I FOUND the beekeeper in his kitchen. He was washing a panful of grapes his wife had brought in from the orchard, but his attention was elsewhere.

"I'm famished," he announced. "How far away is lunch?"

From time to time, I wander out through the neighborhood, taking my own peculiar sampling of the Public Will. I call it performing open heartland surgery, my concession to the Great Events, although I consider it about as scientific as phrenology. I am not a scientific man and I listen first for pleasure, second for information. I regard this as something of a flaw, but it explains the conversations I gather in from around the neighborhood.

I had come to ask the beekeeper and his wife what they thought about the SALT II debates, and found myself up to my elbows in unwashed grapes. They were canning the juice, and my inquiries into the dense arbor of international treaty making fell deaf between the pertinent demands of lunch and the laying in of grape juice.

"Russia?" mused the beekeeper's wife at the sink. "Trouble there, isn't it so? Can't seem to keep their ballerinas. Perhaps they should be negotiating a treaty with the Bolshoi . . .?"

The beekeeper mused upon his next task, amnesty with his beehives. In the fall, he likes to take away some honey because this makes the bees work harder to produce more before winter drives them inside. I noticed I was getting nowhere with the SALT debates, so I slipped out through the porch and went across the road to find The Squire.

The Squire was under his cornpicker, making final adjustments before laying siege to his cornfields.

"I can see it all," he said. "I can see the advantages and the disadvantages. I can see the corn that drops to the ground. I can see the muddy places. I can spot a salesman and I can turn around and drive to the other end of the field and make him walk in the mud. And on a clear day, I can see the grain prices rise and fall . . ."

When I had The Squire appropriately warmed to conversation, I asked him what he thought of the SALT debates. "What little bit I know of Russia," he said, "they'll do as they damn well please. A piece of paper doesn't mean much in the neighborhood or in the world. Two-thirds of what anyone promises don't get delivered. They just ain't gonna do it. You can go to court, but it ain't worth the ritual.

"Old Doc McKenzie said that once he could drive from here to town, pull in every barnyard, ask a favor and get it when he asked for it. But now nothing holds. I have trouble with my tractor, the mechanic promises it Thursday, I may get it Thursday week. I hate to ask anyone to do anything anymore. A man's word ain't worth nothing, and likely not a country's. We have no more answers to questions. Just interpretations to various predicaments. The experts say, 'But on the other hand . . .' No. I'd vote no on that treaty . . ."

I left The Squire fulminating under his cornpicker and went over to Mr. Craig's. Old Fred, the gander, honked and strutted around the barnyard and got the geese excited, and I decided that Mr. Craig didn't have to worry about the Russians; Fred would let him know if any were coming.

I thought Mr. Craig might be a good source since he had been through World War II, so I asked him about that. He told me it took some getting used to.

"The first morning on deck," he said, "it was like we were in a hole in the sea and the water was way up around us. Like being in the woods and looking up at the treetops. We were all alone and although I wasn't exactly frightened, I was disturbed. I was separate from what I'd known all my life. Of course, sailors might have felt that way in my cornfields.

"Then overseas itself was strange. The looks of the people, the buildings, the land. I never knew what to expect. I was always straining to listen and to see. We went into Italy and I felt more comfortable because there were small farms. Four, five-acre tracts.

"We missed fresh eggs and milk the most. Good chickens, the cooks would tell us. They were leghorns, frozen, a year old. Frozen with the intestines still in them. The eggs were from cold storage, fresh in '39. This was '43. They were edible but nothing in the way of how mother cooked. It gave you a broader plain to know what to be thankful for when you got back. If I'd been fighting the war for year-old leghorns and cold-storage eggs, I don't know as how I'd been as intent . . ."

When I asked Mr. Craig about the SALT treaty, he said he wasn't for it. "American people like details," Mr. Craig said. "We like to know where things stand. Like to have things drawn out on a piece of paper. The pros and cons, see. Russia don't specify details. They keep things from their people over there. So how will we know what's going on when the Russian people don't know?"

Mr. Craig said he could not get too enthused about Russia because he was contemplating his coal pile and coal was $66 a ton this year. "Last year during the blizzard I couldn't get to the woodpile so I burned six tons. Cost me $45 a ton last year. Usually, I use some wood and three tons of coal. People have tough enough times now without treaties we can't control. I don't feel we'll ever come to terms with Russia . . ."

I seemed to have reached a consensus. Perhaps it was because the beekeeper, Mr. Craig and The Squire lived within sight of one another and I had hit upon an odd little pocket of concord. I decided to broaden my base a bit and carry my interrogations out into the larger world. I went over to Gurneyville.

Mr. Taylor had just come in from negotiating satisfactorily with a pond full of bluegill. But he didn't trust Russia, either, and voted no.

"I wouldn't sign that treaty," he said. "I'll tell you the why of it. The administration doesn't know anything. Oil prices have gone daft, and then there's inflation . . ."

In a moment, though, the conversation had fallen from political debate and landed on the woodpile. Mr. Taylor was telling me about the virtues of the two-man crosscut saw and how it was important not to have a fool on the other end. Listening to him, a new and personal definition of entente came to me.

"It is proper work," Mr. Taylor said, "but I like it. If the set is right and no one is riding the other end, you can cut from early morning until sunset. Time out for dinner, of course. I like a woodstove, too. You can back up to it and warm both sides. With a furnace, you come in the house and just wait around until you thaw out . . ."

I thanked Mr. Taylor for his vote and went down the road to find Mr. Ballard. Mr. Ballard was on his front porch, musing over the absence of clover fields in the neighborhood.

"I used to ride down Hackney Road and there was a lovely field of clover growing. It was the only piece around. I like to see the wheat and clover growing. Most of these boys grow corn only and for a good part of the year the ground is lying there, rough. It depresses me. Then that fellow over in Hackney plowed up his clover and he went to corn, too . . ."

I managed to maneuver Mr. Ballard out of the cornfields and into the international pastures of treaty making, secretly hoping I'd get at least one dissenting opinion, but I didn't. "Russia won't sign that treaty unless she has the edge," Mr. Ballard said. "President Carter wants it because it's a feather in his bonnet and I'm afraid we'll settle for too little. And how do we know what's going on, really? Even if we read every paper in the world. We only know what we're told. I don't know what the answer is, but I hate to see a country's wealth spent on the military. Why do they keep exploding those bombs? Don't they know they blow up by now?"

Mr. Ballard and I stood on the porch for a few minutes and speculated upon the whereabouts of a clover field. "I don't know where any clover fields are," he said. "I know where I can drive to a creek bottom and see bluegrass. That's the best I can do . . ."

Driving home, I reflected upon the gravity of the day's canvass: Chester Township had just voted down the SALT treaty. I wondered what the repercussions would be when the news reached Washington. Pondering the consequences, I split firewood for an hour before dinner and, heading for the house in the growing dark, I cast the lone affirmative vote.

I am as untrusting in the larger events as any of my neighbors, but I'm also for the notion of the covenant, in all its varied and improbable forms. The SALT treaty is one more convenant and I do not know if it might hold up in the whimsical court of world affairs.

Perhaps such a treaty is nothing more than the simple recognition that we all -- Russian and American alike -- inhabit the same fragile, still lovely country.