: Andrei and Natasha dance; Pierre is jealous.
August 6, 1945, an atom bomb destroyed Hiroshima – 80,000 people died instantly, tens of thousands more in later years. A larger bomb was then dropped on Nagasaki, killing another 40,000 people. Photos: Nagasaki before and after the bomb:
The US Secretary of War, was concerned that America’s reputation for fair play might be damaged by targeting urban areas. General George Marshall had a similar view, believing the bomb should be used first on military targets … Both men’s views were ignored.– Target Nagasaki by Craig Collie
Some say the bombs were the only way to end the war. I say the targeting of civilians with nuclear weapons is immoral, illegal, and horrific (A.C. Grayling argues this in Among the Dead Cities).
Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Atom speaks of how the atom was ‘unchained’ on August 6:
Mad spark, go back to your shroud,
bury yourself in your mineral mantle,
be blind stone once again, ignore the outlaws,
and collaborate with life, with growing things…
This handsome, respectful volume deserves a place on the shelf … it succeeds in accurately dramatizing honeybee behavior. – Kirkus Reviews
Flight of the Honey Bee review by artist, Claire Beynon:
“Given the state of our environment, the sooner we introduce our children to bees – to their intelligence, their intricate behaviour and increasing vulnerability – the better. Flight of the Honey Bee is the perfect book to do this, combining as it does Raymond Huber’s careful language and well-researched text with Brian Lovelock’s meticulously observed paintings. Cleverly formatted, fiction and non-fiction – story and fact – are woven together as two discreet yet interconnected strands: young readers can choose their flight path.
Exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore.
Scout the bee – named after the feisty protagonist in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird – and her tightly-knit community of hardworking bees demonstrate these small creatures’ importance in the pollinaton of plants and the well-being of our planet. Flight of the Honey Bee is about bee behavior but it will also teach children about subtler things; wonder, beauty, the value of group functioning and collaborative effort, reproduction, risk, courage, the joys of flight – those rhythms and principles essential for any thriving community. The hum of the parts.
This book has all the essentials of a satisfying story: it asks questions and it informs. It invites observation and participation. There’s drama. Suspense. Conflict. Danger. Hope. And a happy ending. At the close of her adventure, Scout is a wily-er bee than she was when she set out from her hive on her first nectar-seeking adventure. As all characters must, she grows through her experiences. We come to care about her and her safe passage home.
Visually, Flight of the Honey Bee is exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore – each double page spread is as stunning as the one preceding it. It will be immediately appealing to young readers. I was struck by how beautifully integrated the text and images are; they belong together like honey and honeycomb. The language is tender and witty (the line about ‘sun-powder’ is a wonderful change from ‘gun-powder’); and the paintings – a combination of watercolour, acrylic ink and coloured pencils – are spectacular; compositionally bold, delicate, exuberant and information-rich. Looking at them through my adult eyes, I can’t help thinking about fractals, the mathematics inherent in nature, the ever-present background dialogue between shape and sound, pattern and colour. Children will pore over them. And they will love Scout for her feisty resourcefulness.
There’s enough food on Earth to feed everyone. The world’s military spending is $1.5 trillion/year – just $30 billion of that could feed the hungry for a year.
Every 10 seconds we lose a child to hunger… we know how to fix this problem…
…says Josette Sheeran, head of the World Food Program. Her ideas for solving the hunger problem include:
- Encouraging breast-feeding: in poor countries only a tiny percentage of mothers breast-feed their children.
- Food banks: the community tops them up in good times with ‘food interest’ ready for use in lean times.
- Malnutrition-busting food packs: made from chick-peas and nutrients and costing only 17 cents a packet.
- Feeding children at schools: meals cost 25 cents a day and it also pushes up rates of girls’ attendance.
There is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.
Dorothea Brande (in the classic, Becoming a Writer) suggests our unconscious is a good source of original stories — but it’s a reluctant creature, resisting the discipline that writing requires. She describes several exercises designed to harness the unconscious:
- Writing immediately after you wake up before any associations invade the mind (or caffeine invades the body).
- Writing at a prearranged time every day.
- Meditation also improves clarity of thought.
- Beebuzz: Flowers have small electric fields that bees can detect and use to distinguish the flowers with the best nectar.
- Beespresso: Several types of flower have traces of caffeine in their nectar which bees are more attracted to than flowers without.
- Beetox: Honey detoxifies bees by triggering genes for making anti-microbial chemicals.
- Beefriend: Bees use their right antenna to tell friend from foe: it has more of the smell sensing hairs on it than the left antenna.
- Beestill: Even non-fatal amounts of pesticides will eventually fatally erode a beehive.
The Danes challenged the most barbaric regime of the modern period and did so not with troops or tanks but with singing, striking, going home to garden, and standing in public squares. – Peter Ackerman
Denmark’s resistance of the Nazis is one of the finest examples of people power. The Germans occupied Denmark during WW2 and took over industry and agriculture to support Hitler’s war machine. But the Danish government found ways to sabotage the Germans without waging war. In 1943 and 1944 they organised nationwide strikes. The Nazis threatened them with tanks and guns, cut off water and power, but the strikers held on and the army backed off. They succeeded in frustrating the supply of war materials to Germany.
Ordinary people also resisted the invaders: by non-cooperation, marches, students refusing to speak German; and communties holding ‘Songfests’ to celebrate Danish culture. When the Germans ordered the arrest of all the Jews in Denmark, people sheltered Jews and smuggled them out to Sweden. They saved almost all the Danish Jews – 8,000 lives.