Back in the 1940’s, artist Lucille Oille and writer Kenneth McNeill Wells, decided to leave the city after the war and live simply. They kept chickens, goats and bees and shared their lives with other mid-20th century farmers in Medonte township, near Orillia, Ontario. They published stories and anecdotes of their time at the “Owl Pen” in a Toronto newspaper and then in four books. The stories are often heartwarming, humorous and magical. The image above and the following are an excerpt of one of those magical stories from “By Jumping Cat Bridge” originally published in 1956:
OF ANGELS’ BREATH
The man at the honey-house door said, “I’m curious.”
“Yeh?” I almost growled the words at him.
“Yeh,” said the man. “I’ve come forty-five miles to see and….”
“Yeh?” I growled again.
“I’m gonna see, ” said the man.
I asked him in then, in past the pile of sawdust and wood chips that Archie, the carpenter, had left on the bottling room floor after putting new strapping on the bottling room ceiling, in past the mountain of empty honey cans piled on the extracting room floor in preparation for removal to our up concession line store-house the moment the sea of mud between us and it had changed again into a solid roadway.
“How did you get here?” I asked.
“I walked,”said the man. “I walked from the top of a big hill about two miles from here. My car is there, broke down,broke down good. It’s safe. Nobody will take it.”
“And all because…” I grinned at him.
“I had nothing else to do,” said the man. “I got to thinking, about honey and such, about what you do to it, and why. I couldn’t figure out…”
“We’ll start at the beginning,” I told him.
“That would be a good idea,” he said.
“The bees make the honey….” I began.
“I know that, ” the man grunted. “They gather it from the flowers…”
“No.” I shook my head. “They don’t.”
“You can’t tell me…” he protested.
“It’s only a few generations ago,” I hastened. “It’s only a few generations ago that people thought that honey was the breath of angels condensed by the cold of night and fallen to earth like dew. They thought that this condensed breath of cherubim and seraphim stuck as it fell to leaves and grass stems and flower blossoms.”
“Crazy,” said the man.
“They thought that bees were the earth-bound souls of men and women long dead. They thought that these earth-bound souls, in expiation for their sins, were forced to assume the shape of bees and spend an appointed time gathering up this fallen breath of angels and storing it in cups of snow-white beeswax, wax made out of the juices of their own bodies.”
“Crazy,” said the man again.
“They were intelligent people, ” I protested. “They knew what they had been taught to believe.”
“Any fool knows…” began the man.
“That bees gather honey from flowers?” I grinned.
“Yeh,” said the man.
“They don’t,” I told him again.
“Yu can’t tell me…” he sputtered.
I shrugged. “I only know what I have been taught. My books tell me that what the bees gather from the flowers is a stuff called nectar. It isn’t even chemically the same as honey. It’s a thin watery stuff, with not much more taste than water.”
“Water!” exclaimed the man.
“It’s magic water, ” I hastened.
“Magic!” the man grunted.
I went to my bookcase. I took out a book.
“Magic,” I repeated, as I thumbed the pages. “You listen to what is in a single tiny drop of that watery stuff called nectar…”
“Sugar…” said the man.
“Four kinds,” I told him. “There is sucrose and maltose. There is levulose and dextrose. There is potassium, chlorine, sulfur, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, silica, silicon, iron, manganese and copper. There are essential oils, terpenes, aldehydes, and methyl anthranilate. There are higher alcohols such as mannitol and dulcitol. There are such vitamins as thiamine, riboflavin, pyridoxin, biotin, folic, nicotinic and pantothenic. These are all of the vitamin B-complex. There is also a bit, a tiny bit, of the vitamin A-complex and some vitamin C acid, the thing that prevents scurvy…”
“No!’ said the man.
“Yes,” I insisted. “It’s in the book.”
“Angels’ breath,” said the man.
“And coloured like the rainbow.” I turned the pages of my book. “When the nectar is yellow it has either carotin or xanthophyll in it. When it is rose red or dark purple is is coloured by anthocyanin. Tannin makes it dark, dark brown. There is another substance, not yet identified, which makes it dark green. And all these colours come in the nectar from the flowers.”
“Anything else?” said the man.
“There are proteins,” I answered. “There are colloids…”
“All this is nectar?” said the man.
“And nectar ain’t honey?”
“The bees make this nectar into honey?”
“In a little compartment in their bodies that is called the honey sac. They start the process there. It is continued after the nectar is delivered to the storage combs in the hive. There the hive bees take it….”
“What do they do?”
“They condense it. They drive off most of the water.”
“I don’t know.”
“What does your book say?”
“It doesn’t. It supposes this. It guesses that. It offers a choice of theories.”
“Nothing more,” I told him.
“Gol!” said the man.
My visitor took a deep breath. He leaned toward me. He pointed a finger at me.
“Them old fellows,” he said. “Them old fellows who thought honey was the breath of angels condensed by the cold of night and fallen to earth..”
“Yes,” I urged.
“Them old fellows is as much entitled to their guess as them fellows in that book of yours is entitled to theirs. They’re guessing too.”
My visitor took a jar of liquid honey from a nearby shelf. He held it up so that the winter sunshine filtering in through a nearby window shone upon it. He stood a moment looking at the gold of it, the clear pellucid gold.
“Fer all we know it’s what they said,” he whispered. “The breath of angels fallen from the stars…”