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A COUNTRY YEAR: LIVING THE QUESTIONS by Sue Hubbell (Random House: $17.95; 206 pp.)

April 13, 1986|Doris Betts | Betts is an English professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; her most recent novel is "Heading West" (Knopf). and

Sue Hubbell, daughter of a botanist, a former librarian at Brown University, has been living for the last 12 years on 100 acres in the southern Missouri Ozarks, mostly alone. She was 47 when her husband all at once quit the farm, the beekeeping business and their 30-year marriage. Shock kept her for three years "out to lunch"; then, at 50, she began gaining from the Latin binomials of Linnaeus some order over at least the chaos of her surrounding vegetable world. Physical struggle to earn a living off 18 million bees redirected her energy. Eventually, Nature itself completed her healing.

These essays, written from one spring to the next, not only testify to her wholeness but extend it to all who have learned from Nature the serenity echoed in the book's epigraph from Rilke: " . . . Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." You would not be able to live the answers, Rilke says in his letters to a young poet, so live the questions now, fully.

Hubbell's journal of life between a swift river and a rocky creek with trips in her 1954 pickup truck to check 300 hives of bees on other farms is a record of mysteries questioned, then embraced. Hens, tree frogs, coyotes, bobcats, indigo buntings and bee swarms instruct her in a far wilder Walden than Thoreau's, with winter roads often impassable. Though her interest is in the long issues of life and death, this woman, who not only shingles a roof but first makes her own shingles, is a natural and unself-conscious feminist.

Here is a sample from her second set of springtime entries:

" . . . There are so many of us (older women) that it is tempting to think of us as a class. We are past our reproductive years. Men don't want us; they prefer younger women. It makes good biological sense for males to be attracted to females who are at an earlier point in their breeding years and who still want to build nests, and if that leaves us no longer able to lose ourselves in the pleasures and closeness of pairing, well, we have gained ourselves. . . . We have Time, or at least the awareness of it. We have lived long enough and seen enough to understand in a more than intellectual way that we will die, and so we have learned to live as though we are mortal, making our decisions with care and thought because we will not be able to make them again."

Most of the essays are a calm, clear-eyed record of a country year and its beauties, but the eyes which admire are always those of a woman who has seen half a century of human as well as animal life. Less bookish than Annie Dillard, more pragmatic than Thoreau, she ends the year with no more anger toward her husband than toward the brown recluse spider that bit her and went on its way.

Like a pane of glass, her prose reveals without distortion or sentimentality.

My farm is in the South; I'm 53; my bees have recently swarmed; and it's foaling season here. Sue Hubbell knows all these experiences, and how to live the questions at their heart.

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