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Broadsides from the Ozarks

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

paying all these taxes that were going to this war we didn't want to have anything to do with." And so in 1972, explains Hubbell, they picked up all their marbles and left.

They sold their house, loaded belongings and two Irish setters into a VW bus, and for a year drove around the country searching for the right place to live. They found the Ozarks. "I don't think we had a thought in our heads about how we would make a living here. You know, you look back at all the stupid things you do, and I have found all the important things in my life were arrived at by accident."

Like many in the early 1970s, the Hubbells were back-to-the landers, "even though we were too old," laughs Sue. "And when the money started running out, Paul said, 'well, we might as well do bees. We don't know anything about cows.'"

Ten hives grew to 40, then to 100. The Hubbell's marriage ended, but Sue Hubbell stayed in the Ozarks with 300 hives of bees and continued to operate a commercial honey business. It was a tenuous but rewarding way to earn a living.

"I come from a family of writers and it's our habit that when you need some money, you write something." The result was a kind of Erma Bombeck-of-the-country column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to supplement the honey business.

A Country Year is about Hubbell's life after divorce, and what she learned from the snakes, phoebes, coyotes, wildflowers, warblers and people of the Ozarks. The book allowed her to "settle down to the work of the afternoon of my life, the work of building a new kind of order, a structure on which a 50-year-old woman can live her life alone, at peace with herself and with the world around her."

Hubbell is a small person with large hands, strong and weathered from years of beekeeping and outdoor work. She is a wonderful mixture of youth and age; her face is sun-tanned and wrinkled, her voice young. Her clothes are practical. Her intelligent eye on the natural world allows her to tell stories about all life, not just her own.

"I can't imagine not doing something physical in combination with writing, something that involves different aspects of the brain somehow." She knows carpentry, roofing, stone-masonry, where to cut the best firewood, how to make a beloved old truck persevere on Ozark roads, and writes ingeniously about all these endeavors. She planted 1,700 pine trees the first year she owned her place, some of which her second husband - a city dweller - has recently taken to pruning. But she has sold most of her hives.

"I knew I would never be happy without bees in my life, but I didn't need 300 hives to be happy. And so I have great happiness now with 10," she says. "I'm 60, and it's hard work. I knew I wasn't going to be able to do that all my life."

The Broadsides book took two years to write and sprung in part from an accumulation of rejection letters. "I kept turning in story ideas about bugs to editors, and they kept turning them down, so I had to do the book," Hubbell says.

She now spends half the year in Washington D.C. where her husband, Arne Sieverts, lives and works as a staff member of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Says Hubbell with a laugh, "I think sometimes that I am a writer so that I can sit in that splendid room at the Library of Congress and not feel guilty."

Her hours in the Library of Congress over the past few years have allowed Hubbell to work on larger projects that require more research. Her most recent book, called Far-Flung Hubbell, is a collection of stories she wrote for The New Yorker while keeping bees and living full-time in Missouri.

"Missouri seemed exotic to the national press," she says, "it seemed like I was talking about foreign lands or something." Hubbell joyfully recalls someone from New York who once suggested she stop in Texas while driving from the east coast back to Missouri. "Everyone thinks they are at the belly button of the universe," she says.

In A Country Year, Hubbell observes the natural world around her Ozark home and conveys to readers, in part, the difference between loneliness and solitude. All too often, fearful of loneliness, we shut the door and turn up the TV against it. But we also shut out the fruition of solitude and our place in the natural order of things.

Hubbell's writing makes the natural world, and "the otherness of things," desirable. She encourages us to be unapologetically curious about ourselves and our landscape.

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