When I was in my late twenties, I picked up a book that set the course for the rest of my life. It was a rainy day in Seattle — so there is no telling what time of year it was — and I was wandering around the University Book Store waiting for a friend who hadn’t arrived yet, but there were tables full of books to look through, so I was content. A cover caught my eye. It was a water color painting of a small cabin in the mountains. The colors suggested fall at dawn or twilight, and there was smoke coming from the chimney. The title was A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell.
This book appealed to me, not only because of the idyllic, pastoral scene on the cover, but because of the reference to Rilke. I had just finished reading Letters to a Young Poet at a friend’s suggestion, and here was that classic quotation
. . . Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . . Do not . . . seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will . . . gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
RAINER MARIA RILKE, Letters to a Young Poet, Letter No. 4. Translated by M.D. Herter. Norton, 1934, 1935.
The sense of synchronicity hooked me and I bought the book. I don’t remember anything else about that day — not who I was meeting or where we went — but the book became a beloved companion through the next thirty-some years. In it Hubbell describes her experiences of moving to the Ozarks with her husband, Paul, getting divorced, and putting her life back together, all interspersed with meticulous observations of the plants and animals that shared her land.
As the title suggests, A Country Year is organized around the seasons. It begins and ends in spring, that season of hope and fresh beginnings. From the “three big windows that go from floor to ceiling. . .” Hubbell watches the natural world around her. The windows were a gift from her husband before he left the farm and honey business they had started together for another life. Hubbell was left there alone to figure out how to get along.
She had some assets: 90 acres with a cabin and outbuildings, various tools, a honey business, and a cantankerous old Chevy truck she called Press on Regardless. Over the next twelve years she decided what she would let go and what she would focus on. The first thing she let go was gardening and food preservation, deciding that it was really more economical to buy supplies than to spend the time and effort involved in growing and canning her own. That felt like anathema to me when I read it years ago, but now it makes much more sense.
She had to figure out how to fix things, such as her barn roof and the truck, which was her only mode of transportation for herself and the honey she sold throughout the south. She asked people to teach her how to do these things, and for the most part they did. There is no rush quite like the one you get when you have repaired something yourself rather than paid someone else to do it, and that’s a good thing because most of the time, she couldn’t afford to pay someone to do things for her and neither could I.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read A Country Year, but I revisited it often in my thirties and forties. Over the years, I’ve had my own Hubbellesque experiences: the time one of my cats brought a limp garter snake into the kitchen, and I put it out under the grape vines only to find it on my sidewalk that evening as if it returned to say “thank you”; an afternoon of blackberry picking when I negotiated a deal with bald-faced hornets, so I could pick in a particularly lush spot located directly underneath their nest; and a day when I was feeling particularly depressed and was rummaging through storage items in what would become my future home, and a sun beam fell on a bicycle reflector creating a giant rainbow on the wall behind me. I came to think of these as quiet miracles.
My favorite of these moments of amazement in everyday life was a time when my older daughter and I went out to the barn to milk the goats one winter evening. We turned on the lights to discovered an opossum about to grab one of the chickens by the neck. It froze and I scooped it up and tossed it into a nearby cat carrier. We finished chores and then drove it to a wooded area several miles away. I opened the carrier and dumped the little creature into the snow as gently as I could, but it landed in a floppy heap.
Linnea started to cry and said, “You killed it!” I assured her as soon as we got back in the truck and drove off, the opossum would be on its feet and looking for something else to eat. She, however, was not buying it, so when we got home, I got out Hubbell’s book and read her the chapter that describes an encounter with an opossum. Hubbell is sure her dogs have killed it and goes back to the barn to get a shovel to bury it, all the while berating herself for letting her dogs attack a wild creature. When she gets back to the spot where the opossum was, it is gone. It had, indeed, played ‘possum.
Like Hubbell, I, too, had to figure out how to get along without a partner, how to support my family, and to muster the courage to tackle projects. The car repairs were beyond me. Her 1954 Chevy was made to be repaired, unlike today’s computerized vehicles. The other thing I was unwilling to tackle was cutting wood with a chainsaw, until recently. Hubbell describes summer days in the woods, in the cool of the early morning, cutting the wood that she needed to heat her cabin throughout the winter. I wanted to cut my own wood but I couldn’t quite get up the courage.
My younger daughter Emily had an accident when she was in preschool and I had to take her to the emergency room. While we were waiting for the doctor to come stitch a cut on her forehead, a man walked past the room. He was holding a blood-soaked towel to his face and I heard his friend say, “His chainsaw kicked back and hit him on the nose.” I thought of that scene every time I tried to use a chainsaw. I still do, but I have learned to use one nevertheless.
My friend, Jaeme, is the one who finally taught me to use a chainsaw. She has an electric model that is light-weight and easy to control. It is actually a joy to use, and I plan to get a rechargeable version for myself when I can afford it. Like all power tools, I treat it with respect, but it felt like the last step somehow, like my journey with Sue Hubbell was complete.
Hubbell was also the first author I encountered who wrote about the invisibility of women over fifty. It feels very different reading about this in your twenties and thirties as opposed to later middle age when it starts to happen to you. I turned sixty recently and I thought about the fact that I am now older than Hubbell was when she wrote the book that has been my guiding star, consciously or not. I confess that I’ve felt a bit adrift for the last few months, as if I had reached the end of the road and everything ahead of me from here on out is uncharted territory.
I am not afraid of striking out on my own. I plan to travel as much as I can over the next ten to fifteen years or so. What has been concerning me is the end of the story. I very much do not want to be warehoused in a nursing home at the end of my life. I want to make an informed decision as to what will happen to me, and my difficulty has been where to draw the line for myself.
I knew that Hubbell had written other books; I read her book on beekeeping. I decided to google her and see what else I could find, and was somewhat dismayed to discovered that she had died in October 2018. She was eighty-three, which is a pretty good run, but it was still a bit of a shock. As I read through her New York Times obituary describing her extraordinary-ordinary life, she came through for me. Sue Hubbell has once again provided me with a road map.
In the Times obituary, Neil Genzlinger says, “Ms. Hubbell’s final months, in a way, showed the independence and self-reliance she had often expressed in her writing.
“In early August of this year, searchers found her disoriented in the woods some 14 hours after she had wandered away from her home in Milbridge, Me.
“After that she moved in with her son.
“ ‘Sue decided that she strongly wished not to descend into dementia under indefinite institutional care,’ Brian Hubbell said by email. ‘So, on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 9, she ate her last grapefruit and informed her friends and doctor that she intended to stop eating and drinking. She stuck to her plan and died 34 days later, increasingly lucid through the last few days.’
“In her final conversations with him, he added, she said she considered the ending to her life that she had orchestrated ‘a triumph’.”
A triumph, indeed. A woman who lived a life of self-reliance chose a dignified death, and the quote that opens her book proves true: “. . .
And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will . . . gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I will do my best, Sue.