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Essay

Honeyguides

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In the midst of all the terrible news in this past Sunday’s New York Times, I unexpectedly found a charming feature by Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, Natalie Angier, entitled “African Tribesmen Can Talk Birds Into Helping Them Find Honey.”  In the article, Angier describes how

among certain traditional cultures of Africa, people forage for wild honey with the help of honeyguides — woodpecker-like birds that show tribesmen where the best beehives are hidden, high up in trees. In return for revealing the location of natural honey pots, the birds are rewarded with the leftover beeswax, which they eagerly devour.

If that wasn’t cool enough, there’s more: the latest findings show that there is a specific, well-developed language used between tribesmen and honeyguides—“an extraordinary exchange of sounds and gestures, which are used only for honey hunting and serve to convey enthusiasm, trustworthiness and a commitment to the dangerous business of separating bees from their hives.”  Indeed, honeyguides actually advertise that they are there to help with a distinct song.

Honey is important in these cultures, according to the article, because it sometimes supplies as much as 80% of calories in a month.  Interestingly, however, it is not so much collecting the honey that is the problem (though the extremly aggressive bees need very specific handling) as the finding of it.  Humans know what to do when they know the honey is there (even if it usually involves at least a few painful stings), but it is much harder for them to find the honey itself.

This lovely little story of symbiosis made me wonder about the metaphorical honeyguides in our own lives. Those folks who signal their willingness to help us find, despite the danger of the besetting bees, the sweet sources of sustenance. To see love and joy and goodness even in the midst of darkness and depression and disappointment. To focus on the hope of honey, rather than the fear of the bees.

Who might that be for you?  For me, it’s a dear friend who always reminds me that I do not go alone and who reassures me that the bees of anxiety, buzzing noisily in my brain, do not have the final word. In recent weeks, it’s been my colleagues, organizing a teach-in around racial justice, and my summer student research team, encouraging me to see what can be accomplished, rather than focusing on the looming to-do list.

And it’s been Michelle Obama, who in her powerful speech on Monday (and, to be honest, Carpool Karaoke was pretty awesome, too) proclaimed the incredible message that, even though the injury they inflict is all too real, the bees do not win:

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves — and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

The honey is there for us. Thanks be to God for those who help us find it.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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