A Tiny Lesson on Living Simply

Read this reflective narrative about slowing down in life.

When Jess set out to re-introduce some native plants to her yard, she didn’t know just how fruitful her efforts would be. The plants themselves flourished in the little bed she planted, but they also brought new, unexpected life with them — and a few lessons on living simply.

I was looking for birds — and instead, I found a bee.

See, it has been my experience that one interest leads quickly to another. There are whole worlds of knowledge that I have never explored, and experience with one cascades into others in a rather breathtaking way. 

Here’s how it went: when I started learning more about birds, I soon found myself learning about gardening with native plants — that is, those species present in my area prior to European settlement. 

There’s a growing movement to intentionally reintroduce these plants to our gardens, which have long been dominated by imported and invasive plants. They say this is one of the best things you can do for the birds. You take whatever land you steward (the movement focuses on small suburban plots, but even apartment balconies will do) and you contribute what you can to the restoration of habitat for pollinators that are sorely threatened. 

Intrigued by this, and needing to re-landscape anyway, I planted a garden bed in front of my house with prairie plants native to my area. They’re perennials, which are supposed to take three years to really get established. But the bugs found them right away.

My kids delighted in finding monarch eggs on our milkweed, and we brought a few inside to raise on the kitchen counter. After they moved through their caterpillar and chrysalis stages, we marveled at them unfurling their wings, and we set them free to migrate to Mexico.

During the garden’s first summer, I discovered a new favorite flower nearly every week as spring and summer’s blooming-time unfurled. In its second summer, I found myself waiting with particular impatience for the great blue lobelia to bloom. 

Its petals are blue and purple all at once; it’s soft and silky and deep. And it’s dynamic, because I have never seen this flower without at least one bee on it. The tall violet blossom doesn’t just sit there, as I suppose I previously assumed flowers do. It is always humming, its own quiet life evident in the vibrant life that surrounds it.

I’m sure there were many bees visiting at different times, but because of its constant presence, I came to understand there was one bee who was in love with this flower. They were inseparable, the flower and the bee. You could barely talk about one without mentioning the other.

Watching this bee quickly became a favorite pastime of mine. It invited me to slow down and to notice detail. The bee buzzed around tirelessly, dipping into blossom after blossom to drink the nectar there. She (a quick Google search confirmed that bumblebees, like honeybees, send females out to do the work) emerged from each venture with fresh powdery pollen clinging to her soft fur, helping perpetuate the very plant she seemed to so love. 

This is serious business, the exact reason I planted this garden in the first place. These species have evolved together and have a mutually beneficial relationship and I get to watch it unfold. There are lessons to be learned here. The bee does her duty with single-minded focus, something I would do well to emulate. 

But serious as it is, it’s also funny. The flower is just a little too deep for the bee to reach the nectar easily, and she loses her footing repeatedly as she tries. She has to dive headfirst, her back legs looking like something from a cartoon as they splay open feebly. She slips and splays again and again. She is reckless in her mission, rendering herself momentarily helpless in her desperately eager quest for food.

And she’s devoted — once I bumped the flower on a rainy morning, and she tumbled right out of the cup-shaped blossom where she’d been sheltering. I wondered if she lived there full-time (another Google search told me no, she must belong to a hive). Either way, her fidelity was enchanting — even in a downpour, she’d been with her flower.

And in this, too, I find much to admire. Maybe it’s too much to ascribe to a bee, but it speaks to me of passion. She pursues what is beautiful and she dives into her quest with all her heart. She surrenders control for the sake of the greater good, willing to lose her footing and make mistakes on the way. 

At the same time, she is simply content to be a bee. She plays one small part in the grand system of life, and it is enough for her. She knows her business and she does it well. She is fully in the present, distracted neither by past regrets nor future worries. The human capacity to dream and imagine and make progress from one generation to the next is of course a grand thing. But there is also a loveliness to this bee humming along in all her smallness and simplicity, never knowing or minding her own significance to the ecosystem.

I ponder what it would be like to go about my life like her. While perhaps not realistic, it is lovely to contemplate, and delightful to watch. There’s so much character packed into her little bumbling body that she comes to be a character for me, too — my charming new neighbor, just a few steps from my front door. 

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