Back in January I mentioned a book called The Bee-Loud Glade*, by Steve Himmer, whom I should say for reasons of full-disclosure is a very good friend of mine. The book comes out on April 4th, so this is now the right time to tell you more about it. I’ve just had the pleasure of re-reading this novel and I realized that the short announcement I gave for it in January only scratches the surface of all that this book contains.
At first glance, this is a novel about a man called Finch who works in the Brand Awareness department of a big corporation selling “hyperefficient plants” (fake plants, fake nature), who loses his job and gets hired by a billionaire named Mr. Crane to live as a hermit. Finch is asked to take a vow of silence, to wear a horrible wool garment that gives him hives, to share his garden with a drugged lion, and lots of other tasks as invented by his whimsical and powerful employer – beekeeping, music, painting, gardening, you name it. If some hermit somewhere in history was asked to do something, Mr. Crane wants his hermit to do the same.
But there’s more. Beyond the gentle comedic tension and satire created by Mr. Crane’s tasks, the novel has a serious heart. Finch must slowly learn how to be a hermit, dealing with loneliness and fear and boredom along the way. Not to mention with the repeated visits of Mr. Crane’s wife, a beautiful woman with plenty of opinions and questions for Finch about why he remains and “performs” his work as a hermit. She is a difficult temptation for Finch as he settles into a solitary existence but she also forces him to clarify exactly why he continues with his difficult project.
A hermit’s days are quiet, with plenty of time for observation and reflection. And Finch is a confirmed city-dweller, a nice twist on the story, and by that I mean he isn’t someone who already loved nature and so plotted and planned his retreat into the wild for ages. Finch has never had much experience with nature, and his withdrawal from the world has more to do with his dissatisfaction with society and with the kind of person society makes him. When he begins to get settled into his cave and his garden, much of the natural world comes as a revelation to him, giving the reader similar opportunities for reflection.
So I learned a lot about mushrooms and their shy lives. I learned that they’re quick to cower and quick to hide, that they’re willing to keep quiet and small so long as they’re left to grow…
Thinking like a mushroom came quickly to me, and it worked. In the first place I looked, brushing aside a soft curtain of moss and weeds, I found three perfect mushrooms crouched in the shadow of a large rock. They were so close they were practically—but not quite—touching each other, and as soon as I leaned close and disturbed the air around them my nostrils filled with the sweet scent of secrets, of wine cellars and old canning jars and the thrilling surprise of turning a stone to find a bustling community of potato bugs and millipedes thriving beneath. The excitement of life where it wasn’t expected.
This main story, however, actually takes place in the past and is framed by a narrative of Finch as an old man, alone in his wilderness, voluntarily forgotten by the world until one morning, after a violent storm, a pair of hikers trundle their way into his universe. These are the first people Finch has seen in a very long time, and the complexity of their intrusion is compounded by the fact that Finch has become nearly blind. The necessary relationship that develops between the hikers and the now-old Finch is where a part of the novel’s social commentary resides, adding a nuanced response to Himmer’s question about the value of living in complete isolation from other human beings.
There is also a very subtle twist in The Bee-Loud Glade, a question of the modern world intruding on Finch’s haven in an unexpected way. This is not an overwhelming plot turn by any means, but it is quite effective in getting Finch to formulate his ultimate understanding of the meaning of his life.
It should be pretty obvious that this is a novel that looks with much curiosity, censure and concern at the way in which humans live now, and which tries to identify other ways of engaging with the natural world and with one another. Himmer is careful, however, not to draw unbreachable boundaries around the ideas the novel offers. There is a deep criticism in The Bee-Loud Glade, but that criticism isn’t paralyzing or desperate, instead it orients the reader toward reflection, compassion and study. For a novel about a man living alone in the wilderness who hasn’t spoken for thirty or forty years, this book has quite a lot to say.
*The title of the novel, for anyone as curious as I was, comes from a poem by Yeats called The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Here are the first lines: I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; / Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, / And live alone in the bee-loud glade