Monday, 8 September 2014

If you go down to the woods today…

There's something which links Cockatoo Island in Sydney, a quiet spot near Janet's Foss in the Yorkshire Dales, the University of Stirling, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Chelsea Physic Garden, and the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent.

Literate bees.

Between 2012 and 2014 the artist and poet Alec Finlay selected and read a number of bee-themed books after which he took each text and transformed it into a home for solitary or wild bees. The numbers of these little garden juggernauts are in slow decline so the creation of the nests was both practical-minded and creative. A collection of poems inspired by a close-reading of the books also resulted from the project.

With the arrival of July came the annual Information Directorate staff development festival. Day Two focused on teamwork. This year, after a morning of presentations, members of the Content Department - that’s the people who buy, catalogue, and manage everything which goes in the library - had the opportunity to visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and see one of Finlay's Bee Libraries in action.

Despite warnings of finding ourselves "up-to-our-elbows in mud", the day was hot, the plants and flowers in full bloom, and the bees were buzzing. The far side of the park's lake not only offered shelter from the sun's rays but the chance to see Finlay's apian-inspired installation. Twenty-four individual bee nests float high up amongst the trees at YSP. Often the only way of knowing there's one around is by stumbling across the markers detailing which book each of the homes is made from.

Titles include Sylvia Plath's Ariel, Simon Buxton's The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters, Karl Von Frisch's The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee, and Sam Hamill's The Little Book of Haiku. Dangling amidst leaves and branches, it's easy to see why solitary bees love this well-camouflaged hovering library.  

"Reading gleans knowledge, which writing
refines into poetry – as nectar is refined to honey."

As Finlay recognises, however, "the nests are not meant to last. Paper will begin to flute, mould and decay immediately." He further notes that "the slow aging process of the indoor library is here supplanted for the rapid effects of weathering, as materials are exposed to rain, wind and, in time, snow and frost." Finlay concludes "we may take our cue from the bees themselves, who survive for only a brief time – though not brief to them."

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