Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Silence of the honeysuckle blooms

Marcel Proust’s brilliant, sprawling novel In Search of Lost Time is about a great many things, indeed one might say it is about the full spectrum of human life and not exaggerate the truth too much. Fundamentally, however, it is about memory and the experience of memory through time. Proust’s theory of memory is complex but it includes the fact that unexpected memories emerge often from the most subtle things.

Perhaps the most famous episode in his 4,000 page novel actually occurs near the beginning, in Swann’s Way, when the narrator bites into a madeleine tea cake. A flood of childhood memories return to him in a powerful, life-affecting moment for the character. Proust expounds (as he always does) upon this moment.

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

For me, every year at this time, I experience this “more fragile but enduring” phenomenon specifically in smell. When the honeysuckle and privet are in bloom and sweetness pervades the air, almost intoxicating at times, I recall a particular moment of my youth. It is the spring of 1981. I am living in a duplex apartment in Athens. I am a student at the University of Georgia. I am walking back from my final class of the day and I breathe in the aroma of honeysuckle. It hangs heavy about me, thick with the buzzing of bees, hovering in my open-windowed apartment, as I read the rules for a role-playing game called Chivalry and Sorcery.

In high school I played what was then a new type of game, a role-playing game, called Dungeons and Dragons. It had just been published. A group of us played after school and on weekends. Not obsessively, but regularly. D&D was (and still is to some degree) a cultist market. Many people who play tend to live in their fantasy world as much as in the real world.

Later, in college and for a couple of years afterward while residing and working in Athens, Ted, Jeffery and I would get together and play Chivalry and Sorcery, which seemed to me to be superior to D&D.

C&S is set specifically in 12th century Europe. The human elements are entirely medieval. The character traits are more sophisticated than D&D and the combat system was much more realistic, though admittedly tedious. Thrown in the C&S “role-playing world” is J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves, dwarfs and halflings along with the usual mix of monsters, magic, and fantasy.

Ted, Jeffery and I went on many adventures together through our characters. Actually, we spent a lot of time just fighting each other and various other beings and creatures, just doing the combat aspect of role-playing. It was a lot of fun though, once again, not obsessively so. We played every couple of weeks for awhile. After about two years we stopped, though Ted picked it all up again later with his children and played for many more years than I did. He even developed a home-brewed, simplified version of the C&S combat system.

Last weekend, Ted and Jeffery came over for grilled burgers, some slow-paced conversation over a few beers, and to reminisce about days gone by while generating some new C&S characters just for old-time's sake. Character generation is a lot of the entertainment of C&S. You make 20-sided and 100-sided die roles (yes, there are some funky dice involved) on such “prime requisites” as Strength, Dexterity, Appearance, Charisma, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc. In turn, these variables are used to calculate such things as combat skill, carrying capacity, leadership ability and so forth.
Each generated character usually ends up with some strong points and some weak ones. The heart of role-playing lies in trying rationalize these variations into a cohesive mental map of your character’s abilities and personality. We sat around the table and discussed who these freshly generated characters might be. They were mostly serfs, naturally. For all the fantasy C&S is grounded in a medieval reality, after all.

Jeffery had one of the more interesting ones. His character was puny and witless (these are actual names for the levels within certain prime requisite categories) but had exceptional charisma and “bardic voice” (the ability to sing or hold attention with your voice when speaking). The character also rolled as a servant for his vocation. So, we figured he might perhaps be a personal attendant, maybe for a royal family, that tended to cleaning his master’s rooms and perhaps entertaining the family or at least the children with story and song.

This type of projected fictionalization of characters makes for a lot of the amusement to be had in role-playing. We didn’t do anything with our characters that night. Just generating them involves understanding about 30 pages of C&S rules just to accomplish what little we did with the system. Full-blown adventuring entails a great deal of planning and understanding of the entire rulebook, which runs well over 300 pages. We were happy just to stick our toe in formerly familiar waters and experience a bit of what we used to do so long ago. The character discussions were often humorous. Since it was Jennifer’s first exposure to role-playing she found all the rules a bit bewildering and spent a good bit of the evening asking what page we were on. Still, she enjoyed the talking about our characters, who they might be, weaving little personal stories into them in the best spirit of role-playing fantasy.

Before we settled down to generate the characters, right after our cook-out we went for a short walk on our property. Jennifer wanted to show off our rather robust growth of honeysuckle in the upper field. Ted and Jeffery both brought their cameras and took numerous pics of our gardens, flowers, and shrubs as we meandered along. May is really one of the best times of year on our property in terms of how nice our landscaped, mowed, mulched and weeded property looks.

As we approached the highly invasive patch of honeysuckle in our upper field, taking in its sweet succulence combined with the tall white blooming privet, I pointed out to Ted and Jeffery a peculiar absence. There were no bees. All this sweetness in any other year would be covered with various bees roaming for nectar. This year there are none. Absolutely none. The honeysuckle was as sweet as ever, but silent.

I mentioned my recent idea about how the biggest disasters are happening in slow motion. For years the bee problem is well known among scientists and environmentalists, but the general public (even astutely caring individuals like Ted and Jeffery) are largely unaware of such a surprising alteration in an ecosystem. This is known as Colony Collapse Disorder and it is no small problem when you consider how vital bee pollination is to plant life.


The reality of honeysuckle without bees can’t be read about. To truly come to grips with the rather shocking nature of the change you have to actually stand there and experience the buzzless silence – which is what we were doing Saturday night, as the sun went down, before we ventured off into the fundamentals of a fantasy world. In the real world there were no bees. And this left a deeper impression than, perhaps, anything else that evening.

Meditating later on the fragrance of my land at this time of year, on the carefree college days of learning C&S in what seems like another lifetime ago, I recalled that back then there was the sound of plenty of bees. So many you might get stung on occasion. And you could hear them if the breeze was quiet, outside my open window, amidst the thick honeysuckle, buzzing contentedly as I read that first edition rulebook.

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