Henry David Thoreau once said, “The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.” With nothing but shrubbery and fractures of light, the bees of the Mojave Desert manage to make some of the best honey in California. Though the fierce desert may seem to lack the abundance needed to sustain a hive, it answers Samson’s ancient riddle: “From the devourer came forth food; and from the strong came out sweetness.” This desert’s sunbeams are hard to direct: in its extreme of extremes, the Mojave dips 282 feet below sea level, a far echo from the Sierra tree-line or the orange poppies of the high desert. But extremity means nothing to the resourceful bees that recognize the potential in every wildflower.
In a desert like the Mojave, one can see everything and nothing at once.
The idea of simultaneous feast and famine isn’t new to the Jewish people, the inheritors of a “land of milk and honey.” Honey has represented a visceral, transporting sweetness that extends far beyond the momentary fix that modern processed sugar can provide. The partaking of honey on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a community ritual, but is also radical act of individualism that brings the mind back to a unique and unfiltered past, like Proust’s madeleine or the smell of rain. Humanity’s standard for the experience of honey, it seems, has diminished over the years, a phenomenon best exemplified by a squeezable plastic bear. It is no longer the euphoria-inducing delicacy of the ancient world, nor do we associate the honey packets in the lunchroom with the eternal love of the Song of Solomon (“Your lips, my bride, drip honey; Honey and milk are under your tongue, And the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon”).
The Mojave and its wildflowers reconnect worshippers with honey’s illustrious past and the joys of the desert. Beekeepers in Olancha, an unincorporated community in the foothills of the Eastern Sierras, cultivate wildflower honey from local flora like desert marigold, verbena, and evening primrose. Packaged in Kerr mason jars, the dark amber honey looks more like molasses than anything one might associate with traditional honey––though, this is perhaps its truest form. But, the stuff doesn’t hang on the spoon. Instead, it pulls and drips like light syrup and, when shallow, runs rose gold.
Taste is a subjective thing, and I can’t say my experience with wildflower honey will be the same as yours. To me, it tastes like Monet’s garden at Giverny. The honeysuckle that grew on the gates of my elementary school, the stems plucked out and savored. A nice thought before a deep sleep. Yes, the stuff sticks in the valleys between your fingers. Yes, it’s hard to cleanse from your tablecloth and your children. But, it stays with me long after a spoonful, a feeling that could only be sweated out in the heat of the low desert.
Research is beginning to show that honey made from local wildflowers may aid in the prevention of allergies, that exposure to the treachery of nature through a spoonful of sweetness might prevent future discomfort. I wouldn’t go so far to say that wildflower honey could prepare a person for life, but I will say that it has helped me reflect on mine when the new year turns.
I buy the stuff in summer, a few months before Rosh Hashanah. I pull off the desert highway to a small, white brick bungalow with windows plastered with travelers’ stickers (I was originally alerted to its location from a sign on the side of the road that read, “Really Good! Fresh Jerky, 24 Miles Ahead in Olancha”). The cool insides of the old, crumbling store reveal packages of fresh pistachios, almonds, and fruits; shelves of olive oils; walls of jerky from free-range and wild animals of the area. It’s the store’s display of wildflower and clover honey that pulls me in like an insect to golden oil of an old lamp. There’s always a tourist who wants to know if the place has a website so he can send the stuff to all his friends. There’s always a group of city children who beg for the honey sticks at the counter.
This was a nice day, and they like this place, for this is a desert they can escape.
A version of this story previously appeared in The Jewish Journal.