SI readers know Bil Gilbert. For 20-odd years, his wise, vigorously iconoclastic views of world ecology have brightened these pages. This month the University of Nebraska Press is publishing some of the best of Gilbert's work from SI and other publications in Our Nature ($18.95), a treasure trove for amateur as well as professional environmentalists.
There is another writer in the family—Bil's sister, Sue Hubbell. And oh, my, can this lady write. Bil was the first to appreciate this; it took him quite a while to persuade her to publish the series of brief essays (many of which have already appeared in newspapers and magazines) that make up her first book, Living the Questions, which is being issued this month by Random House ($17.95). While Bil has roamed the globe for his reports, Sue has been living alone in a cabin on 90-some acres in the Missouri Ozarks, a hilly piece of land between a creek and a river. She competes, benignly, for title to this acreage with various snakes, harmless and otherwise, several families of coyotes and opossums, countless deer, birds, bobcats, interesting spiders and, roughly, a million bees. Most of the other critters behave as if they own the land, Hubbell observes, but the bees know they do, probably because they are so largely responsible for keeping it blooming. Hubbell, you see, is in the bee business. She draws honey from some 18 million that dwell in 300 hives—20 on her own property—"scattered across the hills of southern Missouri in outyards on farmers' pastures or at the edge of their woodlots." Hubbell gives each family that has one of those outyards a gallon of honey a year as rent, "but mostly farmers just like having the hives around, for the bees pollinate their fruit and vegetables and the clover in their pastures."
Hubbell is one of a vanishing breed—commercial beekeepers who earn their living gathering, processing and selling honey. Last year she took 33,000 pounds of honey from her bees, leaving them enough for their own needs over the winter. Driving her white three-quarter-ton truck, she sold honey on trips as far as Boston in one direction and Dallas in the other. Because she does all of this single-handedly, Hubbell is a busy lady all year round, but, as these essays show, there is time for reflection and writing. Every so often she distills her observations of one of the natural phenomena around her onto a page or two and squirrels it away in a drawer or other hiding place. Brother Bil came across a few on one of his visits and launched his campaign to let others read them as well.
Only a few of the 41 pieces in the book have to do with bees and honey—they make you wish for more. But then, so do the others. All of them are filled with the wonders and surprise that the diligent, empathetic observer finds in the behavior of wild things. Here is the start of one piece:
April 21, 1986
"I am an early riser, and now that the weather is warm I like to take a cup of coffee out under the oak trees in back of the cabin and get a feel for the kind of day it is going to be. Today the night creatures were still about when I went out there—katydids, whippoorwills, night-flying moths, owls and mosquitoes. By the time I had a sip or two of coffee and my eyes had adjusted well enough to pick out the shapes of the trees, the mosquitoes had discovered me and gathered in an annoying buzz around my head. But before they had a chance to bite, a small furry shape appeared from nowhere. I heard the soft rush of wings beside my ear and the mosquitoes were gone. A few moments of silence. More mosquitoes, and once again a bat swooped in. The arrangement was a pleasant one for both the bat and me. I don't like mosquitoes but the bat does. I served as bait to gather the mosquitoes in one rich spot, and the bat ate them before they bit me.... All this gives me a fine, friendly feeling toward bats. In their way, I suppose, they also approve of me."
Much of the natural world of the Ozarks comes under Hubbell's cognizance in this fashion. One's reaction when finishing many of the essays is likely to be a period of spellbound musing over the unfathomable ways of a wildness so close at hand, an entrancement brought on by the softness and innocence of Hubbell's prose. This is a beautiful book that deserves a wide audience, because it is sure to bring pleasure wherever it is opened.