I had a new old friend who died recently, and this post is a tribute to him and to something in the natural world he loved unlike anyone else I ever knew.
Walter was a colorful character with an interesting history, to say the least, and was full of stories. I dare not go into them here or I won’t get to my second tribute, which was actually his, but suffice it to say that I’ve not met many others who flew planes on ‘the other side’ in war against the United States. He and his dear wife Ingrid became good friends during a brief time I was their pastor a couple years ago. Oh, I did call him a new old friend, didn’t I? The recent nature of our friendship is the ‘new’ part. And the ‘old?’ Well, Walter was over ninety years of age. And he was dying.
The tenuous state of both his and his wife’s health was the thing that first brought Gail and me to meet him, but it was his honest and vulnerable questions about life and death, faith and doubt that caused me to quickly love the man. And I count it a great privilege to have been his friend as he struggled with his mortality.
His interests were vast. Like me, he was a naturalist and a man of strong Christian faith. Unlike me, he was also a very accomplished yet retired Boeing engineer, and, as already inferred, a pilot. Whether it was this thing of flight, which was his passion, that drew him to the husbandry of bees, I do not know. But a skilled beekeeper he also was, in spite of the fact that his greater Seattle home was surrounded by others for many miles around. At our first visit, I took little notice of the napkins he and his wife had set before us with our afternoon coffee – black, yellow, and covered with bees. Yet in subsequent visits not only would we tour his apiary, but our conversations somehow often became interlaced with lessons he had learned from his apiculture hobby; and I’d also find he and Ingrid had other bee-themed napkins with which to grace a table.
What stunned me was the
depth of Walter’s love…
Wow, did Walter know bees. He knew how they lived and died, how they behaved, how both the social and physical realities of their colony worked. And I came to find through listening to his stories that he also delighted in knowing his bees. When I took more than a casual interest in his accounts of queens he had known, in fact, had known well enough to recognize and name, he took a risk and shared with me a poem he had written when one of his colonies had died mysteriously and abruptly. When he set the paper in my hands, he said, “Here it is. Some people might think I’m crazy.”
So, along with my tribute to my new old friend Walter, I share his tribute to his lost colony, a poem he named, “Bee Requiem.”
In painful sorrow, sad and mourning I see the ravages of death
Unnumbered little bodies, now just shells awaiting their return to a new cycle
In mother earth’s deep wonder wells
Maya, Mahrah and the others who circled in exploring paths
And walked on cheeks and head and ears, and sometimes down my neck
Into my bosom to feel the warmth and listen to my heart
As one brave creature entered my ear to see what’s in there
I, deeply touched, produced a tear, only to have another see fit to drink it,
Thereby translating me to yonder wonderland so dear
And so, the present seemed to vanish, relieving me from troubled thoughts and fears
Oh, blessed beings, how I miss you and wish you would be here to drink my tears
But, praise the Lord, the souls of all creation remain existing in His heart
And when my time has come I will again be with you
In perfect love and recognition, never ever to depart
~~ WEB, August 2008, Colony #4
I was stunned as I finished reading. It wasn’t so much about new insights I’d gained into bees and beekeeping, something about which as a naturalist I had known embarrassingly little. It wasn’t the quality of the poetry, of which I certainly could never be judge anyway. It wasn’t about some flashy spiritual sound byte that might look good on a cheesy nature calendar. And it wasn’t that I found Walter crazy, far from it. What stunned me was the depth of Walter’s simple love. In his beautiful tribute, I saw a man who deeply loved life, who achingly loved the natural world, even intimately loved creatures that had once caused me an anaphylactic reaction. And I also saw the answer to Walter’s doubt, in words he himself had written years before, words that contained all the seeds of assurance he might ever one day need. I came to tears through the reading. As did he, by the way.
So there are my two tributes, one to Walter, one to his bees.
Walter, I’ll miss you. Thanks for inspiring me with your love of God’s creation. And do you know what I’d like very much? Perhaps one day, in perfect love and recognition, we can meet again for coffee in yonder wonderland over bee-themed napkins.
~~ RGM, November 28, 2018