Smoke and Honey


Fire Staging Area read the first hand scrawled sign.† All Fire Fighters turn off NOW, read the second.† I cut the wheel and rolled my van up the mountain edge to let a beat up red van fly past.† Fire chiefs, forest service trucks and vans of troops headed to the fire-line clogged the mountain road this morning.† Then of course there was me, in my dusty white minivan, crawling up the back roads and watching the hillsides.† Somewhere, not far away, a wildfire raged.† Somewhere not far from here, my bees had waited a month, working the fireweed. I could only hope they were secure. †Now, once more, I bounced up the roads in search of my bees; in search of my honey.


The forest roads are like old wounds cut into the mountains. Neglected, they scab over with brush and rocks until a fire flares up.† Then they are rubbed raw again by a frenzy of activity.† This trip was easier because the firefighters had removed the fallen saplings that formed natural speed bumps.† The roads were no less treacherous--vast patches of clean gravel covered the curves.† Vans slide easily on gravel and there were no guard rails.† Perhaps a mountain pine would stop me a few hundred feet down if I slide off.† Perhaps not.


Relief washed over me like sunlight when I finally rolled into the meadow.† The hives were safe inside the fence.† When I got out, the air was filled with the scent of honey and smoke.† Across the valley, the fire was burning and smoke hung like low clouds on the distant side.† I looked at the sky overhead.† Dark clouds waited on one side; there was a storm front moving in.† The fire still burned but it was a few mountains over.† I wonít say I was calm as I headed for my bees. The smell of smoke was in my nose.


If the firefighter at the base of the mountain had said I couldnít go up Ö I would have gone home.† The pleasure of working my bees was not worth that kind of risk.† He let me go though, with a promise:† Honor the total burn ban.† No fire in the valley behind the fire line.† No fire on the mountain meadows and no fire in my smoker.† No smoke.† Perhaps Iím part bear because one sniff of the honey and I was ready to face the bees regardless.


Iíve always known my bees were calm but this day they were perfect. Maybe it was the ambient level of smoke in the air.† If Iíd spiked the hive with valium I couldnít have had better bees.† Frame by frame I brushed them off and back into the hive, then loaded up the supers and strapped the hive back together.† The girls werenít flying with the storm moving in, so much the better for all of us.


When I brought the bees the fireweed was lush and brilliant pink.† Now the long hot days without rain had left it a dark maroon, withered and fallen.† Down the road I stopped to cut a chunk of honey from the comb and devour it.† I hadnít eaten in hours and the burst of fireweed honey in my mouth was delicious.† On the way down the storms came on, sweeping the mountain sides and raising vast clouds of steam in the valley.


A clear, thick honey, fireweed sells for tremendous prices in Alaska.† Iím not in Alaska but this honey was nearly too precious to sell but too delicious to not share.† I give it with my family, I save it for the year to come, and pass it around the table with coffee on long nights.† That night the news was good.† The fire was contained and burning itself out.† It left many charred acres devoid of life but not for long.† Soon the fireweed will grow there, fulfilling its purpose in the chain of life and completing again the cycle in the mountains of fire and honey.