Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Summer Without Bees

            Last year, rain frequently visited Belgium. By summer constant rainfalls turned everything green in the Belgian countryside. Trees got taller, shrubs and green grass thrived while transforming my sister’s garden into a lush and back to wild landscape.
A variety of birds reside in Mariane’s large yard, chirping out loud throughout the seasons. By early summer, the giant leaves of a Catalpa tree standing tall and wide in the middle of her green garden offered an ideal refuge for birds waiting for the rain to stop falling so hard.
During wet summer days, frogs in search of food also wandered the lush green grass my sister seeded years ago. Last year’s brief summery season was especially warm and the air infested with mosquitoes. Sleeping with an open window became a challenge for me. The miniature pests loved feeding on my skin.
Not many Belgians use mosquito-screens in their homes. I do not understand why. Hopefully the Nile virus that is now affecting Northern California has not reached Belgium yet. For a short amount of time, last summer sun smiled on the Northern European country mimicking the tropics. The temperature reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit, all the while exuding extreme humidity.
On the rare occasions the sun did shine, birds seemed especially merry. While rising with an early sun, diverse Belgian birds daily performed a variety of morning songs and calls while humans were still in bed and perhaps trying to stay asleep. Each day, the early birds’ songs awoke me and kept me awake. Unfortunately, the European summer sun did not radiate for very long. Rain and cold temperatures quickly returned into the Belgian forecast.
One wet day, while on one of my morning outings and visits to my neighbors, the elderly couple welcomed me with a Belgian beer. Willy served me the amber beverage in a specific beer-glass. For the first time I tasted a Belgian beer made in a town called Silly. While sitting at the kitchen table and sipping my ale, I said: 
“Do you know what the word Silly means in English?” 
“Hmmm?” responded Gilberte.
“Stupid could be one synonym. It is the same word in English and French,” I explained.
“Ah,” the red-hair lady said slightly puzzled. “I do not speak French very well. My first language is Flemish.”
“Your French is fine. My Flemish is not that great,” I responded.
“I speak Walloon,” Gilberte’s husband interjected while heading to a backroom connecting to the kitchen.
“I do not speak Walloon but I can guess some words,” I said smiling at the old man who proceeded to ride a stationary bicycle located in an area that looked like a storage room.
“How do you like the rainy Belgian climate?” Gilberte jokingly inquired. “My right leg is giving me a hard time right now.”
“I am having a hard time too, and I am not the only one,” I retorted. “I do not like rain, and my sister’s vegetable indoor garden is not doing well either. The two eggplants I planted in the glass house are not producing, the tomato plants are diseased, and the lettuces are eaten by slugs.”
“There a no bees out there,” Gilberte further explained. “Like you, I do not think bees like rain.”
“Did you put nettle-leaves in the soil before planting your tomato plants?” the aging man asked while pedaling on an indoor bike that couldn’t move forward.
“I did not know that nettle-leaves prevent mildew on tomato plants,” I replied. “There are plenty of nettles growing wild everywhere around here. Great advice. Thank you Willy.”
“I already told your sister,” he said while sipping from a large glass of French Pastis and still pedaling.
“My sister is very forgetful nowadays,” I said. “She did not tell me.”
“I always put half-orange peelings near my growing lettuces, even inside my glass house,” Gilberte added. “We each drink a glass of orange juice every day. Slugs love it too, and then they die.”
“How interesting,” I retorted. “My stomach does not agree with orange juice. But I do like beer.”
“Slugs like beer too. You could place a bowl filled with beer near your small growing lettuces,” continued my hostess. “It works.”
“Have another glass of beer,” interrupted my friendly male-neighbor who had just finished his daily exercise.
“No, thank you,” I answered. “I enjoyed the Belgian beer you just offered me. I had not tried that variety yet.”
“Come again,” said the gray-hair man.
“I will help you to the door,” continued Gilberte while limping to her entrance door.
“Have a good day. See you next time. Thank you for the beer,” I finished saying, “Goodbye.”
“Rex. Sit,” the lady voiced towards her rambunctious dog, meanwhile turning the key and opening the locked door. “See you next time.”
Feeling relaxed after ingesting a beer before lunch, I went back to my sister’s home and started preparing a midday meal. I made a salad, with the lettuces I had saved from the voracious slugs. I did not know about the deadly power of oranges. Every morning I had hunted for slugs, picking the slimy visitors one by one, while disregarding them at the end of my sister’s outdoor property and where farmlands began. The next day, the crawling creatures were back.
Instead of using half-orange peelings to divert slugs’ insatiable appeal and appetite towards lettuces, I covered each shoot with a transparent globe that included a hole at the top, to let air in. The French children book called “The Little Prince,” gave me the idea. But I did not use a glass-globe to protect a precious rose. Instead, I used a variety of empty plastic containers – recycled one-gallon plastic water-bottles – that protected my growing lettuces from hungry invaders.
Yet the eggplants I had planted gave me great concern. The small shrubs garnished of many light-purple flowers all died instead of growing into good looking vegetables with smooth skins and a burgundy coloring. I reflected awhile on the subject and eventually remembered.
While still living in Northern California, I had seen a documentary on China. One part of the documentary focused on a region in China where pears used to grow in abundance, thanks to an affluence of bees. Amidst a large orchard of pear trees, one old Chinese man explained to a camera that all the fruit-flowers in his orchard were now pollinized by hand. On camera, the wise man also revealed the small brush he used to perform his delicate and tedious work. He looked proud of his accomplishment. Pollinized flowers turned into pears.
“One flower at the time,” the Chinese man said. “Since bees have stopped coming.”
I wanted to try, and I did. Using a small painting brush, I delicately touched each flower growing on one eggplant. With the same brush-pencil I furthermore touched the other eggplant also garnished of flowers. The little yellow flowers timidly surviving on the tomato plants faced the same treatment, while tomato mildew kept on creeping.
A few weeks later, I saw the results of my labor on some of the plants growing in Mariane’s green house. Small dark purple eggplants started becoming. My sister was happy. I was happy too. Unfortunately, we ate very few organic tomatoes that summer. The invasive mildew refrained tomato plants from developing into healthy vines and tasteful fruits.
 Nevertheless, learning from the wisdom of my elderly neighbors and an old Chinaman, I hold now a few farming secrets.






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