German philosopher Hegel conceived progress happening through an evolution of synthesis, thesis and antithesis: The current state of things gives way to its opposite and is eventually usurped by a synthesis of the two. When someone once asked me if I thought the artisan movement is something new or if it is a re-discovery of something we had once known but now forgotten, I thought of Hegel. And then I thought of honey.

“Hi, I’m Doug, a beekeeper,” went the man at the counter. “Would you like to try some honey?”

The power of a non sequitur lies in its ability to shock the brain’s ability to make sense of things. Being offered honey by a complete stranger felt like non sequitur to me. And like most people who are stunned, I laughed. And like most people, I imagine, I accepted the honey.

Doug handed me a little disposable spoon. I politely smiled as he presented a jar of creamy honey. “Nothing has been done to this honey.  No heat.  No whipping.” I reflexively nodded my head as if that meant something to me and took a spoonful. What followed, as they say, seems like a dream.

My tongue began to tingle against the dense, silky texture slowly melting away. The sensation beginning to well up mimicked those last bursts of feeling before going numb at the dentist’s office. I looked up at Doug and made eye contact, as if for reassurance. He grinned while gently nodding his head. I looked away again, the honey dissipating into flavors riddled with a botanical complexity dwarfing my wine-calibrated palette. Is that the true nectar of the gods?

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s from a very old recipe calling for nothing but the right combination of honey harvested at a very specific time,” replied Doug.

“Who are you again?” I ask.

Beekeeper in the Coal Mine

Doug Schulz is a beekeeper from Wisconsin, and his story is everything you want it to be. As a child, he was drawn to bees, even chased after bumblebees while other children chased the less threatening air traffic of floating cotton and dandelion seeds. Later, some years of growth meted out juvenile fascination into something poignantly vocation-worthy in Doug, especially after a summer working with a migratory beekeeper.

Like most success stories go, Doug rose to the top including developing business relationships with corporations and many, many other beekeepers, all in the name of producing lots and lots of honey. The website for Doug’s current business, Wisconsin Natural Acres, chronicles in wonderful detail this origin story. Hidden between the words, however, is a larger story going beyond honey.

In an interview with Aram Sinnreich, author of “Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture,” Sinnreich speaks to this condition we now find ourselves in:

One of Marx’s great critiques about our economy was what he called the alienation of labor which is that people no longer have a relationship to the things that they build. If you make shoes for somebody, you have touched their feet, you have made sure that the leather in the sole perfectly mold to their arch. If you work in a shoe factory, however, you’re just pulling a lever over and over again that chops a piece of identically cut leather from a big strip.

Sinnreich goes on: “I think we see a real shift towards this in a move towards DIY culture, towards craft culture, and the explosion of new magazines and television shows, and overall interest in making things for yourself and for your friends and family.”

Forces beyond Doug’s control might have certainly helped along his career path, but it was the quiet presence of an elder beekeeper that made the most impact.

“Warren looks 60 years old even though he’s 84,” Doug remarks as he discusses the pedigree of his mentor, Warren Otto. “All the way back to 1888, Warren’s family has been in the business. And Warren’s passed on his wisdom and experience to me.” I struggle to not think of Obi Wan Kenobi, but I fail. In desperate times, thoughts often veer toward the stories of heroes, real and imagined. These are, indeed, those times.

Divided We Eat

In an article for Newsweek, writer Lisa Miller argues that food and not other material goods serve as the new status symbol: “[M]odern America is a place of extremes, and what you eat for dinner has become the definitive marker of social status; as the distance between rich and poor continues to grow, the freshest, most nutritious foods have become luxury goods that only some can afford.”

Miller might as well have been talking about Doug Schulz and his honey. While Doug’s honey is pricier than most, Doug himself certainly doesn’t evoke the materialistic impulse of status and luxury.

“After tasting some of my honey,” Doug once said, “I’ve had older folks tell me they haven’t tasted honey like that for 60 years.” And I wonder, were these folks consuming along with their honey those 60 years ago status as well?

A shift is happening in America, and it’s something much bigger than just food and status although this seems to be an easily identifiable place of friction for the moment. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a reckoning of sorts. Perhaps Hegel was right. Until then, I’ll save up for the brand new line of honey Doug was sampling out in hopes of refreshing my memory, expanding my palette, and reconsidering Hegel.

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