One from the archives. This essay first appeared in the Globe and Mail, Facts & Arguments page (October 30, 2001) with a beautiful illustration from Steve Murray. A slightly longer version then appeared in my book, the Diary. Happy Halloween!
This Halloween story begins in a late summer garden; City Farmer’s Compost Demonstration Garden in Vancouver. One of our volunteers, Jennifer, had studied Bosnian folklore at university and considered herself qualified to cast a Bosnian bee-charming spell. “Usually you would cast this spell in the spring, to call the bees to the orchard,” she explained, “but the beans I planted haven’t been pollinated. I’m going to give it a try.” I reminded her that it was the end of August; the spell might only work in season. “Oh, hocus pocus, what’s a couple months,” she said.
There was nary a bee in sight the designated day our staff gathered around Jennifer amidst the nodding dahlias. She began: “The song is called Pcelice and we address the bees as mothers and sisters.” She began to sing some unintelligible words in a lilting voice, then stopped abruptly. “Actually, I don’t remember the words, but I think it’s more in the tone. Okay, now I must whistle while rubbing two small stones together.” She whistled and clicked. And the spell was cast.
In the 10 years I’ve worked in a greenhouse office that opens onto the Compost Demonstration Garden, I’ve never been stung. Come to think of it, I can’t remember any of our gardeners getting stung. The day after Jennifer cast the spell, I was at my desk when a bee plopped on my neck and stung me good. My boss, Mike, got it next, then Sharon (our head gardener), followed by several environmentalists who share our building. Then a bee attacked Jeff, one of our city funders.
They were stinging the hand that funds us! I called Jennifer, mad as a hornet. “We need the antidote quick. Our funding could be at stake!” She didn’t know the antidote. “Maybe the spell will just wear off,” Jen said hopefully.
The stinging spree did stop. But then people began to act strangely. I, who never leave my desk, started digging up flower beds faster than Boots, our big bad garden cat. Sharon, usually an animal lover, began blasting with a bazooka-size water gun at cats, squirrels and stray environmentalists. “I can give a starling a shower at 40 paces with this thing,” she said, her eye a-gleam.
Mike, usually frugal, began to spend money like a drunken sailor. “What should we buy today?” he said. “A hot tub in the greenhouse? You name it.” Then the environmentalists began to smoke, and we heard through the grapevine that Jeff, normally a recluse, had taken off on a two-month cruise.
Clearly we’d have to conjure up our own anti-bee charming ceremony. I called everyone. Wes, our former head gardener and Jennifer, the self-appointed Garden Goddess, would lead the ceremony. “Midnight in the Garden of City Farmer,” I told them. “Come disguised. The neighbours will think we’re having a Halloween party. Bring candles. We’ll gather round the Earth Machine.”
One by one they came. Wes was dressed as a scarecrow and carried a compost aerator and a jug of wine. Jen wore flowing goddess robes and carried a giant bean pod. Sharon had transformed into an Eco-Warrior princess. We lit our candles from the cigarettes of the smoking environmentalists, then encircled the Earth Machine compost bin. Boots the black cat lurked in the shadows.
Wes cleared his throat, took a swig of the “altar” wine and looked up at the stars. “Bountiful Creator, please accept our gifts and help us to set right the bee-charming spell gone awry with this ancient composting ceremony I discovered.” He explained that he’d be using ingredients to produce fierce bacteria.
Jennifer stepped forward with a ram’s horn full of goop. “Here, Supreme Scarecrow,” Jen said. “It’s supposed to be a mixture of triturated animals including a bull’s foot and a goat’s pancreas, but I used tofu dogs.” Wes nodded approval.
“Now the herbs: milkwort, pennyroyal, bee orchid and vetch,” Jen continued. “And a black cat.”
“Here kitty, kitty,” called Sharon, until Wes said it was enough that Boots was in the vicinity.
Then Wes peered into his book for the final secret ingredient: “A virgin, we need a virgin.” He looked out into the weathered faces of the city farmers. “Hmmm.”
Jen suggested a virgin primrose.
“A virgin primrose?” says Wes. “Never been plucked,” said Jen, handing him a single, quivering bloom. Wes judged that its delicacy would be relished by the bacteria. Then, reaching for his compost aerator and his wine bottle, he added “Okay, now we’ll mix this baby up.”
“If everyone will join me in the final chanting refrain and sway with me now,” Wes said. “Ohhhhhmmmmm, make compost and reverse the bee-charming thing — hiccup.” Everybody swayed, shivering in the cold October air, gazing expectantly at the compost bin.
Then: “Hey, I hope no one thinks they’re getting paid to be here,” Mike said.
And so everything returned to normal at the City Farmer garden. Well, almost everything. We still spotted the odd smoking environmentalist.