Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Sue Hubbell "A Country Year" & Olivia Gentile "Life-List"

“A Country Year” is a small book, but I took my time reading it. It’s a memoir, but also something of a manifesto, about being a woman, going back to the land, paying attention to things most of us deem too small to pay attention to.

Like bees. In her place in the Ozarks Hubbell carved a meager wage out of honeybees – fascinating and sensitive creatures that they are, they sure make a human sweat in order to harvest their honey. Luckily, it’s not a 9 to 5 job. It leaves whole months open to contemplation and meditation: listening to classical music on public radio, reading poetry, taking your time to really observe a small bug or bird.

Through Hubbell’s eyes insects become truly fascinating – and it certainly helps that she comes from a family of entomologists who can answer most of her interrogations. She makes bugs and their habits seem so exotic yet eerily intelligent, that the chapters on her dogs and cat almost make them sound a little dull (ah! Who could have thought it!), compared with the minutely orchestrated hierarchy of honeybee society, or the fascinating abilities of moths.

“A Country Year” is not (only) about insects, of course. At its core, it’s about building a new life and a whole new set of abilities at a time in life when people (and most certainly women) are supposed to be settled down. It’s about being open and sensitive enough to pay attention to the rhythms that surround you: in the Ozarks not only nature, but also people have their own special rhythm. Hubbell respects it, allowing a conversation to run its slow course, or a request to be, eventually, answered.

It struck me as one of those coincidences that the book I read next was “Life-List” by Olivia Gentile. Chronicling the escalating obsession of bird-watcher Phoebe Snetsinger with sighting 8.000 of the world’s recognized bird species; it is somewhat of an almost diametrical opposite of Hubbell’s meditative, soothing book.

Yet there are parallels (the most curious of which, the fact that Snetsinger also owned, for a time, a farm in the Ozarks, of which she quickly grew bored): “Life-List” is also about a middle-aged woman carving a new life for herself, even though the path Phoebe Snetsinger followed could not have been more different.

Diagnosed with cancer in her late forties and given one year to live, Snetsinger decided to live that year to the fullest, engaging in the activity which gave her most pleasure – international bird-watching. When at the end of that year she wasn’t dead (and would soon be in remission) bird-watching travels seem to have taken the form of a talisman, or an antidote, in her mind: it was as if she believed that, while she was on the road adding species to her list, death couldn’t touch her. And for many years, facts seemed to bear her out. Fallen by the wayside were relationships with some of her four children and especially with her estranged husband.

“Life-List” is the sort of biography that begs an opinion: was Snetsinger a selfish woman, obsessed with counting birds to the point shutting her children out? Or was she a woman who, deprived of the intellectual career her mind craved and instead home-bound with four children for most of her adult life, took her death sentence and built a stimulating and exciting life out of it?

An obsessive she certainly was, and probably the worst companion in the world for Hubbell’s down-home country ramblings, which is where I feel drawn to wander myself – however, who could deny that the years following Snetsinger’s cancer diagnose were her happiest? If it’s about building a life, hammer in hand, smashing through other’s preconceived notions of what is “proper” and “normal”, both women deserve recognition.

As far as books go “A Country Year” will certainly be re-read again, while “Life-List” left me with many doubts about the true nature of its subject.


HandH said...

I loved "A Country Year" so much I had to read her book about bees to find out more about her life - "A Book of Bees" is more a technical account of beekeeping, but there are tiny fragments of memoir in the book and it was good to have an update.

Just discovered your blog and now have a huge reading list!

bookworm (inês) said...

Thanks for dropping by!