Though Aerial Gilbert lost her sight in 1988, she’s always had a clear picture of the life she wants to lead, and she’s determined not to let her blindness stop her from accomplishing the things that make her happy.
That’s why when the 62-year-old Petaluman had the opportunity to get involved in beekeeping after a 28-year hiatus, she decided to take the leap.
She first became fascinated with beekeeping as a child after learning that the postmaster in her small Marin County hometown had his own hives. After grilling him about the practice, she bought her own equipment from Sears at age 17.
She had hives until she was 34, when she lost her sight after using eye drops that had been tampered with — the bottle from the drugstore contained lye rather than the solution she’d hope would refresh her dry eyes after a long night shift at Marin General Hospital.
“It was a little bit like getting jettisoned to a foreign planet,” she said. “Everything you knew no longer is how you expect it to be. On top of that, I didn’t know why it happened and why someone had done this to me. I was afraid of everything and I couldn’t figure out how to do anything. For a good six months I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t do anything and I didn’t think I could, so I was pretty shut in. I literally woke up one day and projected out what my life would be like if I continued the way I was going. I thought ‘Oh man, I’m going to have one long, boring life if I don’t change this, and I don’t do boring very well.’ ”
She attended the Orientation Center for the Blind in New York, relearning skills ranging from vacuuming to balancing a checkbook, going on to get a guide dog and to meet friends who would inspire her to shirk off any limitations that might be associated with being sight-impaired.
Gilbert took a post with Guide Dogs for the Blind, and started rowing again — a sport that she loved before losing her sight, but was skeptical about returning to. Since then, she’s competed for the U.S. Masters rowing team, snagging gold medals in the World Masters Games, and she still actively rows.
But despite her accomplishments, there was still something missing. When a friend asked if she could keep her hives on Gilbert’s property, Gilbert jumped at the opportunity. The arrangement fell through, but spurred Gilbert to look into the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association, which has a “south cluster” of more than 70 beekeepers in Petaluma and the surroundings areas.
Her water aerobics teacher, Kellie Cox, who’s also involved in beekeeping and is a co-leader of the cluster, got her connected with the group this spring.
“She came (to a workshop) and it was absolutely wonderful — people were a little bit like ‘what is she doing, this is an odd thing,’ but she’s changed our cluster and the way a lot of people look at stuff, and that’s really neat,” Cox said.
Cox and Christine Kurtz, who serves as a regional coordinator for the association and also runs an independent Petaluma-based honey bee consulting business, both donated hive splits to Gilbert, who gladly accepted them, despite the fact she broke her leg just days before receiving the first hive.