Asked in an interview what he would remember most about his life as an artist, Man Ray replied “the women.” I was a bee whisperer, like Edmund Hillary who climbed Mount Everest and who was a beekeeper in New Zealand, and I was writing poetry, it tumbled out of me.
There was the feeling of total isolatedness. The road there — if you’ll let a guide direct you who never knew such roads before—the unmarked field road where you turn right off the road between Nogent-le-Rotrou and Bellesme. Maybe once there was a pole with the piece of rag saying this is it, this is it, and then a gentle upgrade among gnarled apple trees with huge khaki bunches of mistletoe in them like snipers. Tove and I coveted the mistletoe; in Paris people called us “les amants.” The sunken road was what T.S. Eliot described as a “deep lane shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon.” A thousand years’ continuous habitation. La Picaudiere is a stone-built farm cottage. This was in 1959. Fritz Stowasser, Hundertwasser, bought the rural property in ’57. He was thirty and a famous painter. Considering the man’s artistic singlemindedness of purpose he must have wanted the isolation, just as he probably felt he needed to simplify his life. Piero Heliczer invited us there. He was writing “Girl Body,” and I think he needed some psychic distance from the poem’s subject, the toothsome Olivia d’Hauleville. As it turned out he eventually became caretaker of La Picaudiere, even while keeping his apartment in Paris on rue Descartes. Piero was a “pure poet.”He was constantly immersed in the writing and it is evident in his lines.
Tove and I gave Piero a host gift in the form of a handful of cannabis seeds, which he immediately planted in the garden. The pot plants flourished and made a harvest of very effective Kif. Piero rolled a joint for Fritz, and in so doing altered the course of history.
In the garden behind La Picaudiere the bees were in a threatening state of unrest. Most swarms occur because a rival queen and her followers take off to start a colony of their own. In the case of the bees in La Picaudiere’s garden, the bees were on the point of swarming because the old straw hive was falling apart around their ears from the weight of the honeycombs it contained. The hive was literally rotten, the interior exposed like an open skull fracture, and the bee family had to be moved. The local beekeeper said they had to be moved. This loquacious man showed up at La Picaudiere a couple of times a week, mostly to glean gossip, I think, and to offer help and advice. When he said the bees had to be moved I offered to do it. Incredulity all around. But when I was a kid in Fresno, California, I had two hives of bees in the backyard, caught the swarms myself, just like Edmund Hillary who climbed Mount Everest and who was a beekeeper in New Zealand. So the next day Fritz sent me off together with one of the two Austrian girls, the soft, dark one I called Inga because the first time I heard her Viennese I thought it sounded like Swedish, to nearby Saint-Jean-de-la-Forêt to buy a modern hive in loose components, which the beekeeper kept a supply of. The locals took beekeeping seriously as the apple harvest would not be possible without the bees.
So the girl and I set off along the sunken road. Here and there on either side of the lane were some mysterious dark caves, impossible to stand up in but to all appearances spacious, a feature of the geology of that part of Normandy. Inga and I spotted two or three. I had already asked the beekeeper what they were, and he explained that they had been used for refuge from the Dane. Normandy was settled by a Danish viking named Rollo of Faxe, forbearer of William the Conqueror. It was a pleasant hike. In the sun above the tree-lined lane there were galaxies of wild strawberries which Inga and I gobbled handfuls of. St.-Jean-de-la-Forêt suddenly appeared between the trees, a tiny hamlet in a clearing in the saint’s woods. The houses’ kitchen gardens were impeccably tidy. The beekeeper was there and he took us to an outbuilding where he had a stock of beehive parts, including sheets of beeswax foundation to put in the frames, everything I would need. Inga paid him and we hiked back to La Picaudiere. The rest of the day I spent assembling the most necessary parts of the bees’ new home, building the frames and mounting the beeswax foundation on the wire I stretched in them. My bee mentor in Fresno was a retired police officer. He and his missus were animal lovers with two raccoons in the backyard leashed to the clothesline. More fun than a barrel of monkeys. The beeswax foundation is imprinted with the hexagonal pattern bees use in building combs, so all the bees needed to do was keep on adding new wax. In the confusedness of the old hive’s contents I had a little difficulty locating the queen and her entourage. But I got them moved onto one of the new frames, along with some of the old brood comb. The honey from the old hive was delectable, rich and profound as the starry sky. Some slices of the old honeycomb I put on a plate for Fritz. It appealed to his poetic sensibility, the new apartment house for bees which now stood in the garden, and it became possible for Fritz and his two delectable girlfriends to lounge in La Picaudiere’s rose-brimming garden in their birthday suits, unafraid of being stung because the bees were busy setting up in their new digs.
Hundertwasser showed me how he prepared his canvas. He started by stretching unsized flax canvas and then applying casein glue evenly with a wide-toothed comb. He had a roll of kraft paper, and this he carefully spread with the rough side up and pressed it firmly and evenly onto the canvas so there were no lumps or bubbles of glue. As the glue dries the canvas shrinks, leaving a surface taut as a drumhead. Finally, using a brush he applied a thin but opaque coat of gesso. This was the surface Hundertwasser painted his radiant topologies on, using temperas arrayed on the table alongside the canvas.
Tove and I hitchhiked back to Paris and the Beat Hotel with our huge bunch of mistletoe, which we hung on the wall over our double bed. Madame Rachou was delighted. She came from a village not far from St. Jean-de-la-Forêt. Tove and I were the companion couple of Piero n’Olivia. The things the four of us would do in Paris, the night wandering on a string of time come.