Honeyland (2019): A Seed for Our Time


At lunch each day, I watched bees and butterflies dip into flowers in a courtyard beneath the 27-story library. Content in my unknowing, a brief repose below the flights of books. Morning glory, echinacea, rose. It’s curiosity a living thing follows: of fruition and color. Some say pollination is incidental, but who can know the errands of bees? What warms anything but sun? All gifts—like seeds—are colorborne: from darkness, into flight.


Garnering a suite of awards, including three prizes at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and two Oscar nominations, the documentary Honeyland is an epic experience. It follows the ways and means of a traditional beekeeper, Hatidže Muratova, in the visually stunning environs of her rural home near Bekirlija, North Macedonia. Hatidže (HA-tish-ah) tends, with stirring attention and loyalty, both her wild hives and her ailing, bedridden mother, Nazife Muratova. All goes smoothly until a semi-nomadic family moves in next door. They, too, decide to keep bees, and a breakdown in traditional practices of both inter-human and inter-species reciprocity triggers a downward spiral—economic and ecological.

To convey the achingly beautiful story, directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov used only available light and DSLRs. They filmed hundreds of hours of footage over the course of three years. They edited the clips tightly, guided entirely—they say—by a visual logic: they wanted viewers to be able to understand the story without dialogue. Most of the crew did not speak the Turkish dialect of the subjects’ first language. The directors thus decided on a visual cinematic language as the primary means of storytelling. They did not make use of interviews, narration, or direct address.

One might say such visual and temporal intensity sharpens the film, and nicks—perhaps cuts—a feeling of authenticity in the story it documents. The narrative winds up so polished and seamless that it assumes an almost mythological ethos. Through accretions and—the viewer must conclude—possible reorderings of story-time in post production, Honeyland provokes questions about documentary ethics and technique. As at least one reviewer has eloquently stated, there are some elisions of cultural context. What else is omitted? And how do the compressions of cinematography serve participants living out hardships in real, quotidian time, observed by filmmakers who presumably do not intervene to help? Also, when documentaries like Honeyland include kids, what permissions can ever secure a childhood—that most vulnerable segment of memory/imagination/identity—as sovereign from the intrusions and judgments of an observer’s fixed eye?

Despite its dominions of time and unflinching gaze lending a near-fictional aura of precision, Honeyland relays an astonishing, true story. Its events actually occurred, even if the process and relationships were less than transparent. The narrative is true in the way that an image-filled poem can be true. It’s a tale that speaks to a need in our time for new beginnings, and of stories that have a seed within them to spark a reversal of course to more nurturing ecological action.


In the opening scene, we see Hatidže from an aerial view against a dry, remote landscape. Wearing a vivid saffron blouse, she walks along a path that’s just diverged from another way. The plow-like V of the trail she trods is roughly paralleled at left by a third trail, making Hatidže look like a glowing seed among furrows of earth, or perhaps—with her satchel, scarf, and skirt—as an old-world woman in the act of sowing seeds. Yet, while the opening scenes so clearly plant within the viewer’s mind this imagery suggestive of agrarian doings, it is not seeds we see but


It’s six o’clock when I arrive at the B&B in a cab from the airport after an overnight flight. I’m hungry and travel-weary, standing with my suitcases on the stone steps of a garden beside an old carriage house renovated for lodging. White with red trim, red metal roof.

“You’re in time for dinner,” says a man I’m about to meet. “Would you like to join us?” 

He’s wearing a purple shirt that I’ll see him wear again on many days of the month ahead. Purple—he’ll say—is his favorite color. A breeze moves his white hair. Lines around his eyes, peaceful. I think he looks late 70s, but he’s ten years older. Gentle. His sister is ill. She will die tomorrow. Time speeds and slows, curves and skids. It gives and takes and breaks.

Not far off, a bell rings. A woman, visiting while the man’s caretaker takes a day off, comes outside. The tolling is loud enough that we pause our introductions under the maples, lingering in a filigree of green light. I tote suitcases down the steps, thinking how these elders—though they might wish to help with the luggage—carry a different sort of weight.

You sit here, they say, motioning to a place at a round oak table. I notice two things: a bouquet of garlic scapes, and mismatched cups. The tumbler at my appointed spot says home to me, for it matches a set of glasses I bought at a thrift store years ago. These sit darkly now in a cupboard in my kitchen, three thousand miles away; and though I’ve never seen one like them elsewhere, here is a lookalike. The glass winks in the late-July sun, its etched design casting faint rainbows on the table. My eyes rest briefly on the vision of welcome to this home away from home. 

I’m visiting Massachusetts for research in the Special Collections Archive at UMass Amherst Library, which holds the papers of David Steindl-Rast, a writer, Benedictine monk, and scholar. A seed starter bringing prodigious energy to new endeavors, Brother David—as he is called in community—co-founded the Center for Spiritual Studies with Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Sufi teachers in 1968, and has participated in interreligious dialogue for more than half a century, building relationships among communities and authoring numerous books and articles. A love of music/art/poetry blooms at the heart of his work, along with a belief in the power of gratefulness to transform shared life.

Before traveling to Amherst, I’d been following the sensuous thread between photography and the opportunity it sparks for deepening observation and presence. In reading Br. David, I began to hold the resonant feeling of gratefulness as a direct echo of visual practice. There’s a way in which a moment of looking can invite a viewer beyond desire, into delight. A way it opens into seeing

This is what makes Honeyland so moving; in watching Hatidže lift a bee from its struggle in a pool of water, or seeing Nazife on her sickbed, nursing a comb of sticky honey, the viewer is invited to a shared ground of fragility and possibility. Though a camera is optional for such an experience of one’s own everyday, Kotevska and Stefanov use it as a tool for the transference of consciousness. They imbue the film with an awareness of our tender, grievous, grateful connections, one to all. 

And this is how I knew I’d entered what writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, calls the gift economy: in the surprise of a delicious meal; in my lips against the oddly familiar glass; in the view of a blooming garlic centerpiece, this seed of an evening, of a new time.


One half for me / one half for you, says Hatidže, shortly following the revelation of her georgic duties. She often sing-says things to her bees—speaking and chanting—harvesting half the honey, and leaving half to nourish the colony.

This halfsies deal is music to my ears. It’s a notion at least partly compatible with this humanity we share in common, alternating greedy/slash/altruistic, as people of a paradoxical piece. What I mean is nonsense: we are completely out of order. And music-loving.

Louis Armstrong, of course, elucidated one aspect of the human paradox. He saw trees of green / Red roses too. Though let me state the other side: What a [right-greedy] world. Where—ever since toddlerhood—we’ve been trying to learn how to share. As a mother, I can say with some authority (and like a broken record), we can do better. Somebody’s always pilfering stuff from somebody else; and if not a body, an economic abstraction sneaks in for the taking: competition, scarcity, inflation.


In an essay called “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance,” Robin Wall Kimmerer examines how the Greek root oikosmeaning “home” or “household”: i.e., the systems of relationship, the goods and services that keep us alive—is the foundation of both economy and ecology. The earth is our home and sustenance; likewise, from the large to the small, many relationships that connect and sustain us in various spheres provide our home and all the things we value.

We can see this conjoining of ecology and economy so clearly in the relationships of Honeyland. When the Sam family moves into the farm next door to Hatidže, she befriends them. In contrast to Hatidže, the family is portrayed quite chaotically with one another and with their animals. Nonetheless, she helps them generously when they, too, take up beekeeping. She forms a special bond with one of the sons, who becomes an apprentice of sorts as she teaches him how to tend the hives and harvest the honey, leaving half. She instructs the father on pricing and sales. Throughout the film, the Sams’ messy, loud, and capricious interactions grow in sensorial and emotional volatility. Suffice it to say—without spoiling the end—that the film takes a heartfelt and heartbreaking look at the spheres of home, relationship, plenty, scarcity, and fear.

And—though not with honey—Wall Kimmerer looks similarly at economy through the lenses of traditional ecological knowledge and the field of ecological economics. In discussion with her friend and colleague Dr. Valerie Luzadis, she questions the domains of economic reality and ideology through notions of scarcity. With the delicious example of the serviceberry, Wall Kimmerer posits that scarcity is often an imaginary: 

What if scarcity is just a cultural construct, a fiction that fences us off from gift economies? When I examine Serviceberry economics, I don’t see scarcity, I see abundance shared: photosynthate is usually not in short supply, since sun and air are perpetually renewable resources. Of course, sometimes there’s not enough rain, and then the scarcity ripples through the web of relationships, for sure. That is real scarcity: when the rains don’t come. A physical limitation with repercussions that are shared, just as abundance is shared. That kind of scarcity is not what troubles me. It is manufactured scarcity that I cannot accept. In order for capitalist market economies to function, there must be scarcity, and the system is designed to create scarcity where it does not actually exist.

In Honeyland, the market economy appears to pressure the Sam family into a position or mindset of scarcity. Just how tenuous their situation is we can’t know, but either dire need and insufficiency—or fear of lacking enough provision—seems to put them on the brink of enacting true ecological scarcity.

Wall Kimmerer’s distinction between manufactured scarcity and real scarcity considers as real that which “actually exist[s].” It rejects the other, less-real kind of scarcity, the one made by humans irrespective of the deeper biological underpinnings of life’s gift economy. To tease truth out of the scarcities, Wall Kimmerer lingers lusciously in the realm of the serviceberry, a fruit whose taste “your body recognizes as the real food it’s been waiting for.” (There is that word again: real.)

What is real?


When Hatidže chants, One half for me / one half for you, it makes a kind of sense that’s instantly verifiable by one’s inner infant. Singing and buzzing and sunlight bring this thing to heart, where we can test its truth. For—as the poet John Keats saidaxioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses

Ba-boom, ba-boom: film moves the heart. 

As a sensuous medium, it goes into the body of experience, bringing the lives of a shared network to the doorstep of neighboring eyes and ears. It quickens the pulse and helps us sense more of what is real than we alone can know. 

Honeyland transports and entrances. It puts you into the scene with the backlit bees. In the smoke and the warm golden sunshine. Under the spell of Hatidže and whatever she is crooning—confidently, convincingly—in a verbal language you do not need to speak to understand. Because you hear it, almost smell, and taste it. You forget you have a stinger, that anybody has a stinger. 

Thank you for your business.


A friend shared a handful of seed garlic bulbs several years ago. I separated the cloves and planted them after the first hard frost that fall. Garlic grows well in the sand-and-ashy loam of my home in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, and by next summer’s end, the subterranean magic had multiplied the cloves into an abundance of fragrant bulbs. Gifted by earth with more garlic than my family could eat, I gave it away to friends, neighbors, strangers. Still there was more. I learned how to braid the leaves, how to store some aside for next year’s planting. Since then—for every year I’m given to tend—November means sowing cloves in mounds. July, the emergence of gems from wormy soil; plaiting a braid the length of the front porch; hanging it to cure in the cool breeze. Handing garlic to any who will have it. 

Here: hold out your hands.


For Wall Kimmerer, as with Keats, the real-ness of gift—of serviceberry—is evinced by its sensuous association with the body; it is something “your body recognizes” through the senses, in this case: taste. The real can be sensed (is sentient, sensible, and sensuously dispersed) in culture, too. It’s in the wisdom of language, in plant bodies and names, and in the interdependence of cyclical communities. The real is also in planetary bodies, especially the earth, which embodies all known and unknown biologic, geologic, and hydrologic systems and phenomena. 

This consilient reality of sensed-shared embodiment, as affirmed by Wall Kimmerer’s scientific and cultural knowledge, is pervasive and relational; it is continuously engaged in reciprocity, in “giv[ing] a gift in return.” Just as Hatidže echoes in Honeyland, through traditional beekeeping practices, an ethic of sharing among hive and humans affirms the expression of gift cycles as the realest—or truest and most foundational—economy. 

Gift economy, then, holds the reality of many less noble economies within it, such as “manufactured scarcity” and “market economy.” These may be powerful ideologies, but they remain, nonetheless, ideas: shaggy collections of theory and technique admixed to swindle and exploit the deeper reality for profit. Much as the letter R in grift conspires to steal the gift that contains it, the gift that indeed makes it possible to exist at all.


Seed garlic is not the same as garlic seed. A bulb’s cloves can be used as “seed garlic,” developing into plants that essentially clone the seed in a year’s time underground. True “garlic seed,” however, is in the scape: the plant’s floral bloom. But seeds from garlic florets require two to three patient years in the ground to render bulbs. So to aid the growth of (cloned) bulbs at home, I trim off the flower-scapes that form, as plants that give energy to maturing blooms remain small and undeveloped at the root.

The flowering? Here on the table at the B&B is a bouquet of garlic, its many orbs of delicate purple florets expanding wildly. They curve in all directions on elegant, goose-like necks of garlic, gone to seed in full floral iteration. 

Seed, a ripening of gift and time. A means to uprising. A movement, lifting toward a light.


Intellect by itself only gets us so far. It has a share in gratefulness, but only a share. Our intellect should be alert enough to look through the predictable husks of things to their core and find there a kernel of surprise. That in itself is a demanding task. But truthfulness also demands that the intellect be sufficiently humble, that is, sufficiently down to earth to know its limits. The gift character of everything can be recognized, but it cannot be proved—not by the intellect alone, at any rate. Proof lies in living. And there is more to living than the intellect can grasp.

~ David Steindl-Rast, OSB, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness, p. 13


Harvesting garlic was one of my preparations before making the trip to Amherst to study the work of Steindl-Rast on grateful living. In the days before leaving town, I dug the bulbs. These filled the wheelbarrow—propped by the garden—to brimming. I pushed the spicy cargo to the front yard to braid. Hung a garlicky garland on the porch the night before leaving home. 

Salsa. Marinara sauce. Bagna càuda. Pickles.


There comes a point—periodically—in time when awareness of the ecological “seed story” is lost, forgotten, or soured by cynicism and futilitarian thinking. Through the care and tending of bees, Honeyland reminds us of the sweet yet tenuous power of planting generosity and nurturing relationships, even (and especially) in the face of great fear. It’s a film that speaks to the delicate balance of reciprocity, including our mutual human need for tenderness, and our interdependence within the ecologies and economies of our shared home.


I do not live in a fairyland. 

Garlic casts an odor—and not really a pleasant one—in the basement where it’s stored. It can get bugs, can brown with blemish after harvest if the shovel breaks through the clove’s skin and into the flesh. Dirt clings to the roots and falls off as it cures on the porch. The air is icy, ground hard, at planting. Mosquitos out at harvest. Bending, backaches. All in all: messy work. Something always needs tending in a world of species tested and stressed, held by a string, things stretched thin. Sometimes, we all fear there won’t be enough. (There isn’t always enough.)


Through its vibrant imagery, Honeyland becomes a poetic distillation in film. It conveys—with translucent grandeur—the gift of being alive. And it confronts us with the pain and suffering attendant to the possibility of losing what we hold most dear. It unfolds before the senses to show what is real and true.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing also conveys, the truest home and realest economy is the one 

we breathe,     

respiration a vital

embodiment of

a given ecology

—gift sphere—

life’s recipe

reciprocity, reality:

the give-

and-take living


The market economy, on the other hand, is merely ideological. Ideas of the market can become totalizing and oppressive when mistaken for the deeper reality. While the market exerts real-world influence, it can only exist within the overarching reality of a gift economy, a given world. For it is from the gift economy that the market is mind-made.


Our time seems ripe for the Hatidžes of the world: stories of grateful living with a sense of sufficiency—one half for you, one half for me. Stories of reverence and of tending the lives in our care. Ecological stories planted in the realities of reciprocity. Stories that can seed abundance in human hearts.

When the power of the seed re-enters our time—of turmoil, compost, and reimagining—it can inoculate the collective consciousness, help us ask essential questions, and spark meaningful action.

What is the sound, the taste, of change? How does it whir or buzz against the heart? Shift from hive to humus? Or ripen in the ground of life we share. 


I can’t remember the last time I bought garlic. These years of plenty, all from a few bulbs.

—O darkness, life underground
papery skin of silence sewn
in the hive of night’s
unknown ferment
Roots in cellars wrought
soil-encased, -humming
the earthy gift of scent
received again alive
a breath, a     brevity
to hold what i love
again and
the permanence
of loss—