Broadside #46 (Winter 2017 / 17.1)
Talk to me about red honey: That psychoactive syrup culled from Himalayan bees who feed on the poisonous white rhododendron. How only a little of the toxic honey will peel back like wallpaper that inside men which will be rushed away in a torrent if they consume too much. How some men can still live, addicted as they are to dying. The world is full of things like this: things that must be passed on secondhand, too potent in the first round of existence for their final recipient. The bees are able to withstand that which the humans cannot, although they are not thinking of the humans when they withstand it. They understand something instinctively about antidote that can’t be learned.
It is a gesture of unimaginable generosity on the part of all bees, that we are able to collect honey at all. It is true but not often said, that they could simply choose to not allow it.
Understand that I have always lived in places where the height of trees overwhelms the structure of houses. Where the railroads score the silence outside. Something nearby has always looked at the neat and precarious construct of my world and audibly laughed. This morning, in such a dwelling, I made the oatmeal from 2009, which is more of a place than a time. Or, as the pilgrim once put it, 2009 was a weird night. The recipe said that, as with all things in life, the key to hot cereal is not what you do but the order in which you do it. There are only so many elements on earth to be wielded, after all. Heat the water first. Don’t put that into your body which you either don’t need or can’t handle. Approach the hive gently. Like you have lived on this earth before, as some other creature.
It is also sometimes called mad honey, and this logic is not uncommon. The world is full of things that people call mad, instead of seeking to understand.
This is the sort of story I like to hear before sleep. Not tales of potential new worlds, ghosts in towns which are probably far more haunted by their living histories. Nothing from fairy tales, limericks, nothing that calls to mind lost love or found land. But real live magic, for which the world is culpable, for which there can be consequences if it is not delicately handled. With oil on my temples I request stories for the promotion of sleep through the destabilization of reality. We begin on a mountain. The men make a curry out of sacrificed rooster before they attempt to reach the bees—and, as with all good sacrifices, they eat it. They start out sacred and full.
Their ladders are made of green and yielding branches, one more way of demonstrating deference. Like Anne Sexton, writing before her own death came to match Sylvia’s: “But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.”* By the same stroke, the man is blessed who climbs because it is what is done, without further explanation necessary.
It is not eaten carelessly—its doses are small, restrained, more of a tincture than a food. But its sweetness is no less real for being incidental. In other traditions, sweetness is observed differently—for instance, giving a child a taste of honey after they read aloud their first word from the Torah. Scholars licking their slates clean in apparent hunger for knowledge. I wonder, is the whole world always having to forgive writers for their presumption? and the question is so obviously rhetorical it almost yells back at me. I go on, do we ever admit that people can hurt us without being very important to us, simply from touching on what wound came before them? What is it that makes us abandon a thing before it destroys us, when maybe what we need is to be destroyed? What is the recommended dose? Can it be taken in tea? Are these my New Year’s resolutions?
And what pleasure it is to sit all morning and write about bees, not as bees, but as a function of my imagination. The luxury to speculate without allegiance to, but with respect for, the facts. If I was to get more dogged about truth: It is not just rhododendrons, but any flower containing grayanotoxins. The men know why they collect the honey, for personal use and for sale. The one with the oatmeal recipe had an affair with a much younger woman and also had to close their business. More than one man has died of this honey. In fact, supposedly the Persian army left pots of it for the Romans to find, then slaughtered the disoriented troops easily. But here we begin to blend again with legend. Red honey by the Black Sea. My questions multiply as they are answered, I am full and therefore sacred. About the bees, what it means to be a toxin, what the human limits are for exposure or declarations of love. Each question is pollinated across a long slope of time, each continues.
* The lines are from Anne Sexton’s “Wanting to Die”.
Author’s commentary: During April 2016, I participated in a psychedelic drug study at Johns Hopkins. For one day a week, five consecutive weeks, I was given a dose of an undisclosed compound by a group of researchers who, for sixteen years, have been studying psilocybin and its potential uses in death acceptance for terminally ill people, as well as in the treatment of various mental illnesses. Around the same time, a friend showed me a video about the Gurung people in Nepal, and their use of so-called red or mad honey. The honey has psychedelic qualities because it is produced from the pollen of plants which contain alkaloids that are poisonous to humans. It is collected perilously by “honey hunters” using ladders lashed of soft green plants at great heights, from the hives of the largest bees in the world. In large enough quantities, it can cause paralysis and even death, and its effects are legendary, called “mad honey disease” and supposedly having been utilized in warfare. The incredible delicacy of the process of collection resonated with me at the time I saw the video—the reverence for the bees, respect for their biorhythms, even the tacit understanding that now and again, a honey hunter is killed at his work. The men are quiet as they go about their job. During my participation in the study, I felt the ability to interact with my interior self without disrupting the systems that were already at play, and I felt this mirrored in the work of the honey hunters—interacting with nature without disturbing it. This piece, “Red,” was part of a larger discussion I was having with myself during the months following the study, resulting in a body of work called A Month of Five Fridays.