Queen Bee

A Book of Bees…and How to Keep Them

by Sue Hubbell
Random House, 193 pp., $17.95

A Country Year: Living the Questions

by Sue Hubbell
Harper and Row, 221 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Sue Hubbell is an escaped intellectual, exlibrarian, ex-wife, a woman who didn’t discover her true vocation until, on the threshold of middle age, she moved to the Missouri Ozarks and took up beekeeping. At first no more than a way to earn a rather precarious living in a country she had loved at sight, this “unruly, benign kind of agriculture” quickly became an occupation “with such a wild, anarchistic, raffish appeal that it unsuits me for any other, except possibly robbing banks.”

Or, she might have added, writing books to which the same adjectives apply. It is probably always a mistake to call someone a natural writer. I doubt if there is such a thing. But a happy conjunction between a subject and a person uniquely qualified to write about it does occasionally occur, and Hubbell’s flight from the groves of academe to the idyllic landscape of the Ozarks (a Garden of Eden, according to her, complete with serpent, or rather serpents—a number of which slither in and out of her tale) was such a circumstance. Her quirky sensibility did the rest. In a postscript to her first book, A Country Year, a sort of loose-leaf journal of life on her mountaintop, she explains that her original motive was simply to find out what she was doing there: how to interpret an existence that in a felicitous comparison she describes as “a little like minimalist music. Each day resembled the one preceding it; the steps were barely noticeable, but the end was different from the beginning. I had made a record of changes I had thought too subtle for me to have noticed until I started writing.”

This of course isn’t an unfamiliar story. Self-imposed isolation in country only partly tamed, among people who if not actually “natives” are drastically unlike oneself, is a well-known incubator of the literary urge; and it may be that A Country Year together with its sequel, A Book of Bees, which covers much of the same territory in a more specialized way, will have exhausted what Hubbell has to say. No matter. I believe that books like these have a particular value at this stage of a tragedy that she, at first glance, appears to have evaded. In fact, the opposite may be true. Living as she does in close touch with nature she is more vulnerable than the city dweller to the forces—the developers, the would-be dam-builders, the spreaders of pesticides, the casual killers of animals—that will almost certainly destroy our world, and in fairly short order. Even her beekeeping is threatened by that now familiar form of economic ruin: foreign competition. Cheaper honey than we can produce comes from South America (made by those “killer bees” we hear so much about?), and she foresees the day when her three hundred hives will no longer support themselves—or her. “But after keeping bees, whatever will I do?” she asks in an uncharacteristic wail of despair. What indeed …

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