After some thirty years of marriage, Hubbell’s husband left Hubbell and their bee-keeping operation in southern Missouri. She casts no blame but you feel her loneliness, her buried grief, on every page, even though her short chapters are often levied with bemusement over, for instance, the war between a blacksnake and chickenhouse mice.
Hubbell makes a perilous living with her 200 hives, kept not only on her farm but on neighboring farms. She travels about in her cantankerous pickup truck, making friends with the local people even though she’s plainly an Easterner and a literary sort in the bargain. On the farm, she observes not only bees but birds, deer, insects, and snakes. She shrugs off the common Ozarks fear of the brown recluse spider: she’s bitten herself and claims the bite to be no more significant than that of a tick or chigger. Similarly, she downplays the deadliness of copperheads and rattlers, though she’s wary of water moccasins.
Note that Hubbell wrote her book before the widespread appearance of the varroa mite, colony collapse disorder—or cell phones.
Hubbell becomes a sort of Thoreau in her self-reliance: shingling her house, repairing her pickup, and cutting firewood with her chainsaw. This is probably one explanation of the memoir’s popularity (particularly with women readers): without making pronouncements about relations between the sexes, Hubbell stakes out a quiet, feminist claim.
Not all of A Country Year is about nature. Hubbell’s farm borders a small river, and on the opposite shore, the VFW operates a campsite. Hubbell is friendly with the vets and sometimes hosts her own gatherings at their camp. One night, some old men knock on her door, wanting to use her phone. It seems a young Vietnam vet has killed himself and the old men are deeply shaken. Hubbell comforts them, and the scene gives the memoir some much-needed, human texture. We all share this sadness, Hubbell seems to say.
In her explorations of the natural world, Hubbell is making a spiritual search, though it has nothing to do with her evangelical neighbors. Something does well up in her quest, not as philosophical as Thoreau or as ecological as Wendell Berry, but beautiful in its way. Readers celebrate the memoir’s lyricism and Hubbell’s seemingly effortless ability to describe the natural world, harking back, indeed, to Thoreau—and maybe John Burroughs, who also wrote about bees. Rereading Hubbell, however, what comes through the strongest is a sweet sorrow.
Sue Hubbell’s memoir may fall something short of a “beloved classic,” but it was a bestseller in the 1980s, is still in print, and launched a fine writing career. Hubbell died on October 18, 2018, at age 83.
THE FIRST THING one might say about Leonard Hall’s Country Year is that it’s practical. His descriptions of natural processes, even more of farm life, are every bit as insightful as Hubbell’s, but he’s all about the economics of running a model farm. Hall practices good animal husbandry, works in harmony with the seasons, treats the soil respectfully, and tries to turn a profit.
His book, expanded from columns that originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is laid out by the month, which is a neat, simple scheme. It allows Hall to range widely from the solitude of winter to the hopefulness of spring to the frantic work of summer to harvest in the fall. It’s seasons, rather than months, that emerge from A Country Year.
Hall is philosophical, but more in the vein of a conservationist than an environmentalist. The difference is sometimes subtle, but Hall is a hunter and fisherman as well as a farmer; he simply believes that such activities must be done responsibly. He doesn’t understand humankind to be an interloper whose very presence harms nature; rather, he’s a manager. In this spirit, Hall can wax poetic:
We roll across our fields on the seat of the tractor with our heads enveloped in exhaust fumes. No longer do we walk in the furrow with the sun on our backs, conscious of each plant the plow turns under, of the rich life that exists in good soil, of the blackbird following along behind us to pick up his morning meal. If we don’t watch out, we are apt to find ourselves believing that it is the noise of our passage which makes the corn grow; and this is a conceit in which farming loses it real meaning.
For people of my generation, Hall’s book isn’t dated; rather, it’s nostalgic in how it portrays veterinarians, auctions, neighbors, canning produce, butchering—the latest, scientific techniques. It tells you that the stalwarts you grew up admiring were hard workers with good intentions, even though they set in motion the likes of Monsanto and Tyson and Smithfield Foods. Hall would have been horrified by modern farming, but I know there are Halls out there, still, doing the best they can to manage their land—and animals—with respect for the natural world. It’s just that the task has grown much more difficult.