The Bee Whisperer
She floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, and gives lessons in botanicals.
I had been working at Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, for six months that fateful afternoon of June 15, 1981. My boss, Charlie Gerras, called me into his office and asked if I would drive an out-of-town visitor, with some French-sounding name, to Rodale’s organic farm. Looking out his window, I couldn’t hear the crickets I knew were buzzing, but I could see the thickness of early summer gathering like phlegm.
Sure, I said with forced enthusiasm. Charlie, wheelchair-bound since a diving accident years ago, had been a prince of an editor to hire me to write cookbooks, given my piecemeal experience. He had seen my potential and passion for food. I would do anything for him. I was hired to help develop an encyclopedic natural foods cookbook to match the likes of The Joy of Cooking, a book that would be three years in the making.
Really, I would have preferred to hunker down in my air-conditioned cubicle secretly working on the novel, The Tale of the Last Cannoli, I had been writing for the past seven years.
I was still deep in the throes of culture shock in Pennsylvania Dutch country where towns had biblical names, you had to plan ahead if you wanted wine on Sundays, and where the janitor asked me if he could “outten the lights” on nights I worked late. I had spent those previous seven years in San Francisco, stalking the last of the Beats. I frequented North Beach, stained my teeth on espresso at Caffe Trieste with Jack Hirschman writing poems about him and his lover, Kristen, that I never showed anyone. I sat in Michael McClure’s Haight-Ashbury Victorian with his daughter, Jane, and drank tea. One day I would prevail upon Lawrence Ferlinghetti to read my novel. A certain smugness had followed me on the road to Emmaus.
I found the stranger, Annie, waiting for me patiently and unobtrusively in Rodale’s cheery corridor. Slowly, it came to me — ah, yes, she had written some home dairy cookbook for Rodale. There she stood in stark contrast to the other food authors I had met, all New Yorkers — Marion Gorman, Sheryl and Mel London. Once or twice a month I would take the two-hour Bieber bus to meet with Charlie and such sophisticated palates in mid-town Manhattan.
Annie fit the publisher’s folksy image, which in those days some of top management wanted desperately to change. I led Annie out into the muggy air to my car, my mind stuck on some pivotal scene in The Last Cannoli. Oblivious to my distractedness, Annie was immediately congenial. I recall how she was dressed that swimmingly hot day, in a smock, which I learned had traveled with her 12 hours by train from Vermont to Lehigh Valley. Naturally, steeped in my inflated sense of urbane-writer-stuck-in-Podunk, I noticed it was a loose smock and that Annie, wearing thick and rimless glasses, had a head of tight permed curls over which she wore a pastel-colored babushka.
We drove the ten miles or so from the publishing headquarters through the rural backroads to Macungie, up 100 north to 222 west toward Maxatawny where, I had heard someone intone, the cowpokes are brawny. Annie did the talking and eventually my preoccupation with The Last Cannoli receded. She told of living in the backwoods of New England, where she’d been a gardener all her life. “Got 60 acres of a farmlet. We grow legumes, beans- — noel beans, crimson and green limas.”
We passed the Velodrome in Trexlertown and my mind drifted again, to Bicycling, one of Rodale’s fitness magazines I wanted to write for. How I loved getting to try out sportswear and equipment for the product development staff. I had gotten my first ten-speed, a Matsuri, from them.
“ . . . and free range chickens,” Annie was saying. “Taste better, because they develop good muscle tissue through exercise. Grain-fattened and ready in six weeks. No fat tissue from just sittin’ around.”
“Annie, this is beautiful country,” I said. Suddenly, the passionately green and lush rolling hills of the Lehigh Valley struck a chord and I felt a terrible unnamable sense of loss that would haunt me through life. This humid landscape was something I had grown up with in New Jersey and missed in California.
“Too densely populated,” dismissed Annie, going on to explain how rural bartering helped her. “You can’t be self-sufficient alone. Cidering is our specialty.”
We neared Rodale’s 350 acres of organic farm. Annie said, “I don’t expect I’ll see any corn. Unecological; high feeder; no need to grow it; let the home gardener grow it.”
Two farm workers, Maria and Irene, greeted us, and the four of us lumbered in the wet heat up the road to a patch Irene was working. Annie bent over and picked a roadside weed. She handed it to me. It was the color of chamomile.
“Crush it and sniff.”
“Hmmm, pineapple?” I said.
A bee landed on Annie’s shin. She stopped and stared at it and just kept looking with aplomb. I wanted to swat it, but I felt Annie knew what she was doing. She began to give off that sort of vibe. The bee finally took flight. She was no longer a bumpkin. She was a bee whisperer. And, still, I was too obtuse to know what I was in the presence of, what I should have done, should have said.
In the greenhouse, we passed a rainbow of amaranth varieties, an ancient grain then fairly new to American cookery. Writing the grains chapter for our tome (today called Rodale’s Basic Natural Foods Cookbook and a collector’s item), I had eaten heaps of amaranth, the grains and the greens. I rather liked them minus the human blood the Aztecs added, but I don’t think I told Annie that.
“Oh, Chrysanthemums!” Annie exclaimed. “We ate them in Tokyo. And nasturtiums, variegated ones.” I had a hard time picturing her in that smock and babushka in Tokyo.
I admired the way Annie could peel off Latin nomenclature as we ambled through gardens, farm rows, and greenhouses. I once thought I couldn’t be a real writer until I knew the names of everything — all flora, fauna, all land forms, all entities, and all phenomenon. But now I was entrenched in a certain smugness and it separated me from the moment or caring about Latin names.
We came upon a purplish flower in the herb garden. “Pyrethrum,” said Annie with her botanical certainty. I half listened as she told me that she had been thinking about a wonderful 1930s mystery where someone gets killed by pyrethrum. This man had bunches of it hanging upside down in his home in a room. Someone locked him in and the fumes killed him. I can’t recall if she were writing that story or had read it. Stupid of me not to get that straight.
She said she wrote fiction at night. “All my fiction revolves around the outdoors.”
There my memory fades. But this Annie person made an impression: I wrote in my journal that evening, What would I do for a jolt in Emmaus without people like Annie coming through . . . ? Had I known that I was in the company of a future acclaimed novelist and winner of the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner and National Book awards, I might have made sure we at least became pen pals.
The next time I met Annie Proulx was 28 years later in 2009 during a book fair in Buenos Aires where I was living for several years. I loved this Latin city that had more bookstores than churches. I sat in the audience with a few hundred adoring Argentine fans at MALBA, the city’s Museum of Modern Art. I might have guessed they were eager to meet the woman behind El Secreto de la Montaña, the most romantic short story I have ever read, also released as a novela and Oscar-winning film.
Perhaps the author’s changed demeanor (less folksy) was a figment of my humbled imagination. She seemed much taller than I recalled. She wore smart slacks and looked younger (no more perm), probably because I was now twelve years older than she was when we met. It struck me that she felt no need to attempt even one word in Spanish. An interpreter kept pace with her. She seemed travel weary, impatient at times, and determined to speak mainly, not on the art of writing, but on writers’ rights, addressing the then-escalating problem of electronic book sales. When pushed, she did offer advice. If you want to write, read, read, read. That was it. Next question.
During the question and answer period, I raised my hand and started to remind her of our day out at Rodale’s organic farm. But before I was even through my sentence, she was shrugging it off as a too-distant memory. Next question. I sat down berating myself for always taking to long to get to the point. What was my point?
Since our day in the country, I had left the Lehigh Valley, moved back to San Francisco, finished my novel (in the late ’90s), its title shortened by an agent to The Last Cannoli. Stacy Creamer at Putnam had liked it a lot and asked for some revisions but ultimately rejected its weak “narrative drive.” Legas, a tiny publisher in Brooklyn, put it out. I procured a nice blurb from Ferlinghetti. Annie of course went on to international fame, many awards, and high critical acclaim.
After Annie’s talk at MALBA, at the wine and hors d’oeuvres party, I approached her amid the swarm of Argentines with a complimentary copy of my memoir, Tango, an Argentine Love Story (Seal Press). She flatly rejected it. “I have no time to read it.”
My friend Ed and I faded into the crowd, then left. As we walked back to my apartment I told him about the other Annie I had once met in the Lehigh Valley, the crushed pineapple weed, pyrethrum, and the murder mystery, how I wondered if she ever wrote it.
I was still feeling the sting of rejection by famous author when I attended a presentation by another one, Ariel Dorfman. Ariel was born in Buenos Aires but spent much of his life in Chile and the United States. He was cultural advisor to Salvador Allende, 1970 until 1973 when he was forced to leave Chile following the coup by Augusto Pinochet. Ariel authored many works including the play, “Death and the Maiden,” also a 1994 film directed by Roman Polanski, with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. He was presenting his latest work, a novel, Americanos, los pasos de Murieta.I gingerly approached him after his talk and handed him his book to autograph for me. I found my voice and dared to tell him we had a friend in common, Jo Alexander, a sweet old woman who became one of my best friends after she and I met in a San Francisco cafe. The name brought a beaming smile to his face and we shared memories of our late friend. Ariel too had befriended Jo when she lived briefly in Chile. I’m sure he knew of her outspoken left-wing politics and work as a stringer for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. Her columns (along with an earthquake) helped stop PG&E from building a nuclear reactor in Bodega Bay. Ariel signed my book, For Camille, with thanks for the smile you’ve brought us.
If only Annie could have seen that I wasn’t just a stumbling, starry-eyed groupie.