When I was twenty, I spent several weeks of my poetic translation tutorial wrestling a Neruda poem into English, a word at a time. “Abejas II” begins, “There is a cemetery of bees...” and ends,
“there they arrive one by one,
a million with another million,
all the bees arrive to die
until the earth is covered
in great yellow mountains.
I will never forget their fragrance.”
In 1974, thinking about mountains of dead bees in their millions was a metaphor, devoid of horror. In Neruda’s imagination, they were dying of sweetness, not neonictinoids. Gigantic corporations didn’t call them thieves for gathering their yellow grains of genetic code, in violation of trade monopolies, and scattering them across property lines in violation of privatization.
Their fragrant expiring didn’t signal the fracture of the natural world, famines,
crop failures, barren gardens. This summer the squashes in my garden bloomed, but never made fruit. I saw only one large bumblebee all summer, in spite of all the offerings we planted, and their absence filled me with fear.
My brother Ricardo has pointed out to me how so many of the online campaigns to save the bees focus on the work they do for us, as if we were the privileged rich and they were an exploited immigrant nation, toiling in our fields to fertilize the dinner table, worthy of saving only so that we can eat.
But the bees are their own golden beings, orbiting their flowering planet. I remember them, traveling the paths of the air, spiraling in slow grace through the pollen dusted petals of nasturtiums, hibiscus, gladioli, or in bullet fast furious beeline, spending their rough bright bodies in defense of the hive. How the intricate calligraphy of their dancing unfurled across the morning like a scroll, how they were not there for us, but with us, how they spread fertility to orchards, wildflowers, and inedible shrubs, without regard for our hungers.
They are a shining strand in the web of ecology, whose unraveling dooms us. They are sovereign nations facing extinction, and we have been here before. We must be their underground railroad, their sanctuary movement, their solidarity committee, blocking the roads that lead to their massacre, not because they could make the squash blossoms bear fruit, though that is part of their beauty, but because they exist, and like us, are being driven unjustly to their deaths.
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