When I think of Sue Hubbell, I like to think of her with a chain saw in her hands.
To be fair, that’s not the way I first imagined her. Largely due to a photo on the jacket cover of her book “Far-Flung Hubbell,” I pictured Hubbell as a smoky-voiced, hard-living, hardcore writer.
So wrong. Hardcore writer, yes. But Hubbell is much more of a chain-saw kind of woman.
And there’s more, too. Hubbell likes bugs and squishy things. Earthworms, katydids, sea sponges. You name it; she digs it. Literally.
As in, she goes into the field — or up in the trees or under the water, whatever the case — to examine her subjects. She talks to the experts, then writes about the species she has met. Her books, “A Book of Bees,” “A Country Year: Living the Questions,” “On This Hilltop” and “Broadsides From the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs” are, respectively, about bees, bees, a honey farm and bugs. Her new book, “Waiting for Aphrodite,” which Houghton-Mifflin will release next spring, is about invertebrates.
To be fair again, Hubbell has also written about pie joints across America, a toothpick factory, a mustard company, an annual magicians meeting, the National Bowling Hall of Fame, truck stops and the National Enquirer. She has written for the New Yorker, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
When all that is done, when Hubbell’s old Olivetti typewriter, on which she does her writing, is silent and words won’t do it anymore, that’s when the chain saw might show up. For summers at a time, Hubbell has been known to grab the machine and clear some land — whether in her former home in the Ozarks in Missouri, or in her current home, a mango-and-red-colored ranch on Turner Hill overlooking the Narraguagus River in Milbridge.
Hubbell is rugged all right. You’d have to be to snorkel, tree hop, bee keep and shingle a building for under five bucks. But she moved to Maine to settle into a kinder life. Now she lives here seven or eight months of the year and the rest of the time in Washington, D.C.
“One of the reasons I want to move to a place like this is my age,” she told me one day in July when we were sitting on her sun porch. “Both my husband and I spent a lot of time recently dealing with aging and dying relatives. We’re just at that point in our lives. I’m 63 and I’m not quite there yet but I’m going to get there. It’s inexorable. There are good ways and bad ways. I’ll be able to grow stupid and stay independent here quite a while. I think this is a good sort of place to do that in.”
Don’t for a second think Hubbell is being morose. If anything, she is as practical as the scientists she interviews and as poetic as the projects she shapes each day at the keyboard. (Indeed, she’s fond of saying: “I tell people I write biology for English majors.”) She hasn’t moved to Maine to retire; she has moved to Maine to live, and live well. There is a sense of community that interests this dauntless woman who works with icky creatures.
“I just enjoying chatting with her,” said Morna Bell, librarian at the Milbridge Public Library, where Hubbell volunteers her time and also runs a reading program for children. On Sept. 18, Hubbell is the guest speaker for a library fund-raiser at the Milbridge Congregational Church. Usually, she turns out a good-size crowd. Her work appeals to no-nonsense Mainers.
“She’s a wealth of information,” Bell continued. “I rely a lot on her resources, and she has been a loyal supporter of the library. I find her very spiritual, especially in her books. I found her connection to nature down to earth, philosophical and uplifting.”
Bell agreed that Hubbell is the type of person you like to see move into the neighborhood. Not long ago, when a town park was being revitalized, Hubbell was instrumental in conserving some of the land around the spot. She didn’t come on in any chain-saw manner. That’s not really her style. Whether she’s acting as reporter or conservationist, Hubbell has a subtle way of getting the job done.
“She doesn’t come on vocally,” said Bell. “She has a quiet way about her. She goes behind the scenes and looks into the matter.”
Hubbell was born during the Depression in Kalamazoo, Mich. She is the daughter of a botanist turned landscape architect turned park superintendent during the Works Progress Administration project. Her father also wrote a syndicated landscape gardening catalog for newspapers. Hubbell’s grandmother, who was interested in science and would point out the natural world to her granddaughter, lived with the family, including Hubbell’s brother, Bill Gilbert, who is also a writer.
Both her grandmother and father helped form her early interest in the details of the physical world. And writing always figured into the scene.
“It’s the kind of family that, when you’re broke, you write something,” said Hubbell, who writes in the morning usually.
Such invincibility, mixed with conviction and enterprise, earned Hubbell and her first husband just slightly more than a cup of coffee in the old days, when they were radicalized politically, became hippies, left school and traveled for a year with two Irish setters in a red Volkswagen bus. They were protesting the Vietnam War and exploring the country. Eventually, they bought the farm in Missouri, raised a son, divorced and started new lives separately. Hubbell was 50 by then. She had a college degree in journalism and had been a librarian. Unexpectedly, she was faced with making her own way and with several thousand acres to care for.
That’s where the chain saw came in. And the writing. Hubbell had the mighty task of caring for her property, which she did largely on her own and so had to rely on power tools, a woman’s key to matching the physical strength and ability of men. She also began writing columns for the St. Louis Post Dispatch about life in the Ozarks. She quickly moved on to magazine pieces and then to books. While writing her first book, she reshingled a barn. During the second book, she reshingled a house. Her neighbors, watching her daily ritual with the chain saw, said: “Lordy, Sue, when you do a third book, what are you going to shingle, your pickup?”
As with many women who divorce in their 50s, Hubbell found herself alone and in need of the stability, security and surety that a good marriage can provide.
“I came from a very boring cohort,” said Hubbell with typical cleverness, humor and candor. “I was born in 1935, which has a very low birthrate. There aren’t many of us. The ’40s was a licentious era — there was the war and you met a serviceman and you might never see him again so you spent the night together. Well, my generation didn’t do that. We were desperately good and desperately boring people. The ’60s came along and everyone was much freer about relationships. But we came up in a puritanical time. … We had fathers and then we had husbands.”
But there was Hubbell without either.
“I remember sitting for three days after I filed for divorce,” said Hubbell. “I realized for the first time in my life that I wasn’t going to be responsible for anybody but myself. I had choices. And it wasn’t up to anyone else. It was my decision. It was the first time. It was autonomy. I don’t even want to dignify it with the word freedom. … Looking back at it now, I know that those were very hard years but they were the best years of my life.”
That’s not to say things aren’t good for Hubbell now. She’s at a plateau in her life. She diligently works for a living, is happily married to an old college boyfriend and lives near her son Brian and his family in Cherryfield. Her writing, which falls nicely into the American naturalist tradition started by Thoreau, is respected and admired by writers and readers alike.
“She has a wonderful style,” said Harry Foster, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin’s Boston office and a neighbor in Milbridge. “She’s very popular — more in the sense that her books have long lives, not in the sense of being overnight blockbusters. She gets some of the most impressive and enthusiastic reviews across the spectrum. Her work is accessible without any sense of talking down to a reader or oversimplifying things.”
Many science writers deal with complicated topics by taking out the hard stuff, Foster explained. By doing so, they often eliminate the interesting details, too.
“She keeps the interesting stuff in and presents it in a way everyone can understand,” he added. “Her curiosity arouses the reader’s curiosity.”
Between books, Hubbell is working on projects for magazines. She’s also a reader and the last time we spoke, she was researching radical women writers from the 1930s. But she’s also taking care of the house, the land, the pets birds and trees on her property in Maine. She’ll head back to D.C. in the middle of winter to be with her husband, who works for the International Committee for the Red Cross. Then back to Maine for spring, when the birds sing again and all the little creepy-crawlies come out.
“I’ve had a more interesting life every year,” Hubbell said as she walked me out of her house. “It will probably come to a point when the hard business of age begins. But right now, I am reasonably healthy and I can still run a chain saw.”