I WONDER if I am becoming feral," Sue Hubbell speculates equably amid her pages of coyotes, opposums, chiggers, black rat snakes and other creatures she neighbors with in her adopted rural life. "Wild things and wild places pulls me more strongly than they did a few years ago, and domesticity, dusting and cookery interest me not at all."
By remarks that dimple now and then in this extremely likable book, she is fiftyish, smallish, an ex-librarian, the survivor of a discombolutating divorce ("I was out to lunch for three years") and either owns or is owned by 18 million honeybees in the Missouri Ozarks. By the evidence of her every sentence, this pensive beekeeper is also a beautifully blossoming writer. How about: "There is a magnificent dappled brown and gold house spider changing her skin today in a corner up above the wood stove" -- the deft shove of eye-rhyme there in "above" and "stove," the rural twinning of "up above," the perfectly apt yet arresting description of molting as "changing her skin."
Or: "When I drove up in front of the barn the night was full of eyes. Eyes floating in the night, almond-shaped eyes everywhere, looking toward me, golden, gleaming eyes, eyes reflected in the headlights with no other body parts visible. Eyes surrounding me. Eyes. I turned off the headlights and quietly got out of the pickup. I was in the middle of a herd of deer." That single-word sentence of "Eyes" to bespeak an overwhelming multiplicity is downright magical. Hubbell watches language as sagaciously as she eyes nature, and the combination makes A Country Year steadily eloquent not just of her life but all life.
The questions of choosing to live in close daily touch with nature, of course, involve human deportment more than the other creatures'. (Living the Questions, the subtitle Hubbell uses to frame these concerns, is a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke -- a bit cosmically urbane for my own country blood; Rilke must have unnerved someone at the publishing house, too, quite possibly the sales force, because in an unusual move just before publication, the scheduled title Living the Questions: A Country Year became vice versa. With a justice that so earnest and little-known an author rarely is granted, however, this book has been given an exquisite design by Cynthia Krupat, and its press-run of 12,500 copies is at least twice what a ruminative first book usually gets.) Hubbell's bees, most pleasantly omnipresent in her census of the creekside hill where she lives, behave in ways still majestically inexplicable to her after a dozen years of attentive beekeeping. Likewise most of the other creatures that inhabit her 41 brief essays in a kind of breviary of spring, summer, autumn, winter, and in a nice touch, spring once more: the inch-long frogs, for instance, who one night, and only one night, decided to march up Hubbell's windows by the thousands, "waiting in patient ranks to move up to the lighted surface of the glass." Midway in the book she quotes cosmically again, a physicist's aper,cu that "we live in a world that is not only queerer than we think but queerer than we can think," and this time she more than convinces us.
WHAT THOUGH, of the ultimate "chemical bundle" inhabiting those 90 life-teeming Ozark acres, the denizen called Sue Hubbell? Because any of us who are or have been rural cherish our own foibles and like to look down our sunburned noses at other people's, a book of this sort has to undergo my "yeah, but" test:
Yeah, Hubbell has to resort to a chainsaw for harvesting firewood on her woodlot, but I still detest that blind, shrieking, motorized omnivore. Yeah, "she is diplomatically wise to regard as local charm the small-town mechanic's irremediable ritual of grumble, gossip and gab before sidling up to a repair job, but across 30 years of periodically dealing with that ilk I still always feel a monumental urge to bill him for my time.
But yeah, Sue Hubbell does pass, by miles. Even when her topics or ways of going about things are nowhere near my own, she wins me to them with her felicity and calm conviction. Some of the best prose of our generation has come from our Three Samurai of the far places -- Edward Hoagland, Peter Matthiessen, and John McPhee, brilliant journeyers writing for us of Nepal and the Sudan and Northern British Columbia and Alaska and upmost Maine. Now it's our equal good fortune to be gaining an order of observant home-based writers -- Ann Zwinger in Colorado, Kim Williams in Montana, Jack Nisbet in the state of Washington, Gretel Ehrlich in Wyoming, others and others -- who report keenly on living in nature's neighborhoods. With this first book, Sue Hubbell joins them fully ordained.
The writer she most reminds me of, to her credit, is none of the above, but Aldo Leopold in his great 1949 book of the rhythms of the land, A Sand County Almanac. That classic of ecology was by a human who suggested "thinking like a mountain." Hubbell, too, is gifted with the ability to step off from the humanly habitual -- "There has always been a part of me that stood aside, watching, commenting" -- and yet keep her own equilibrium: "a life is as simple or complicated as the person living it . . . "
What is wanted next from her is, happily, on her list of "wantings." On a first morning of spring, after she has slept outdoors in celebration of this freshest season, "I want indigo buntings singing their couplets . . . I want to read Joseph and His Brothers again. I want oak leaves and dogwood blossoms and fireflies . . . I want to write a novel." Do, and soon.