“[The battlefield at Gettysburg holds] a sacred reverence to a past that will halt time. It’s a privilege to stand on the same ground where solidarity of common life was more important than the risk of that very life itself.” –C. Bee
This past winter was so tedious and miserable I actually starting running out of TV shows to binge-watch on Netflix. One night I queued up the Ken Burns Civil War documentary out of sheer boredom. I hadn’t watched it when everyone else did, primarily because everyone else did. I’m a bit reactionary that way. I found the episodes captivating and they dredged up faded memories of history learned years ago in Mr. Gresk’s 7th grade class and since mostly forgotten. I also realized why so many of the place names along my annual bee journey seemed vaguely familiar: Fredericksburg and Appomattox, Virginia; Shepherdstown and Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia; Barboursville and Paducah, Kentucky; and of course, Gettysburg. I was also reminded why, when my friend George showed me around Bull Run Winery and mentioned the battles at Manassas, he responded to my blank stare with the kindness of a southern gentleman but a slight look in his eye like he thought maybe he was talking to a complete moron.
The drive from Portland, Maine to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is a long one but possible in one day if you press on without stopping much. I was hoping a morning of quiet contemplation there might help me wrap my mind around it all. It seems to me a lot of present day political affairs have happened along the same fault lines as the war between the states. I pulled in to the parking lot at the Gettysburg museum shortly after it opened at 9:00 and found it was already filling up with cars and tour buses. The museum wasn’t going to provide much quiet contemplation so I opted for the driving tour in Bill’s comfortable pickup. (I’d left the trailer behind for the morning.)
In my youth we took many family driving vacations in the summer, often heading eastward from Chicago to visit relatives in New Jersey and on Cape Cod. I know at some point we visited revolutionary memorials at Lexington and Concord and I guessed Gettysburg might be much the same. There is the vaguest memory from my childhood of my parents taking us to some civil war monument and getting so much grief from their disinterested children it was never attempted again. (I also remember the melodramatic eye-rolls my sisters, brothers, and I would give every time the station wagon pulled over to a roadside historical marker. As an adult I stop at every marker I can, partly from grown-up intellectual curiosity, partly from guilt, and partly to show my own kids that my sainted parents were right all along.)
The experience of the Gettysburg National Military Park is almost too enormous to put into words. First of all the place is unbelievably vast. It’s nothing like quaint Bunker Hill in Boston but sprawls over nearly ten square miles. It is also breathtakingly picturesque and not especially near much else besides rolling Pennsylvania farmland. Since living in Maine I have come to learn how many soldiers from my adopted state fought in the conflict and how critical their participation was. After an “exhausting” drive along well-paved roads at 65 miles per hour, I tried to fathom a soldier traveling here before cars and the interstate highway system. I also tried to imagine over 150,000 soldiers engaged in battle here and attempted to comprehend how a third of them died on the battlefield and many more died of injury and the illnesses that followed.
After a morning surrounded by natural beauty and the ghosts of unfathomable tragedy, I set off to see my dear friend Bee who is currently living in Hinton, West Virginia, about five hours’ drive in the direction I have been heading. My mind raced with questions. Bee, aside from being a remarkable master beekeeper, a talented writer, and among the kindest people I have ever met, is an expert on the Civil War. She politely refers to the conflict as the War Between the States. Her people are from Tennessee and they are more apt to use the term “War of Northern Aggression.” In fact a distant relative of hers, General Barnard Elliott Bee, was famous for providing Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson his nickname. (That same day, at the battle of Bull Run, Gen. Bee was wounded in the stomach by an artillery shell and died the following day.)
Bee and I first met years ago at a beekeeping conference as Meghan and I were preparing to open the Honey Exchange. She lived in Georgia at that time but soon after moved to Maine and became a cherished member of our community there. For the time being, she is living in West Virginia working with an organization called the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective which is part of the Appalachian Headwaters organization whose mission is to “work to reclaim and restore forests, streams, and communities in central Appalachia.”
The road to Hinton climbs and dips and winds through mountains above the banks of the New river, which is currently swollen and roaring. Bee described how just beyond the lovely line of trees at the top of the mountain the earth is clear-cut and scarred from strip mining. The economic promise from coal mining is a mere shadow of what it once was and the Headwaters organization is helping people to find new opportunities and trying to repair the environmental damage to the landscape and waterways. Bee is there to teach people how to keep (and eventually sell) beehives and harvest honey. Other people are working to plant trees and other plants to restore economically viable forest and provide bee forage. In the storehouse she also pointed out a huge stack of beehive parts manufactured by a separate organization that helps people rebuild lives during recovery from opioid and other addictions.
I met Bee in town, where she has an apartment (complete with her own observation hive where honeybees can fly out through a second story window) and she drove me out to “the camp”. The centerpiece of this county’s arm of the collective is what my kids would call a “sleepover camp” where the families of miners used to enjoy summer holidays. It consists of about a dozen or so big white-painted cabins, communal buildings, a gymnasium that now serves as the warehouse for hive parts, and a new large honey house for extracting and bottling.
Much like my morning in Gettysburg, I was entirely unprepared for the scope and scale of the thing. I’d imagined perhaps a project with hives numbering in the hundreds at most. This year they are managing 1,100 hives with a staff fewer than ten and a host of newly trained beekeepers throughout the county. I could not help but be reminded of a phrase Bee had written in an e-mail to me when I was planning my trip this year: “the solidarity of common life.”
We had driven out to the camp chatting, catching up and discussing this project that has Bee energized and animated. She showed me around and I listened slack-jawed with amazement. As we drove back to town I peppered her with questions about Gettysburg and the war and tried to get some shading from someone who didn’t learn the history of that era in a Yankee classroom like the one I had with Mr. Gresk. I had miles left to travel and our time was much too short. We said goodbye and I drove off watching a cool drizzle add sheen to the blooming dogwood trees and pondering expansive thoughts in solitude.