We had the good fortune of connecting with Debra Roberts and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Debra, what role has risk played in your life or career?
My life has been a constant stream of risk taking if viewed from the outside. But within me, each leap, inclination, and navigating decision has come from a place of calling and intuition. When I look back, the many large decisions in my life have often involved potential risk but in the moment itself, that word isn’t what governs me. It generally isn’t even in the room. I move in a certain direction governed by interest, curiosity and sometimes full-blown passion. Then, later, my mind steps in with its job of co-creating the planning with my heart. This is where a whole spectrum of thoughts and feelings might stir and perhaps a feeling of risk. But in my 68th year, I now recognize those arisings as old friends who I welcome to the table. I have always had a very full and creative life and despite the challenges, my risks have always been worth it.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am an international honeybee advocate, speaker, educator, artist and bee celebrant on a bee bhakti/devotional path. I look for every way I can to creatively express my love and gratitude for the presence of these precious winged beings in my life and in the life of the world. Across the decades, I have been a dancer (in water and on land), in three theater companies, a documentary filmmaker; I currently study frame drumming, book making and am actively writing poetry. All of these art forms are in the weave of my bee life and I don’t feel a boundary between being an artist, educator, speaker and general everyday kind of human.
My mother was very creative; we did arts and crafts all the time at home when I was growing up. I was encouraged and supported to lean into my curiosity, make things and also, to make a mess. With every major life shift across almost 70 years, I have continued to follow my heart and interests: from getting on a plane after college to explore Europe for three months and staying eleven years (and not pursuing a PhD), to having a repetitive dream every night for one month about making documentary films (and starting to make films soon after), to driving some jars of honey to Hopi to gift a family and coming home and jumping into bee school because of a little inner nudge . My life is chock full of these stories.
In the spring of 2020, I was due to return to Turkey for the month of April for bee-ish doings but the pandemic changed my plans, like for so many of us, so I stayed home. I was reorganizing my office and started finding bits of poetry in journals, notebooks, drawers, shopping bags, desktop files and all sorts of renegade places. I realize I had been writing poetry for a while but not calling it that. And so much of it was inspired by my life with the bees. I was asked to speak at several international virtual bee conferences in the spring and instead of speaking, I shared poetry. One invitation led to another and now I am working on my first poetry collection which I am very excited about.
Writing a poem turns me inside out and that is a feeling I recognize as part of a Sacred Next appearing in my life. I feel I am finally old enough to write poetry … as if my epic lyric-lived life has been refined to more of a haiku style of living in my late 60’s. There is a distillation that comes from thousands of experiences and flowering through them/with them/despite them and emerging with homeopathic doses of reflections on life called poems. The bees and the natural world have been my main inspiration, but more recently I find myself branching off into other subjects as well. I never planned to be an international bee educator.
Most of the major life-changing invitations to teach and speak have come while I have been in my bee sanctuary, focused on doing very ordinary things (what I called the sacred-in-the-ordinary territory of life). One year, the new girlfriend of an old friend of ours was hiking with him on our land and passed by as I was in the bee yard. She liked how I spoke of bees and she turned out to be one of the decision makers for who teaches at a very wonderful local annual event here called Organic Grower’s School, where I was invited to teach for a number of years. Another time, I was in Asheville being interviewed about bees for a non-profit group and a young Turkish woman named Filiz Telek was in town visiting. She filmed my interview, we got talking afterwards and really enjoyed each other’s company. She came to our land the following day to spend time with my bees and I and have lunch and before she left, invited me to Turkey to teach. She ended up being one of the movers and shakers in Turkey (and now one of the deep loves of my life). Thus began my love affair with Turkey and over half a dozen trips to that blessed bee land.
Another time, Layne Redmond (an astonishing author, musician, educator and composer who has now crossed) brought her students to my bee yard after a weekend workshop she taught on drumming, women and bee priestesses. We became close friends and she started to invite me to speak at her classes and conferences. And so it goes. None of this was planned; all of it stemmed from connections made while I was doing whatever I was doing with bees. The invitation to be interviewed by Shoutout LA came the same way through a friend in Santa Fe who knows my bee-ish heart and recommended me.
I have had challenges along the way, of course. Some colonies of bees have died over the years which is devastating. It is harder to be a healthy bee in the world at this time. Friends and family have died, we lost our house to fire in 2013, and I had a serious tango with cancer in my early 30’s. Things have happened in my life and in the world that have utterly broken my heart, but as my precious husband Joe reminds me, hearts are meant to break … open. That advice has served me well over the years. I have come to know that my heart is a verb more than a thing.
In respect to teaching bee (and really, sharing my bee love), I have been invited to places and spaces in the world that have been more traditionally the realm of men … wonderful men because beekeepers tend to be generous and beautiful people. But sometimes there has been a sense of turf when I arrive and they wonder why someone who doesn’t fit their idea of a teacher or bee person has come into their sector of the bee galaxy. But always this edge has dissolved through finding what we have in common (we all want our bees to be well ). I am endlessly interested in diversity and commonality (to do with bee practices and everything in life). So my trail has always been rich with new old friends.
I have also discovered I am an ambivert; I am capable of being both an extrovert and introvert. When shyness rears its head (and I was seriously shy the first twenty years of my life) or when other challenges arise, I have learned to meet them by meeting them. That sounds simplistic but I feel like Presence is the ultimate medicine and is where I try to live. Other things are also important: staying up with my practices; spending time in nature; having a very supportive husband, circle of friends and cat; time with the bees; breathwork, inner spiritual work and retreat time; grieving (very important to me to stay sane); ongoing learning and humor; and valuing the personal real estate I inhabit in this life, which is the edge. I have always been a creative edge dweller.
I also nearly died three times in my life and I have been blessed to be present with human and animal beloveds when they have passed. This territory of death is very, very beautiful and has deepened my appreciation of the life I have and how precious a thing it is to be able to express love creatively in all the ways I do.
A lot of what I am describing to you about my life is learned in retrospect. I didn’t set out with a plan to Do What I Love, but looking back I see that is a predominant theme. I have leaned into what I have energy for and have discovered that where my energy flows, life and creativity are alive and well. I have learned how to have a simple, healthy, grateful life. So I really encourage you to do what you love and if you don’t know what that is, make time to listen, explore, be fluid in your journey, and to be with whom and what you love (really). Let love and life surprise you. The universe will find you with its infinite opportunities and adventures in its own inimitable way. Cherish Presence because it is from that place that I see how my prayers are answered and recognize what is Calling. And don’t be afraid of change because if you are longing for a change, it is already happening.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
We love to tailor-make adventures for friends who visit: to introduce them to the land where we live outside Asheville, NC, to the astonishing natural world around us, and to the vibrant artist/food/libation culture in Asheville and surrounding area. Here is an example of time spent with a close friend who came to visit. The night she flew in, we went from the airport to a pub called Jack of the Wood which hosts a lot of Irish and Blue Grass music. Asheville is a big beer city and has a great music scene. Our friend stepped right into an open mic Blue Grass night with her fiddle and fine voice and had a fabulous time.
The next day we hiked. We live about two miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic highway that stretches between Virginia and North Carolina. We took her on one of our favorite hikes up through old trees, forest flora, mossy stones and arrived at an astonishing 360 view of the mountains. We stopped for mushrooms, birds, lizards and all manner of life forms there on the trail. This region is full of amazing walks, views, waterfalls, forests, fields, rivers, and more. We then went next door and spent time with my brother-in-law, world-renowned puppeteer Hobey Ford, and got a tour of his workshop and astonishing family of puppets. Another afternoon, we invited his wife Sue and other local musicians for a Blue Grass circle in our home and shared food and songs.
When friends visit during the warm weather non-pandemic months, we take them to Asheville on a Friday night to have an early dinner at Chai Pani (Indian street food) or Salsa’s (Mexican & Caribbean food) and then head to Pritchard Park in the center of Asheville where hundreds of people gather for a weekly community drum/dance experience. It is a happy, curious mix of locals and tourists of all ages and persuasions. Then we often finish our evening off with dessert at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, a really popular chocolate destination that two thriving young entrepreneurs began years ago. During the week, we also take our friends to the River Arts District where there are masses of artists working in their studios (this is a big arts and crafts town) and then we head to the White Duck Taco Shop right beside the French Broad River for lunch.
We also cook a lot with our friends, harvesting food from Joe’s organic gardens; he has two hoop houses and grows food twelve months a year. We cook with a lot of spices from Spicewalla (an incredible local business that sells small-batch, fresh roasted and ground spices started by the owner and chef of Chai Pani). When friends come, they experience time in the mountains, on our land in Joe’s food gardens and my bee sanctuary, and in the city experiencing some of Asheville’s best (and many) small businesses that center around food, drink and the arts.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
In 2004, when the bees Called me, I attended bee school in Asheville, NC. I was passionately in love with bees but utterly overwhelmed by how to be a responsible friend and steward of bees. Bee school wasn’t enough. I wanted to apprentice with someone for a year to get a lot of hands-on experience. My life had just shifted from many years of making documentary films to burn out to bees. By grace, I found myself at the door of Carl Chesick, a local beekeeper who agreed to take me on for a year.
At the time, Carl was sort of the underground organic beekeeper in a mainstream beekeeping community that promoted the use of chemical treatments. This was the days of the first wave of struggling bees, in the early years of Colony Collapse. Carl was generous with his time and very knowledgeable. As enthusiastic as I was, I recognized that as a beginner I was more likely to get in his way than be useful; it is a humbling path, apprenticing. I worked really hard across those four seasons and came away with years of knowledge. The following spring, when I got my first bees, I felt confident in my basics and also had enough experience to know that there was a lot more to learn. But I started and never looked back.
Some years later, Carl also invited me to do a talk on bees and mysticism for the annual bee school. He knew how I leaned and that my relationship with bees was deeply devotional and not commercial. That public talk was pivotal in my being invited into the wider world, including abroad, to share my love of bees. Carl is now the Director of the Center for Honeybee Research in Asheville and I am a free-range international natural beekeeping educator, speaker and advocate. I will always be infinitely grateful to Carl and this shout-out goes his way.
Facebook: Debra Roberts https://www.facebook.com/debra.roberts.127
Youtube: Debra Roberts: On Bees and Being https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-1XLvzL3GMsmvo0HJ7fu3g
Other: The Sacred Path of Bee http://holybeepress.com/sacred-path/information/
Emily Nichols 2 photos: hand making shape of heart over bee; Debra with ear to a bee hive Sophia Debbie Phillips 1 photo: Debra leading a parade with stop sign over my head Rick Aguar 1 photo: Debra leaning over blue hiv Filiz Telek 4 photos: Debra with hat leaning over a hive; Debra with her crazed bee grin and antennae; Debra with some of her women students in Turkey; Debra with fellow beekeeper and friend Alper in his bee yard in Turkey