Broadsides from the Ozarks
When we see, over and over again, a favorite photograph taken in early childhood, the distinction between our memory and the frozen image blurs. Do we really remember that event captured on film? Or does the picture simply ignite our imagination and trick us into memory? We usually settle for a combination of both.
Having spent a morning with writer Sue Hubbell, I find myself at this fuzzy inbetween. Did she tell me about Black Edith, the boy kitty, howling at the sight of the Kennedy Center, or did I read it in one of her books? Did we talk about the satisfaction of shingling your own roof, or was that the subject of an essay in her book about Ozark life, A Country Year?
Sue Hubbell is amiably straightforward, gracious and perhaps a bit odd. A self-taught naturalist, Hubbell has lived in the Ozarks for 20 years and is author of four books and innumerable magazine stories that have appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine and Sports Illustrated among others.
She has written about life in the Ozark hills surrounding her home, beekeeping, Greer Spring, pies, Michigan Elvis sightings and a feature about the tabloid editors who broke the story of five U.S. senators who are really space aliens. In her 1993 book, Broadsides from the Other Orders, A Book of Bugs, Hubbell serves as ambassador from the world of bugs to ours.
Peculiar? Maybe, but beside the point. She is relentlessly curious, an elegant, profound writer, who takes us thankfully away from the uniformity and predictability of everyday life.
"To me," she writes in Broadsides, "the astounding thing is that for the past 20 years, ...I've been able to talk editors into letting me go around asking that question - What are they (he, you, she) up to? - and make a living out of it. It seems presumptuous, and it has been so much fun that I am afraid one day a grown-up will come along and put an end to it."
Twenty-five years ago, Sue Hubbell was a librarian at Brown University and active in the anti-war movement. She and her husband at the time, Paul Hubbell, head of the biomedical engineering program at the University of Rhode Island, grew weary from the fight.
"It really seemed like the government was out of control, and with both our salaries we were making a fair amount of money and we were 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.