I’d like to introduce you to our friend Paul Desilets, who died last week, of cancer.
We know Paul and his wife, Claire, because they are the beekeeping backbone of Cape Cod. They run a business pollinating the cranberry bogs, and you can find Rocky Bottom honey in a lot of local stores, but it is their work with the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association that brought us, and so many others, into their circle. Their enthusiasm for bees, and beekeeping, made everyone they met want to start a hive.
The Victorians were suspicious of enthusiasm. They believed that a consuming interest in any one subject was immoderate and unbecoming, a marker for an intellect incapable of discerning finer points. Anyone who’s ever been cornered at a party by someone who’s on the paleo diet, or really likes to fish, will concede they had a point.
Paul and Claire no longer share a tense, so I can’t say they were everything enthusiasts ought to be, and I can’t say they are everything enthusiasts ought to be, but neither can I separate them. Paul, still vividly present, and Claire, together, know pretty much everything worth knowing about bees, but what’s remarkable is what they do with it. They share. Unstintingly, cheerfully, at all hours.
They’re integral to the BCBA, which runs a winter Bee School to help novices get their first hive up and running. They give talks all year and live-hive demonstrations in the warm months. They give on-site help in their area, and connect experienced beekeepers with novices in other parts of the Cape. They collect swarms and find them good homes. They’ve developed a local queen-rearing program, and are participating in wider research on colony collapse disorder. They field phone calls and answer e-mails. At all hours.
Paul and Claire have visited us many times, usually to help us make sense of what’s going on in one of our hives. I wish I had a picture of him here, but I don’t. The only picture I do have is from a hive opening. It’s got half of Claire’s back on the right-hand side, fully bee-suited (she’s allergic to bee venom). It’s got novice beekeepers looking at a queen in a cage. Paul’s on the far left – no veil, no gloves – explaining something to someone. It’s not a great picture of him but, in a way, it is a great picture of him. He’s in the background – no veil, no gloves – explaining something to someone. He did that a lot.
Paul was more than just bees, of course, and Kevin and I didn’t know him well enough to know anything close to all of it, but it seemed as though, no matter what subject came up – animal, vegetable, mineral – he knew something interesting about it. He’d built his own house. He’d grown his own food. He had a tractor and knew how to use it! He seemed to take difficult things, things like building your own house, in stride, but his self-assurance was arrogance-free. He was good-natured and modest, funny and interesting.
Part of the reason I liked Paul so much is that he is half of Paul and Claire. I know how lucky I am to be half of Kevin and Tamar; our partnership puts solid ground under my feet, and Paul and Claire always seemed to me to be walking on that same kind of solid ground. I can’t possibly imagine what it must be for Claire to lose her husband; I can only think of what it might be for me to lose mine, and just the thought of it – benign, unreal – makes my chest tighten and my eyes fill. I try to extrapolate from there, but the trail tapers off. Her grief is unfathomable.
There is a point at which each of us starts thinking about what we will leave behind. For me, childless and with reams of drivel in print, it’s a frightening thought. Paul, I hope, thought with satisfaction, not just of his family, but of the hundreds of beekeepers, thousands of hives, and millions of bees that are his legacy. He made a real contribution, a contribution I admire.
Kevin and I didn’t keep bees this year; we were demoralized after three years of losing our colonies over the winter. Next spring, though, we will start again. It is, I think, the best way we have of honoring the memory of Paul Desilets.