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Big Dawg


It is a habit of mine. If I like you I give you a nickname. If I don't like you I still give you a nickname, just not affectionately.

That I call him Big Dawg is not entirely of my choosing. He's a big man all right, big enough so that his wife who, thankfully for the rest of us, selects his wardrobe, shops at one of those big man stores. One label I saw him sport early on was the Big Dawg brand.

Big Dawg is kind of crazy I think. A little outrageous, certainly not fully socialized. He can say things to women he has just met that would get us smaller heteros into serious trouble. More than once I've seen that certain look in the woman's eyes signing she would gladly sit on his lap. Outrageous. Once his wife, who like him is a PhD respected in her field, when she was still a grad. student and they were in route to her major professor's house, took his arm when they had parked, with her finger nails bit hard into his arm, looked him in the eye, said: [sign in to see URL]. A useless admonition, since, Big Dawg has no filter.

He's a bee biologist. Respected, admired, internationally. He is a co-discoverer of a trait in honey bees that gives a measure of genetic resistance to a parasitic mite called the Varroa Destructor. The discovery is as huge as has been the impact on honey bees, and on the industry, as has been the parasite. At the least, the genetic resistance introduced into the honey bee population means bee keepers can ween themselves off of the chemical miticides used to control a pest that has seriously decimated honey bees and that no bee keeper can do without still. He has since gone on to other things and places, currently a researcher and extension agent at Mississippi State University.

Here are some things I know about this world famous bee biologist. When a toddler, at the age when developmentally he should be wrapping his brain around words, Big Dawg didn't talk. His parents naturally got concerned. They took him to a specialist. Alone in conversation he said: I know how to talk, I just don't have anything to say. He caught his first swarm of bees around the age of 8 or so. Good thing his father is a country boy. When Big Dawg walked home with his branch of clustered bees, his father simply got a box into which to put the branch of bees. When an undergrad, I think in Georgia, one day he was studying in an isolated state park, working at a picnic table. Across a creek and maybe from around a waterfall he heard a woman screaming. He investigated, found a woman getting raped by two men. Not thinking, he picked up a rock, charged the scene from behind, cracked the skull of the man on top of the woman. Scared the men ran off. Big Dawg took the woman by the hand, ran back across the creek, gave her his coat, put her in his car, drove her to her sister's home back in town. There is more.

Big Dawg these days is into birding. He used to be into reptiles. Before he met his wife he had, I don't know, 70, maybe a 100 snakes and lizards in his home. This struck her as a bit excessive. I get conflicting accounts from both parties. He says he paired down the number to a few. She says he got sneaky, kept 2 for every one he put up for adoption. I tend to believe her accounting. Big Dawg would go out and capture snakes. He knew where to look. There's the time he had in hand a speckled king snake and a cottonmouth. He knew the natural history. In combat the non-venomous king snake always wins. But he wanted to test it. He corralled, pittied them against each other. King snake was victorious. Cottonmouth dead. So I asked him about the King. He said, well it took him some weeks to get through the venom injected in his body and want to eat again. Another time. Big Dawg and a friend went rattler hunting. They came upon it might have been a timber rattler on the road. His friend wanted to pick it up, put in the bag. Big Dawg thought by its gestalt the snake was very much alive. He advised against the pick up. Sure enough the rattler was alive and struck back a bunch of times, aiming for the friend's crotch while he was stumbling back while Big Dawg bowled over in laughter at the scene. Did I already suggest Big Dawg's a bit crazy?

He's now into birding when he's not dealing with honey bees and honey bee keepers. I tease him about being a combat birder but he is good. Best I've ever known. I've never known such an exquisite ear for bird calls, bird song. He can identify a bird song in a car passing through. When he started out, a few years ago, he would take to bed his IPod with bird calls, listen to them, go to sleep to them. I'm not a shabby birder. But he puts me to shame. He doesn't just hear. With his huge hands he delicately tags hummingbirds.

That's the skinny on Big Dawg. Now here's an article he wrote in a trade magazine devoted to bee keeping.



~Voice of the South, by Jeff Harris

Dwelling Upon the Same Old Wounds

Perhaps the Trayvon Martin case and President Obama’s subsequent statements about the matter stimulated me to consider such things, but whenever quiet moments occur lately I drift towards thoughts of race and beekeeping. No, the context of these thoughts is not the choice of bee races such as Italian, Caucasian or Carniolan.

Particularly nagging to me is the idea that racial relationships in the U.S. improve as the previous generation is slowly replaced by younger people. They presumably hold better attitudes and tolerance about people that differ from themselves. This notion was recently reinforced during a lecture that I gave to children attending a Conservation Camp at Mississippi State University. I only spoke for 15-20 minutes to the youngsters, and the goal of my interaction was to tell them about bees and beekeeping, with hopes of exciting them with something that they may never have been previously exposed.

During my talk, I set an observation hive onto a small coffee table, and the children gathered around as close as possible. Two 10-year old boys honed-in to the best positions on either side of the glass hive. By some random probability, one boy was black and the other was white. As I talked to the group, I noticed that both boys were bent over with their noses nearly touching the glass and peering into the colony of bees with wide-eyed anticipation. I am sure that I had the same look on my face when I first saw bees up close for the first time.

Eventually, I paused and entertained questions from my young audience. After answering a few questions, one of the two boys that hovered over the colony exclaimed, “The queen! The queen!” Immediately, the white kid ran from his side of the hive to join the queen-discoverer on the other side. In a matter of seconds, both boys were cheek-to-cheek and enthusiastically chattering about the queen. They looked like Siamese twins, fused at the hips, and so totally immersed in the bees that the psychological bubble that normally create personal boundaries were dropped. Both boys were smiling, and the moment was a precious glimpse into the unclouded and infinite tolerance of youth.

After I finished the presentation, the class took a break before going to see another part of our entomology department. They ate a quick snack and drank some juice. I was talking to their teachers and happened to glance over at the two boys. They were sitting side-by-side on a couch in our lobby, and I heard one say to the other, “I can’t wait to get bees of my own one day. I will make my own honey and give it to my grandma and grandpa.” The other kid enthusiastically affirmed the idea, and added, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could keep bees together and sell the honey!” It was that moment that supported the idea presented by the President in his press conference.

But this conclusion bothered me, and it has taken me some time to probe the matter. My basic problem with this sunny picture is that it simply oversimplifies what can be a difficult problem to understand. My own experiences with two beekeepers during my youth attest to the complexity of relationships among people.

One of my beekeeping mentors during my late teens and early twenties was a man at least 45 years my senior. He was born and raised in the Heart of Dixie, and he clenched tightly to an openly racist persona that irritated me greatly. His commercial beekeeping skills were great, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning as much as I could from him. However, after a brief period of me not confronting his openly racist statements or declarations, I elected to voice my opposition. In particular, I started to admonish him when he used the n-word, which was way too frequent. My first attempt at correcting his behavior caught him a little off guard, but he quickly recovered and accused me of being a left leaning sissy boy and Air Force brat. He knew that my father was in the military and that our family was not originally from the South. I expected an aggressive retort and stood firm while reminding him of the cruel and bloody history of the n-word. These early arguments usually ended with him muttering expletives under his breath as he went away from me into another room. Usually these time outs allowed both of us to cool down, and an hour or so later we could work together again and pretend nothing had happened.

Gradually, his use of the n-word decreased to near zero, but he still persisted with expressions of racism. Some statements were truly awful and triggered by anger and frustration. Once, he had parked his truck somewhere on the poorer side of town, and it was vandalized. When he returned to the honey house, he fumed and declared that “we ought to put them all on a boat and ship ‘em back to Africa.” When he was that angry, I simply let it pass. I did not want my head chewed off. Other times, his statements were just weird. For example, he claimed that Martin Luther King’s mother had been a maid for his mother. He said that he had met young Marty, and that, “he was a pretty good fellow until he got all uppity and…” He trailed off when he saw my furrowed eye roll of displeasure. “What do you mean by uppity?” I asked. “Insisting on equal rights and such; how dare he!” We bantered like this way too often, but it was our way of working through these vastly different perspectives about people.

Finally, one day I asked my mentor if he had ever had a black friend. He seemed confused and taken aback. His usual jovial and often thundering voice became insecure and quiet. He never really answered, but he eventually told me about Puddin’ Head.

Puddin’ Head was a black man similar in age to my mentor. He had needed a job once, and my mentor hired him as a beekeeping assistant. He taught him all that he could about beekeeping over several years, and the two men apparently had a very good and respectful working relationship. My mentor seemed to get a little choked up every time he spoke of Puddin’ Head, and I let him alone and did not persist with my incessant questions. Over time, I gained the understanding, that Puddin’ Head had left my mentor and started his own beekeeping business, and I could tell that this had hurt.

Several years went by, and I grew satisfied with two conclusions. First, my mentor was a product of his southern culture, and although I could curb his overt expressions of racism, I felt that he would never feel love or equality for a black man. I did not excuse his behavior, but I came to the conclusion that his attitudes would stick with him until he died. Therefore, I concluded that racism would only decrease with the loss of the more bigoted previous generation. Second, I would never learn the full story of the relationship between my mentor and Puddin’ Head. I was wrong with both conclusions.
One day my mentor drove us to a remote cotton field in central Alabama about 15 miles away from a group of apiaries that needed honey harvested. Prior to the trip, he had stopped by a grocery store and inexplicably bought can goods and fresh vegetables and fruit. He parked the truck in front of an old shotgun shack that stood on the edge of the cotton field. It was mid-July, and the day was already brutally hot. The doors of the shack were open, and I could see straight through the house to the other side. My mentor asked me to help him carry the groceries, and we quietly stepped into the shack.

He announced our arrival by shouting, “Hey, Puddin’ Head, you awake?” I could hear a weakened reply coming from a small bed located in the corner of the back room. Lying there was an obviously dying black man. The shack smelled of sickness and death, and I was truly uncomfortable being there. However, I wanted to be as tough as my mentor, and I stood by his side as he introduced me to Puddin’ Head. “This is the young fellow I’ve been tellin’ you about,” my mentor said as he sat the groceries onto a nearby table. I said, “Hello” before slipping backward to allow room for my mentor to pull up a chair and sit by the bed. The two men talked and smiled about old times, and I simply watched them for 20 minutes or so. Gradually, I slipped into the front room and began reading the bits of yellowed newspapers from as early as 1930 that hung on the wall as a poor man’s wallpaper.

My mentor asked his friend if there was anything else he needed. He requested a different kind of soup than we had brought with the groceries. My mentor snapped to his feet and said that he would go and get him some soup, and he asked me to stay and keep Puddin’ Head company. I sat in the chair and began asking him questions and offering lame small talk.

Eventually, I ran out of things to say, and in a moment of bravery, I asked how he could befriend such an old and stubborn white man who could be so openly racist. Puddin’ Head began laughing until he coughed. He finally said, “You can’t let that tough exterior fool you.” He’s a real softy, and I ain’t never had a better friend.”

I was truly dumbfounded and interested at the same time. Puddin’ Head went on to tell me that my mentor had never abandoned their friendship – he had been visiting for over 15 years. He told of how my mentor had taught him queen rearing and package bee production, and he had even given him the first 150 colonies to start a beekeeping business. My mentor had apparently been supporting his friend’s business with bees and labor whenever he could.

Puddin’ Head explained that beekeeping had given him the ability to be self-sustaining. He had sold queens, packages and honey up until a couple of years ago when cancer rendered him unable to work. It was then that I realized that the hurt that I had previously sensed in my mentor was caused by the declining health of his friend.

Puddin’ Head said that he would be forever grateful for the chance to control his own fate by operating a beekeeping farm, and it was my mentor that gave him that chance. He was an uneducated man, and there were almost no other opportunities for him to earn a living and manage a business. He had some children, but none of them wanted to keep the business. So, after getting sick, he sold his bees to someone else. He was now running out of money, and his health was slowly spiraling to the end. He elected to die in the old shack in which he had been born. I just sat there unable to speak.

Finally, I insisted that the open bigotry of my mentor must be intolerable. Puddin’ Head said, “You are not looking at things the right way.” He continued, “It’s kinda like bee stings, they hurt but you know that that’s the way the bees protect themselves. It’s the same with him.”

Suddenly, it all became somewhat clearer. The cultural mandates of the Old South made some exhibit the racist bravado that so irritated me. I don’t excuse the behavior, I just suddenly gained the valuable lesson that things are not always what they seem. My mentor probably avoided social discomfort by adopting the expected traditions. However, it was also very clear to me that these two men loved each other and wanted only the best for one another.

I asked the old black man about the name, “Why Puddin’ Head?” He smiled and said that his Mamma called him that because he loved her homemade pudding and would frequently beg her to make it. I still remember the last thing that Puddin’ Head told me before my mentor returned with the soup. He said, “That Old Man taught me that bees don’t judge men by the color of their skin, they are willing to sting all of us just the same.” Something about this conclusion caused Puddin’ Head to laugh, and it was clear that this motto was something the two men had shared their entire lives. ~

Good story told in these miserable times.

Tere
Sep/26/2013, 8:26 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Christine98 Profile
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Re: Big Dawg


Good field note, tere , and Big Dawg's article was also a pleasure to read. Thanks,

Chris
Sep/27/2013, 9:17 am Link to this post Send Email to Christine98   Send PM to Christine98
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: Big Dawg


Hi Tere,

I enjoyed your field note as well as Big Dawg's article. As an added bonus, I was reminded of a story my dad once told me about his own mother and about growing up in Belfast, so thanks for this.
Sep/27/2013, 2:57 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: Big Dawg


Glad you enjoyed the note. The article is a good one.

Tere
Sep/27/2013, 7:33 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 


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