A colony of 80,000 bees holds enough sting to kill you—actually, it holds enough to kill about 80 of you. But sitting a few feet away from a hive that’s nearly as tall as she is, Chantal Foster is unfazed as yellow-and-black honeybees whiz by on a pollen-fueled highway. Maybe it’s because, with rare exception, the potentially deadly flying insects seem to have no interest in her. The bees are on a mission, and it’s about getting frisky with flowers, not ferocious with humans.
Foster herself didn’t harbor a lifelong yen to become a beekeeper. But a few years ago, after going to a barbecue where a friend was babysitting a beehive, she felt something click. There was a magic about the bees—the duality between the danger they could potentially inflict and the sweet elixir they produce. And there, in the middle of Albuquerque—not in some rural pasture far away from people—was a hive of perfectly peaceful bees. She realized she didn’t have to be a traditional farmer to harvest honey; she just needed a backyard.
“There’s something in the zeitgeist. Maybe people are feeling discontented with the way of modern life.”
Chantal Foster, Albuquerque Beekeepers Association
Jen Prosser began farming long before it was considered cool. She was going to school in New York City, studying to become a literature professor. But the more time she spent in classrooms, the more she found herself dreaming about being outside. When she was downsized from an administrative job and given a severance package, she used it to move upstate to the Catskills and start a farm with her partner, Tree McElhinney.
The two raised goats and chickens and grew herbs and vegetables for about 10 years on their 21 acres. But it rains a lot in the Catskills, Prosser says—so much that it makes farming difficult. Eventually, Prosser and McElhinney began to crave the sun. After a countrywide search, they decided on Albuquerque. Packing up three goats, 10 chickens, two dogs and two cats for a cross-country move out West, they settled in the South Valley in 2007.
Americans get most of their meat from cellophane-wrapped trays at the grocery store and their produce from parcels of land several countries away. In sharp contrast, the do-it-yourself movement champions all things homemade and local. But cultivating a relationship to the land and the food extends far beyond the pedigree of what’s on your dinner plate: It also requires a network of human relationships, as well as their shared bank of knowledge—techniques passed down from generation to generation that are strangely absent in modern society.
“I think all these things I do fall under the heading of ‘sustainable.’ It’s about creating abundance in your life.”
Jen Prosser, Sunstone Farm and Learning Center
Finding common ground is just another facet of the urban farming movement. “I think all these things I do fall under the heading of ‘sustainable’,” she says. “But they all have an effect on the larger picture without politics or drama. It’s about creating abundance in your life.”
While Foster found beekeeping out of pure interest and Prosser became a farmer out of a desire to get her hands into the earth, Maggie Shepard became a fluent member of the DIY movement for an entirely different reason: money. Shepard is the founder of the newly formed The Old School, a collection of teachers who host classes on how to do a variety of traditional crafts and skills.
“As an American, I value independence and perseverance, and independence for me means being able to take care of yourself in the most dire of situations.”
Maggie Shepard, The Old School
The scope of the classes is wide-ranging: The Old School teaches about quilting, solar cooking, homebrewing, gray-water recapture, fermenting kombucha, container gardening, canning and making homemade beauty products. And that’s just a sampling. Most classes cost less than $10 to attend, and free or low-cost child care is available at all of them. Adding to the feel-good meter, 10 percent of all proceeds from classes are donated to Water for People.
“As an American, I value independence and perseverance,” Shepard says. “And independence for me means being able to take care of yourself in the most dire of situations.” In this country, a dire situation is being without money, she adds. She thinks the DIY movement has arisen, at least partially, for that reason. “We’ve become so reliant on corporations to get milk, clothing, etc.,” she says. “It’s an expression of our need for security combined with a need for independence.”
Foster comes to it from a different angle. Beekeeping doesn’t save her money. She eats and brews up flowery mead concoctions from some of the honey she harvests. But she gives most of it away. What she likes about the practice is the awareness it gives her. She notices when the elm trees in her yard start to bloom, as it’s the first pollen her bees get in the spring. This year, she just discovered that one of the bushes in her front yard has tiny flowers because she saw bees hovering around it. Like Prosser, it gives her a connection to her environment and a hand in shaping it.
What she likes most about beekeeping, though, is more existential. A colony of bees acts as a super organism, with thousands of individual members working toward the same goal, often simultaneously. Like ants and flocks of birds and schools of fish, bees have their individuality—some take on nurse roles while others are guards or foragers—but they’re tapped into a larger form of consciousness created by the whole. They act collectively. Foster sees human populations the same way. “How do you convince 30,000 bees to swarm?” she asks. “How do you decide to overturn the leadership in Egypt?”