June 18, 2011 10:29:00 PM
Thursday afternoon a friend from childhood rode with me to the West Point Farmers'' Market. He''s a journalism professor in a highly respected program at a school in the Midwest and was back in Mississippi to attend the 100th-year celebration at Ole Miss of The Daily Mississippian, a paper he edited while in college.
With us we had an observation hive with several thousand honeybees, a sack of books on beekeeping, a just-harvested jar of honey and a large box of plastic spoons.
Months ago, Martha Allen, organizer of the market, invited me to do a program on bees. My plan was to set up the hive, spread the books out, and while people tried to find the queen, offer them a spoonful of honey and just generally chew the fat about beekeeping with anyone who wanted to talk.
West Point holds its market one afternoon a week in a covered pavilion that is part of the Mossy Oak shopping center. When we arrived around 4, the place was teeming with folks. I wasn''t surprised; the people of the Point support community undertakings -- have for as long as I can remember.
You can tell a lot about a town by just driving around and looking. In West Point, the historic downtown is well maintained; there are interesting shops and good local restaurants. As a promotional blurb puts it, the downtown is "as eclectic and charming as the people you''ll meet there." There are lovely old homes. Public spaces are well considered -- a beautiful, green walking trail wends through the middle of town. The coherence and cohesiveness with which this town has used its resources is plain to see.
Martha set us up in a corner of the market near one of the main entrances. Business was brisk. Kids love looking for the queen. A woman with 123 fruit trees ("last time I counted") said she needed some bees, so did a young father with a house and garden blocks from downtown. I can get evangelical on the subject of beekeeping, and this afternoon I had a promising supply of potential converts.
Kenny Dill''s daughter told me the former longtime mayor once dabbled in beekeeping, something that may help explain the well-ordered town. I''m sure there are other contributing factors ... possibly.
What was curious -- and I didn''t really think about it until we talked about it afterward -- was how some people reacted when they learned I wasn''t selling anything, that I simply wanted to give them a spoonful of honey. They were a little flustered; they had to pause for a moment to recalibrate.
"Sure, I''ll have a taste."
Not to brag, but eating this honey -- the honey my bees have made -- tastes like flowers and fruit swimming in a sweetness that is both delicate and overwhelming. The heat used in processing commercial honeys destroys the subtle flavors (and much of the nutritional value).
Talking about it afterward, my well-versed companion, who can offer up a book, magazine article or documentary film to illuminate any situation, said I should read "The Gift," by Lewis Hyde.
An online review suggests a complex book that "examines the role gifts have played and continue to play in our emotional and spiritual life. By gifts, Hyde means both material objects and immaterial talents and inspirations, such as ''a gift for music'' or ''a gift for mathematics.''"
In our culture a gift from a stranger is cause for suspicion. When we realize a gift is given with no expectations, no strings, something opens inside us. Walls disappear.
Gifts connect us; they can provide an enduring, visible memory of the giver.
Here''s an excerpt from an e-mail I received from a friend in New York last week:
"Had a delightful dinner with Don and Nancy last night and they came laden with treasures from their garden, which Bob is out replanting in ours at this moment. Love sharing plants -- such a sweet way of being connected to your friends."
We all have gifts to offer, ways to connect with our fellow humans, be it a spoonful of honey or something less tangible, like the ability to teach a child to read, a beautiful singing voice or knowledge of how to do something.
Members of a church go to a third world country to install a water system; a woman brings over a cooked meal for a friend attending her dying mother; a beekeeper passes out samples of his honey to strangers. In these exchanges the line between giver and recipient is blurred. Roles are reversed; by accepting a generosity we, in turn, bestow a gift.
That being the case, thank you West Point, for a lovely afternoon.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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