The Gift of Bees

Little House Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods

Growing up a pastor’s kid in suburban Baltimore, I knew almost nothing about the Midwest and it’s history.

What little I did know I gleaned from books.  Like thousands of other American girls growing up in the 1960s, my first exposure came from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series.   My hardcover copies, graced with Garth Williams’ lovely illustrations, still have a place of honor on my bookshelf.

The first book, Little House in the Big Woods, is rich with the details of life for this family as they made their home in Wisconsin.  For example, I remember being intrigued by the descriptions of Pa getting honey from “a bee tree.”  Before reaching the honey, he needed to chase away a hungry bear.  Pa brought home a wagon’s worth of honey in pails and buckets, two washtubs, and a washboiler, all “heaping full of dripping, golden honeycomb.”

Laura felt sorry for the bees.  “But,” Ingalls Wilder wrote, “Pa said there was lots of honey left for the bees, and there was anotherlarge hollow tree nearby, into which they could move.”

Caroline and Charles Ingalls

Caroline and Charles Ingalls

This scene, like so many in the book, firmly places the Ingalls family’s endeavors within not just their own clearing, but the surrounding natural environment.  To fully appreciate their experience, readers must imagine much more than the methods used to harvest wheat or churn butter, or the joy taken from family gatherings.  As the book’s title makes clear,  the little farm was a tiny part of a much larger historical landscape.

When I started working at Old World Wisconsin, many memories from the “Little House” books suddenly became relevant.  I kept a journal in those early years.  Here’s one July entry:  “I came upon a swarm of bees today as I walked the path from Schulz to Koepsell (two farms in the German area).  I heard them first, and looked up.  They were dark against the sky, and quickly disappeared over the trees.  Their buzzing song was wonderful.”

Twenty-six years have passed since I saw those bees.  I spend a lot of time outdoors, but I have never again seen a swarm passing overhead.

The historians responsible for designing the layout of Old World Wisconsin might have clustered the buildings together, creating an “architectural park” to display the 19th-century homes and service buildings.  Instead they chose to spread the buildings out among the Kettle Moraine’s ponds, prairies, and woods.  Their choice ensured that visitors—and interpreters—can get at least glimpses of the natural world that the people who lived in those homes understood intimately.

No visitors were in sight when I saw the swarm that summer day.  Since I couldn’t share the moment, I simply savored the unexpected dark swirl against the sky, and its “buzzing song.”  One more detail from Little House in the Big Woods shifted from imagination to experience.  And I came one minuscule step closer to understanding the world of the immigrants I spent my days interpreting.

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6 Responses to “The Gift of Bees”

  1. slgreatsuccess Says:

    I hope Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories will live on forever in the hearts and minds of many.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Me too! I’ve yet to visit Pepin during its annual “Laura Ingalls Wilder Days” festival, but it’s on my list.

  3. Donna Druchunas Says:

    Kathleen, what a GREAT blog. I only have a few minutes to check it out now, but I am adding it to my RSS feeds. I was reading about Rose Wilder Lane, the eldest daughter of Laura Ingalls recently in a book about women who traveled in Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. I would love to write about her!

    As usual, I have more ideas than time! And I’m pretty much booked through 2010. SO I am keeping an idea book and waiting to see what project idea has staying power.

    Talk to you soon!

  4. Meg Says:

    Where did you get that picture of young Charles and Caroline? The only pictures I’ve seen of them are after they’re older.

    I just discovered your blog (thank you for posting about it on WWW), and am eating it up with a spoon.

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