Cold weather slows down other life on the farm, too: the summer honeybees are dying. Yesterday I swept the silver tar off the rooftop by the beehives, cleaning up the fallen little insects like a zamboni making its rounds on an ice rink. When honeybees die, the bright orange of the fuzz on their backs takes on a pale, dusty coloration, and their bodies curl up like commas. From eight weeks of intense flying and foraging, quite a few of the bees had torn wings. Some still had bright, round pollen stuck to their legs, little postcards from different weeds and trees around Brooklyn. We extracted our last honey harvest in August. The rest will remain in the hive all winter for the bees to use, returning a robust colony to action in April of next year.
The passing of the summer bees marks the calendar exit of another pollinator. I recently caught sight of migrating monarch butterflies landing on our marigolds, despite our somewhat isolated location several stories up in the air. It's a flower they'll find both here and in Mexico, their destination several thousand miles away.
New York City is incredibly beautiful because the isolated clusters of trees, plants, and animals concentrate the details of seasonal change. Years ago, a friend showed me how to get free entry to the Metropolitan Opera by waiting outside after the first intermission, and asking fancier folks for their tickets as they left for dinner, so we could then enjoy the second and third acts in box seats. I was living in the South Bronx, gardening a massive backyard and sharing produce with the kids who lived upstairs. As we biked the length of Central Park toward Lincoln Center, our dress jackets flew out behind us like the wings of bats. The leaves had just started to empty out of the trees, falling in yellow strokes with each breath of cold wind. Throughout the park, we spotted huge fallout of migratory birds. In Harlem's community gardens, bright spots of color erupted where willow trees turned yellow over rows of the brown bones on sunflowers.
Fall on any farm can be kind of melancholy, but also a particularly honest and elegant season. I started my first farm apprenticeship in the fall, with Keith Stewart, in Port Jervis, New York. The first few weeks on the farm I was frequently sent out to harvest kale, their leaves filling the fields with blue and green. Working knee-deep in brassicas, I felt as though I was wading in the sea.
Farming in shortening daylight hours surrounded by the decaying smell of fall forest leaves could be a very lonely job, and I spend a lot of time crying in Keith's mustard mix. I'd just lost my father to a car accident that spring and was homesick, burying my sense of confusion and grief in the sweat and growth of farming. My sadness came out of nowhere, and frequently. A good meal of the sweet fall carrots, the crisp blue width of the sky filled only with silence and clouds, finding a nest of baby mice curled among the straw in the barn, all sent me off in tears. One day, tending to crates of shallots, separating the rotten alliums from the whole, bronze-colored pearls of good bulbs, I was overwhelmed by the strength and beauty of what I was learning. Farming was a chance to feed, protect, and forever have the ability to provide for the people I loved—something my dad had always done for myself, and for my sisters.