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Q & A with Hannah Nordhaus – “The Beekeeper’s Lament”

In The Beekeeper’s Lament, Hannah Nordhaus relays beekeeper John Miller’s observation that there are two types of people: “the kind who shy away when the hive is first opened, and the kind who lean in.”

While not a big fan of bees or being stung, Nordhaus doesn’t just lean into the hive, she climbs in like a happy bear and camps there, vacuuming up information and observations about this fascinating species and the humans who keep them.

Full review follows.

First, fellow Coloradoan Hannah Nordhaus was kind enough to answer a few questions about her reporting, writing and bees.

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About writing:

Question: Your scene-setting throughout The Beekeeper’s Lament is extremely vivid and detailed. Can you tell us a little bit about your daily note-taking process and how you track all the information as you go? How does your training or approach as an historian influence your approach as a reporter?

Hannah: Well, let’s see. When I’m on a reporting trip I take copious notes as I go, making sure I take down everything that strikes me: the setting, the light, the weather, the people, what they look like, what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, what happens while I’m there. And then before I go to sleep I revisit the day, noting anything I might have missed in my initial impressions, and generally synthesizing the day’s experience: how I feel about it, and what feelings or connections or general ideas it brings up. Those late-night synthesis sessions are often the most valuable for me. It’s where I get some of my most interesting insights and turns of phrase.

In terms of tracking information, I keep one or two huge Word files with all my notes, transcribing everything from my notebooks and notes on books I read into those documents, and pasting any emails or information I gather from the internet. Then when it’s time to organize my thoughts in preparation for writing, I slog through that huge file, reorganizing everything by chapter. It’s painful, but I can’t think of a better way to do it.

I’m not sure my training as a historian transfers directly to my actual reporting process, but it certainly bears on how I choose to present information as I go. I’m always interested in not only the present situation, but also its backstory–how that situation came about, how it’s changed over time, and why. Of course I imagine anyone who is thorough, regardless of whether they have a background in history, would probably do the same thing — if you’re telling a story at book length, there’s going to be a lot of background included!

Question:  You have extensive non-fiction credentials for a large variety of magazines and newspapers. Was The Beekeeper’s Lament the first book-length project you encountered or had you pitched and queried a number of others before this one connected with a publisher? Will you look to another area of the food business for your next book—or will you purposely look elsewhere?

Hannah: This was my first book. It started as an article, also a profile of John Miller, my main character. It ran just as the media got wind of Colony Collapse Disorder and honeybees started dying en masse, so there was a lot of interest in the piece and I was contacted by a couple of publishers. I had already been thinking I might try to turn the article into a book, so I reached out to a friend who put me in touch with an agent she knew, drew up a proposal and pitched it to publishers.

I’m working on a proposal for what I hope will be my next book now, and it has absolutely zip, zero, nothing to do with the food business. The Beekeeper’s Lament really grew out of my infatuation with the profession of beekeeping and John Miller, the charming, weird, and very funny beekeeper whom I profile in the book. But I don’t consider myself an expert in agriculture or food writing–I was attracted to the particular story of how America’s bees were suffering, and also to the metaphorical potential of honeybees and the people who tend them. It just seemed like a fun thing to write about and a good story, and I’m a sucker for good stories. So my next topic, should I get a new book deal, won’t have much to do with the last, except in that it deals with the American West and it’s also a really good story. In a nutshell, I’m hoping to write about my great-great-grandmother, a reluctant mail-order bride who emigrated to New Mexico in 1866 and whose ghost is alleged to haunt a swank hotel in Santa Fe that occupies her former home. It would be sort of a combination biography and ghost-hunting narrative.

Question: You included lots of John Miller’s poetry in The Beekeeper’s Lament and referenced classics, too, like Virgil. Did the topic inspire your own writing style or approach to developing a narrative voice?

Hannah: My narrative voice has always been a little florid, which I’m sure has annoyed my editors. Because my mother is a poet (and a very good one), I grew up immersed in poetry. She dragged me to all sorts of poetry readings as a small child, 70s soirees full of shaggy hair and metaphor, and every Thursday night I played on the living room floor while my mother’s poetry group drank jug wine and shared their work. Later, my mother ran the poetry series at the Folger Shakespeare Library near our house in D.C., and since we lived nearby and had a guest room, we hosted all manner of hotshot poets like Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly, who just seemed like slightly weird house guests to me. But it rubbed off. When I first started with creative writing in high school, I wrote poetry. Poetry informs my prose, and I’m a real stickler about the music of my sentences and paragraphs. It is just as important to me to get the rhythm of the words right as it is to convey the basic information.

I have my mom to thank for much of the poetry quoted in the book. When I first got fixated on the subject of bees and beekeeping, she started sending me honeybee-related poems: Virgil’s Georgics, Emily Dickinson. And of course the subject lends itself to flowery language and metaphor: blossoms, nectar, honey, desire, selflessness, community, passion, duty. It’s all so damn poetic. And then there were John Miller’s emails, which weren’t actually poems, except that for some reason he always writes emails in stanza form, and has a way with clever turns of phrase–so I guess, really, they are poems. Whatever they were, they seemed to work with the general tone of the project. Miller’s emails said things so much better than I could have, and gave the reader such a sense of who he was. I realized as I started writing that the emails could in some way form the backbone of the book, and sprinkled them liberally throughout. Really, in some ways, he wrote the book for me.

Question: Who are your favorite narrative non-fiction writers or reporters today—book-length or otherwise? (Basically: what are you reading?)

Hannah: My idols? I love Susan Orlean. Big fan of Tracy Kidder. Worship John McPhee. Philip Gourevitch writes the most beautiful sentences of any journalist on earth. I just finished The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, and was really struck by the music in his writing. I tend to gravitate towards voicey, literary non-fiction, and these guys are among the best.

About bees:

Question: Did your work reporting on the bee business and honey manufacturing in the United States impact your confidence level in how food production is being managed?

I guess in some ways it actually increased my confidence, because I was so impressed by the ingenuity with which people approach the creation of food in this age of mass production. I say this because really, I didn’t have much faith in our agricultural system to start with. It’s huge, it’s unsustainable, it’s broken, it’s alarming. But spending time as I did with people whose entire livelihoods revolve around keeping that system in operation, I’m truly amazed at the clever methods they’ve devised to keep things going. Who could have imagined that we’d grow so many almonds (and berries, and pit fruits, and vine fruits, and legumes), that require so much pollination, that we’d devise a system to haul bees in huge semi-trucks all around the country to make that possible. Humans are truly a creative and adaptable species. Sometimes–often–to our detriment.

Question: The whole colony collapse issue makes the entire food chain seem quite delicate and extremely sensitive. It also makes it seem quite miraculous, that we can walk into a store in Colorado and find raw almonds on sale, for instance, for $4.99 a pound. On a personal level, does writing a book like The Beekeeper’s Lament make it possible to ever walk into a grocery store and take the bounty for granted?

Hannah: Definitely not. Our system of food production depends on so many weak links: honeybees, which are suffering the slings and arrows of globalization and overwork, water, climate, gas prices, population, and so on. It is remarkable that we put so much food on so many tables, and there are so many invisible threads that hold it together.

Question: “Lament” means deeply regret or deplore yet on some fundamental level the beekeepers in your narrative all seem fundamentally content with their lives. Despite all the ups and downs and despite all the uncertainty in their business, they seem to know the cycles come with the territory. In some ways, the beekeeper’s seemed eccentric and yet in others they seemed extremely sane and role-models for their sheer ability to understand their role so precisely. What’s the precise “lament” you have in mind?

Hannah: I guess what I intended by the word “lament” was really a song. It is a sad song, at times, about the major pain in the ass it is to be a beekeeper, but it’s also full of joy and wonder and beauty. It is a hard thing to be a beekeeper, to move with the seasons as they do, to be so dependent on the whims of nature, to confront death and massive loss and financial ruin and, oh yeah, bee stings, every single day. But it’s also a truly beautiful thing, and though these guys like John Miller complain, a LOT, they can’t imagine a different life. An easier life maybe. But a better life? That’s the kind of lament I was aiming for. A troubled, but joyful kind of complaint.

Question: Still no hives at your backyard?

Hannah: Nah. I would have like to have had one while I was writing, but at the time I had a two-year-old, was pregnant with my second kid and doing a major renovation to our house, and we had these grumpy twin-brother builders who probably would have set the whole neighborhood on fire if I’d added a beehive to the mix. And now my little one is the two-year-old, and it still doesn’t seem like a great time to have bees in my very small backyard. I feel, for my own credibility, and also because I’d like to have a steady honey supply, that I should keep bees, but now that the book is published, there’s no rush. It’s probably wisest to wait a year or two, until my little guy learns how to listen to me. Or maybe when he goes to college.

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Thanks, Hannah !

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My take:

The Beekeeper’s Lament is a magical mix of scintillating detail and thoughtful contemplation on the tangled, tense relationship between civilization and nature, between beekeepers and bees, between us and our food. You might never eat another almond again without thinking about a lowly honey bee somewhere in California, doing its thing, and the army of beekeepers it takes to deliver the beehives to the right fields at the right time.

Like Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, Ted Conover and others, Hannah Nordhaus takes us deep into an unexpected or not-easily-explained world one step at a time. As we go, she gently inserts herself into the narrative as the unobtrusive and credible pal who will peel back the mysteries and wonder one layer at a time.

Nordhaus’ interests run to the beekeepers’ handlers, in particular one John Miller, who infuses much of The Beekeeper’s Lament with his unique perspective on the world from his unusual vantage point.  The three-dimensional portrait of Miller is a beautiful piece of work. The Beekeeper’s Lament is as much about Miller as it is about the bees. He’s a compelling subject in his own right.

The reporting dives into the world of honey bees from a number of angles, including the ongoing puzzle with Colony Collapse Disorder, the history of beekeeping, the history of construction of manmade hives (fascinating), regulatory oversight of the business, bee thieves (who knew?), biology of bees and the varieties of honey they produce, among dozens of other topics.

The heart of the story is the massive army and extraordinary coordination that’s required to squeeze so much production out of the earth. “So just like that, something that used to happen freely now requires three layers of management—keeper, broker, and grower—to unite flower and bee. It is a very American story: creating a market where once there were just bugs and plants and unfettered visitation,” she writes.

Nordhaus makes it all flow smoothly, and finds spots to casually inject her prose with wry dollops of humor.

Bees “are creatures of routine, sticklers for order,” she writes. “Their short lives revolve around tending and cleaning and feeding the queen and the young. Bees are single-minded. They do not ditch their queens just because they feel like it. They do not get restless and leave their young. They do not go on flights of fancy. They do not enroll in semesters abroad on a whim or grow dreadlocks or get tattoos or go on extended vacations.  They do their jobs.”

It’s hard to imagine a better tour guide than Hannah Nordhaus. She’s keenly observant and endlessly curious—a killer combination.