Michael Joshin Thiele spoke as he always does—softly and deliberately: “How was this for you?” he asked in the most lilting German accent you will ever hear.
We circled around him, about fourteen of us hailing from different states and even different countries to attend the first-ever west-coast Sun Hive making class. In front of each one of us was one-half of a Sun Hive we had made to house bees. By magic, it seemed, we clumsy and mostly untrained weavers had managed to make one of the two rye-straw baskets that comprise a Sun Hive. When placed top to top, the hive forms a lovely egg shape…
I had constructed a top basket. It took me all day and some of the next. Sitting in front of me was the handsome young man who was gifting me his bottom basket. Only seven of the fourteen of us—me included—would be taking a completed hive home. I promised him I would be sending photos and “love letters” from the bees who will be calling this Sun Hive theirs.
Out of the contemplative silence settling over us, I heard myself say. “Congruent. I feel such a congruency between our work, this place, these people, and the bees around us. It all fits perfectly with no harsh edges.” Congruent—a word that has some roots to it, an anchoring kind of a word with some good heft to it.
For three years, I had been dreaming of making such a hive. I had the Sun Hive book, translated only recently from German. I don’t remember how many times I’d read it. Enough. More than enough. But the making of the hive was complex, requiring precision wood working of the interior parts, plus the growing, gathering, drying, and preparing of the traditional rye straw from which the hives are crafted.
Then at a retreat last summer, Michael hinted to us that he was planning the first U.S. workshop to make the Sun Hives. He had several and had been housing his bees in them for years. All his Sun Hives were brought over from Europe, where the Natural Beekeeping Trust gives classes on the Sun Hive weaving.
“Where do I sign up?” I blurted.
Months later, the class was open for registration. I gulped at the cost. Then gulped again when I read that to take home one of the completed hives would double to workshop fee. When I factored in travel costs to Northern California, my head began to hurt.
But my heart was in those hives already. I saved money, I made money, I borrowed money from our savings, because I knew that this sweet hive was a part of my future. I felt deeply that in time I would be teaching classes on how to make them myself, and that I would be converting my bee garden hives over to this lovely, arboreal expression of the bee soul.
“What is the face of the One Being?” Michael asked us, inviting us to imagine the many bees as a single unity. For me, that face was the Sun Hive.
Saturday morning we gathered early at Home Farm in Healdsburg. Scattered around us were cardboard boxes of wooden parts, spray bottles of water, stacks of rye straw, bundles of bamboo reeding, and a basket of “fids”—a tool used in marine work that looked to me like a very fancy shiv. Above us hung an empty, complete Sun Hive—our inspiration for the next two days.
Our weaving teacher Kelsey wasted little time getting started. Passing out fids, forms for lids and bottom baskets, and buckets of rye straw, she showed us the basics of coil basket weaving and let us get to it. Introvert that I am, I moved over to a shady corner of the lawn and began. Which way to hold the form? How to position the fid? What do I do with this long, tangling mass of bamboo weaving reed? Oh, gawd, quick poking myself in the eye with the rye straw!
At first, my hands felt like strangers to me. Suspicious strangers. What were these clumsy, fleshy creatures dangling at the end of my wrists? “Go this way,” I told my fingers. But they had other ideas. Meanwhile, I realized that my feet and knees had decided to join the party, completely unbidden and uninvited. I looked down and saw my toes gripping the end of the weaving form like chimpanzee paws. My left knee said, “Oh, let me move in here and hold up this end.” Ah, so weaving is a whole body experience!
Quicker than I would have believed, my hands absorbed what Kelsey had showed us. Funny, I thought, how my hands seemed far smarter and swifter than my brain at this. And when I didn’t give them too much attention—the observer changes the observed, correct?—my hands moved along quite happily. My toes giggled, too, automatically rotating the form while my knees wrapped around the middle of the form like a dance partners arms, guiding, supporting, swaying to the musical rhythm of the weaving process.
Pierce, thread the bamboo, pull and pull and pull, tighten, spray it down with water, insert a few more shafts of rye, shift the form, pierce again. And on and on. Weaving is meditating. It is dancing while seated. It is compelling, engaging, and…well…kind of addictive. The bell sounded for lunch (Yikes, had hours passed?), and even though the food was scrumptious, most of us could hardly bear to pull ourselves away from our baskets.
I stuffed down the best roasted vegetable sandwich and Israeli cous cous salad ever concocted—oh, and don’t get me started on the cookies—and bolted back to my straw pile. Though I’d been weaving for literally a few hours, I was surprised to see that I’d only completed a few full coils of my basket. The meditative aspect of the process struck me again: In my 10 day silent meditation retreat, our teacher reminded us before each sitting, “Work patiently and persistently, patiently and persistently. You are bound to succeed, BOUND to succeed.” I’d forgotten that “patiently” part. I always forget the “patiently” part.
In the afternoon hours my mind lapsed into peaceful stillness. My mouth upturned in a grin that would stay in place for two full days. Beneath the sun, I wove and wove, envisioning golden, happy bees bringing the baskets to life with their hum—a sound said to be the vibration of the universe before its manifest creation. The aroma of the hot day and the dried grasses encircled me. The misting bottle made a glittering veil around my hands and cooled my knees. By the end of the day—wonder of wonders—my basket was near complete!
I heard one of the other students say, “I haven’t thought about my job all day…” Yes, the profound blessing of no-thinking, the gift and wisdom of hands put to art and craft. Chop wood, carry water—or weave. That night, my hands and feet buzzed with energy. How joyful the body is to work with all its parts engaged in something wholesome and good.
The following day, each of us finished up our half of a Sun Hive, then paired up with someone who had made the “other half.” Michael shared information about keeping bees in hives like these, and we visited an active Sun Hive that had been home to bees for more than six years. Far too soon, the day was over.
Arms cradling my baskets, I was already imaging sitting in my bee garden weaving more. The completion of the baskets was both a finishing and a beginning.
Today, I sit with the baskets at my feet as I write this. I feel like a proud bee-mama, and also like quite the pioneer. This class is the first of its kind here in the west, a new flower unfolding, a ripple expanding. To be part of something so new, and yet part of an art that feels so wonderfully primal—it is an honor and a joy. A new direction and a new beginning. My hands and heart are singing with possiblities!