My dad is a fourth-generation Californian who retired to a farm in Kentucky. Kentucky was my mom’s idea. It was her grandparents’ farm. A beautiful place, but definitely not California.
But of my parents, dad is the one who has really gone native. On hot days, he wears Daisy Duke cutoffs, a straw hat, and no shirt and rides around on his ATV, checking his cows or his dwarf pear trees or his corn. He also keeps bees — something he learned to do as a child and one of the few things he brought with him from California.
A few years ago, not long after his 90th birthday, he called to tell me about a local beekeeping expert who visited the farm to help him with his hives. “It was remarkable, just amazing,” my dad said. “He was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and flip flops and he pulled apart my hives just like that—no bee suit. No smoker. It was amazing.”
I have seen my dad handle bees — California style. He puts on his big white suit — the screened in hat, the thick gloves, every inch of him covered—and gets the bees thoroughly stoned with his smoker before he dares touch the hive. In his bee suit, his movements are careful and robotic; he looks like he might defuse a bomb or explore space on his way to checking on his bees.
My dad described his neighbor’s minimalist approach with such reverence, however, that it kind of worried me. “That is pretty amazing,” I said. “Please don’t ever try it.”
He laughed, “Oh no.”
“Leave the naked beekeeping to your hillbilly friends, okay?”
“Oh yes, son. I will.”
A couple of weeks later, my mom called me to tell me that she had been stung several times by dad’s bees.
“What happened,” I asked.
“I put on my bee suit to go tell your dad to put on his,” she said. “He was out there in his cutoffs and a straw hat messing with his hives. When I got to dad, the bees went after me and some got in the suit.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, just a little puffy.”
“Is dad okay?” I asked.
“Not a single sting, the little stinker.”
This daredevil form of beekeeping, it turns out, is a thing. The folks who do it—mostly crazed-looking looking southern men—post plenty of YouTube videos. “I ain’t doing this to show off,” many of them say, while scooping up a handful of bees, “I do it to connect with my bees.” Some wear bee hats, “I don’t like to git my eyes stung;” some wear long pants, “nothin’ more distractin’ than a bee in your boxers;” and some, like my dad’s friend, are practically naked. All in.
These naked hillbilly beekeepers aren’t just badassed. It turns out they are actually better beekeepers. With nothing in the way, they can literally feel their bees and can sense their moods and health and needs. They describe a relationship with their hives that sounds a lot like love to me.
While they rarely, if ever, get attacked by a hive, they do get stung; but this steady, moderate dose of stings is actually good for them. Over time, in fact, all those stings make the beekeepers immune to the ill effects of bee venom, which instead becomes a kind of tonic — preventing, scientists are discovering, everything from joint pain to dementia.
Naked hillbilly beekeepers just get in there. They are unprotected and, therefore, connected. They are fully engaged. They take their stings like the medicine that it is. And they will tell you that they are the happiest, healthiest, most loving, least fearful, best beekeepers on earth as a result. And I believe them.
These rough, slightly crazed southerners make me think about my own life and how I want to live it. They make me think of my boy, who happens to love bees even more than dinosaurs, which makes me nervous because he is more likely to run into a bee than a dinosaur. What stings do I prevent and what stings do I allow and what do I teach him about wearing a bee suit? Of course, I am not really talking about bees here.
They also make me think of our faculty, any of whom could teach in a regular old fancy pants boarding school instead of a buzzing hive of sensitive quirky smart unpredictable Oliverian stingers. But these daredevil educators would rather put on their flip-flops, shorts, and a t-shirt and scoop up bees with their bare hands.
They understand that stings are just a part of loving someone and, anyway, stings make you better. I am proud of and inspired by this amazing, slightly crazed group of teachers, counselors, dorm parents, and support staff.
I also think of our alumni families. The folks who stay involved in the Oliverian hive for years after they or their child has graduated. One family in particular. The Townsends. Nate is here filming. His mom, Jeanne, our board president, is here too. Nate’s brother, Jeanne’s son, Alex Townsend, was one of Oliverian’s first students.
By most accounts, Alex was equal parts rascal, creative genius, and — in clinical terms — goofball. On his first day in Oliworld, 15-year old Alex carefully pinned a Bart Simpson poster above his bunkbed. He wore a Bart Simpson t-shirt to school that day. And a pair of freshly ironed Bart Simpson underwear. But this little boy was not just sweet and goofy. He was smart enough to get into some real trouble. He could sting. In fact, he stung his peers, teachers, and parents frequently enough to earn him three separate trips to wilderness treatment during his time at Oli.
Eventually, though, he took note of all these people — Barclay Mackinnon, Greg Vogel, Abby Hood, Bessa Axelrod, Farmer John, and others — walking around without their bee suits on, handling him with their bare hands, undeterred by all that stinging. And he started to relax. And he stopped stinging. He grew ten inches, ditched the Bart Simpson underwear, and thrived. After graduating from Oli was something of a BMOC in college, known as a generous, passionate, and promising artist.
Jeanne and Tom had their son back. Nate and his sister Laura had their big brother back. They were a family again.
Then one night in Savannah, Georgia, there was a car accident. And just like that, they did not have their Alex anymore.
The Townsends could have fled their grief, avoided people and places that reminded them of Alex, and donned their bee suits to prevent further heartbreak.
Instead, they started giving their money away. Then they started giving themselves away. They comforted Alex’s friends and counselors and teachers. They wrote books about loss and made themselves available to grieving parents — staunching others’ wounds even while they still bled. They launched Pianos for People, a non-profit that gives pianos and piano lessons to the poor; they produced a wildly successful annual music festival to honor Alex; they literally saved Oliverian with a perfectly timed gift. Jeanne joined non-profit boards, Nate made movies, Laura won writing awards, and Tom taught himself how to paint. Instead of armoring up to prevent further pain, they started undressing.
And this defiant response to catastrophe has persisted — carrying them through the tragic loss of Jeanne’s brother and the random shooting, last year, that nearly killed Tom. They defy every Job-like blow by becoming softer and more visible and more present. Instead of retreating, they charge out into the world, recruiting ever more of us to join their extended family, to share in the grief and the joy of being a Townsend.
William Albrecht Laughlin Townsend. That’s me.
Since his accident, Tom — who is an accomplished jazz musician — has launched “The Healing Sessions” — now popular videotaped hospital-room jam sessions and inspirational talks available online for other trauma victims — meaning all of us — to enjoy.
And just before surgeons fashioned Tom a new jaw from his freakin’ fibula, he found time to make me a painting of my dog, Liam. All of this under strict doctors orders to lay low and “not do stuff.”
I asked Jeanne the other day how Tom—who is between surgeries, wears a mask, and still has no teeth — is doing.
“He has never been better,” she said. And she meant it.
Even the most badassed naked hillbilly beekeepers generally wear something. But the Townsends, it seems to me, are stark freaking naked. They live with no protection. Open. Feeling everything. Making room at their table for anyone who needs a family. Relational daredevils. Naked hippie beekeepers. They get better with every sting.
We love you, Jeanne, Tom, Nate, and Laura. Thank you for modeling so heroically what it means to be alive and to love, which, partly because of you, is what Oliverian is all about.
Finally, of course, I think of our seniors. You have spent some time in the Oli hive. You have learned — each one of you in your own way — to take off your bee suit. At least some of it. At least some of the time.
You are more connected and less afraid than when you arrived. You have learned to move through disappointment and anger and sadness without resorting to old addictions; you have risked being known and now have forever friendships; you have struggled through difficulty instead of trying to escape it; you have learned to just have your damn panic attack and board that airplane anyway.
You have been accepted to colleges and internships and, in about fifteen minutes, you will graduate from high school.
And life will change. You will leave the Oliverian hive. There will be some loneliness. Some disorientation. Some difficulty as you find your place in your new world. You may wonder, “What if I lose what I have gained? What if the real world is too much for me, too dangerous and stingy to enter unprotected?”
You will likely find yourself surrounded by terrified freshman who believe the world is incredibly dangerous and they are incredibly fragile and must be protected at all costs. That is a real problem now on many college campuses. And when you see your fellow students clumsily bee suited and bubble wrapped against words and ideas and other invisible allergens, you may be tempted to put your bee suit back on.
But before you do that, please remember: you are a badassed naked hillbilly beekeeper. You are not allergic to stings anymore. You scoop up bees with your bare hands. You are alive and naked and ready. And that gives you a huge advantage.
But most importantly, you know in your heart the secret that all naked beekeepers know: that wherever there are stings, that’s where all the honey is too.