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Harlan Hubbard - painter, writer, agrarian homesteader

I found Harland Hubbard in an article in the National Geographic in the early 1960s. He and his wife, Anna, were what was called at that time modern homesteaders who had first become well-known for building their own shantyboat and floating down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to bayou country, a trip that lasted over a year. Now they lived on the banks of the Ohio in a house they had built themselves, mostly out of lumber cut from their own woodland or snagged as it floated by on the river. They did not have electricity. They cut their own wood for fuel. They raised all their food, or caught it from the river, or traded for it with neighbors. The only steady income they had was rent from a house Harlan had built in town in younger years. Their life was both rigorous and elegant. Harlan made some money from his paintings and his books. The couple provided their own entertainment: nature watching, reading, and music.

For a while, I talked about living the same way, causing Carol’s parents some consternation. In their first years of marriage, they had lived much like the Hubbards but viewed with alarm the idea that their daughter and grandchildren might have to do likewise. I was reminded, more than once, that, unlike the Hubbards, I had children to raise. So I went to Philadelphia, accepted the manacles of financial security, and forgot about the Hubbards.

Fourteen years later, Wendell Berry introduced me to the Hubbards. They lived only a few miles from his farm. Wendell and I were both writing for the Rodale Press, whose publications were seeing a dramatic rise in circulation. This was the golden age of Organic Gardening magazine. Literally millions of people were subscribing to it because they had gotten the audacious notion that they wanted more control over their lives. The magazine was suggesting ways to gain that control. Like the Hubbards, these readers thought that they wanted to go where they could own a little land free and clear, live more healthfully, more at nature’s pace than the nine-to-five regime, produce their own food, do for themselves what they had been paying others to do for them, and make enough money at some small business or craft to get by. In other words, they were motivated by the same kind of idealism that had influenced the early pioneers. They were agrarians. They found in the publications of the Rodale Press the kind of information they were looking for.

It was in this heady atmosphere of hope that, at Wendell’s suggestion, I was assigned to write an article about Harlan and Anna Hubbard. I remembered them from the National Geographic article and accepted the assignment eagerly.

It was impossible to drive to the Hubbards’ house, near Milton, Kentucky. There was no road to it. I either had to walk for more than a mile through the woods or had to boat over the Ohio from the Indiana side. Tanya Berry was my guide—I doubt that I could have found the house on my own. We walked through real Daniel Boone-type country with only a rough old lane to follow. Finally, we could see the river through the trees. We came to a little barn-like structure, Harlan’s studio and workshop, and then followed a path to the house. My heart was pounding. I had read Harlan Hubbard’s books, Payne Hollow and Shantyboat, as one would read about a pleasant dream fulfilled: two people who had managed to shuck the captivating technological inanities of our time in favor of life on their own terms. But, ever cynical, I feared that there would be a wide gap between the books and the reality. I feared that, instead of self-reliant homesteaders, I would find two darlings of the richer classes playing a game or, even worse, two visionaries living in squalor and disarray.

What I found was order and discipline, and the reward of order and discipline, just as Harlan’s books portrayed: an easy grace and serenity of life that was not at all easy or simple to achieve. “I really wouldn’t know what to do with electricity,” Anna answered my first question. “I’ve learned how to manage without it. I don’t need it. I even doubt it would make my life any easier.”

The Hubbards were a good example of what contrary Organic Gardening readers wanted to know about. The couple cooked with wood heat, washed clothes by hand on a scrub board (both helping), raised and preserved all their own food, had no indoor bathroom, no television, radio, or telephone. But, though living what seemed to be a circumscribed life, they possessed a rare combination of vigorous intellectual creativity and skilled, practical know-how: they were people who could think with their hands as well as with their minds and who therefore lived a philosophy rooted in the solid earth, not one flying in the winds of the briefcase world. The Hubbards did not say: Here is what should be done. Rather, they said: Here is what we do.

If I had approached the Hubbard homestead from the river landing, which was the way the Hubbards first came to Payne Hollow in the 1950s, I would, during high water, have set foot on land at the gate of the lower gardens. This plot Harlan reserved for the late garden, planted after the spring flood danger had passed. To the left, on a higher shelf, lay the early garden. In early April, peas and other vegetables were already up. The gooseberry patch on one side was leafing out; rhubarb and comfrey flanked the other side. Anna had already cut some for the table. Next to the rhubarb grew a patch of daylilies. “New daylily shoots are delicious,” Harlan said. “There is plenty to eat, even this early in the year.” He gestured toward the larkspur-purpled hillsides. He dug a Jerusalem artichoke and cut off a slice to show how crisp and sweet it was before warm weather caused it to start growing fast. “Later on, we’ll gather nettles,” he said. “Cream of nettles soup is a favorite of mine.”

A raspberry patch grew below the early garden, the brambles tied to a trellis of discarded water pipe that Harlan had found. Blackberries he gathered from his sixty acres of woods. “The wild ones are much tastier than tame blackberries,” he said. Elderberries came from the woods too. Anna used them with rhubarb, the blandness of the berries offsetting the tartness of the rhubarb. “Gooseberries and rhubarb are great together for the same reason,” said Harlan.

Nothing was wasted on the Hubbard homestead. The gardens were totally organic. Every scrap of waste, manure from their goats and from the privy compost, legumes, green manures, all were returned to the soil, more boon than bother. “The goats relish a patch of weeds as much as any pasture. Weeds make satisfactory hay too.” In front of the goat barn, Harlan had sunk into the ground two fifty-five-gallon drums fitted out with slanted tops and screened side portals to keep out water and mice but still allow for some circulation of air. Here they stored potatoes, beets and other root vegetables for winter use.

Directly up from the gardens, just above the high-water mark of the record 1937 flood, a mark that is kept sacred all along the river, stood the house and, next to it, beside Harlan’s studio and workshop, a shed full of kindling. Harlan called this shed his bank. “If I can’t always keep a supply of wood sawed and split from the woods for day to day use, I’ve got this wood for backup.”

There was a wren’s nest in the privy. I sat there on the toilet staring eye to eye with the mother bird—a little disconcerting for both of us, I think. There was no odor, even of ammonia, coming from the excrement below the toilet seat. A pipe under the seat vented odors through the wall, and all one had to do, between uses, was keep the tight-fitting cover on the toilet hole. “Flushing” amounted to dropping a scoopful of ashes from a bucket down the hole. Twice a week, Harlan lifted the tub below the toilet onto his wheelbarrow and hauled it to the compost heap in the woods. The pile kept moving as he used finished compost from one end while adding new manure to the other. Before he replaced the tub under the toilet, he added a layer of finished compost in it. “Bacteria will begin the composting process quicker than would otherwise be the case.”

The house was a study in artful craftsmanship. Every stone, every log, every rough-sawn board was fitted in place one at a time—the materials dictating the form of the house almost as much as the form dictated the materials. “The reason the ceiling joists are sapling sycamore is because those were the straightest logs in the woods,” said Harlan. Part of the wall was paneled with rough-sawn walnut, and, when he ran out of walnut, Harlan did the rest in cherry. The circular saw marks remained in the wood rather than having been planed away, the overall textural effect unexpectedly pleasing to the eye. Between the two layers of rough-sawn boards that made up the walls, the Hubbards used construction paper for insulation. Wide sycamore boards covered the floor. Sycamore grain did not raise much or splinter easily, and sycamores can grow to enormous size, easily living for three hundred years. Humans have actually lived in huge, hollow sycamores, the perfect transubstantiation of silviculture into art.

The house was small, modeled on the shantyboat of earlier days. Beds folded up behind shelves, stair steps opened to reveal storage chests, chairs fitted over each other like nesting boxes so that they could be stacked out of the way between meals; even the sink slid back into the wall like a drawer.

The woodstove cuddled up beside the fireplace, and both were used for food preparation, to heat water, and of course to warm the room. In the cellar, Harlan had also installed a homemade furnace with a flat top so that it could double as a shelf. Beside the furnace rows of other shelves groaned with jars of food that Anna had put up. In a cool corner, the fresh goat milk sat in jars in a shallow pan of cool water with a moist cloth over the jars. “The milk will stay cool for several days this way,” said Anna. “With daily milking we have no problem keeping fresh sweet milk on hand.” Surplus milk they made into cheese and yogurt.

Much of the work of subsistence the two homesteaders did together. “Harlan always helps with the canning and the laundry, which makes those chores much easier,” said Anna. “When I can goat meat and soup bone stock, he always cuts the meat off the bones, and that’s the hardest part of the job.”

Harlan’s first task in the morning before going to the barn was to set his breakfast food mixture of ground wheat and soybeans over the fire in the cast iron Dutch oven converted into a double boiler. “It is ready in an hour but can sit there simmering all day,” says Anna. “You don’t  have to bother with it much.”

In the summer, Harlan’s main work was the garden and other food-production chores. The trotline in the river had to be tended, the fish removed, the hooks rebaited. Fish were a principal source of protein for the Hubbards. In the winter, there was wood to cut and split, all done with hand tools. “Last winter, with the terribly cold weather, I had to keep at it pretty constantly,” Harlan said.

The Hubbards even made some of their own garments. Anna darned warm long socks and mittens to wear inside leather chopper’s mitts. These mitts Harland made himself out of scraps of leather. He also made sandals. His favorite winter garment was a goatskin vest made from a skin that he had tanned.

The river, always there on the edge of the mind, like a loved one to the lover, gave them more than just fish. “You never know what is going to float up next,” Harlan said, “and it is fun to see what you can scrounge.” A good portion of the wood that they burned, or that had found its way into their buildings, came from the river. More steel barrels floated by than Harlan could use. But the best prize so far was a huge roll of paper, so tightly wound that water had not soaked into it except at the edges. The Hubbards had used the paper for years, for everything from stationary to shelf covers. With some gaily colored nylon strand from a flotsam rope, Harlan fashioned curtain shades from strips of paper that resembled bamboo blinds and were every bit as attractive.

The Hubbards preferred hand labor over motors. Once, Harlan installed a gasoline-powered pump to lift water from the cistern to a tank farther up the hill so that, following gravity, the water could flow into the house. “I got rid of it,” he said. (He mentioned the motor in Payne Hollow, written three years earlier, but not that he quit using it). “The motor was noisy. Too jarring. Totally out of place here. I found my peace of mind shattered because I was worrying about the motor. I found that I could carry the water by hand to the tank with just a few minutes’ work every day.” He fashioned a wooden yoke like the pioneers had used to fit over his shoulders. With a bucket hung from each end of the yoke, filled from a dip bucket lowered into the cistern, he methodically walked the water to the tank.

Watching him dip and carry the water, I was struck by the economy of motion and energy he put into the task. I noticed the same smooth flow of muscle motion when he hoed, when he cranked the handle of the grain mill, when he pushed the wheelbarrow. There were no hard, jerky movements, no flailing away needlessly. His strong, supple body moved in cadence with the laws of leverage and of gravity. His hoe sank into the rich organic soil as if drawn down by some unseen force in the ground. He seemed only to rock backward as the hoe sank, his weight pulling it toward him, turning over crumbly dirt as fast as any garden tiller could. He in fact disdained mechanical tillers. Grinding meal, his body seemed to coil and then uncoil around the crank like a spring while the meal streamed steadily from the burrs. It occurred to me that herein lay the secret of enjoying physical work. Knowing how to use the laws of gravity and leverage, and being in condition. Mastery brought not dull strain but the same satisfaction that a ballplayer derives from a perfect hook slide into second base.

The Hubbards exhibited none of the reluctance toward hard manual toil that so many writers perceive hanging over agrarian life. Toil they accepted as the reward of the body’s natural grace and desire for exercise. They never forced their bodies to compete with machines. Manual labor became art.

As Harlan cranked away, grinding his breakfast wheat, I questioned him sharply about this. “Physical labor is not of itself repugnant,” he said. “Too much physical labor is repugnant. A moderate amount is fun. That’s why people who think they have escaped hard labor turn to jogging or some such waste of energy that is actually more tedious than farmwork. I think also that doing hard physical labor for someone else does become tedious. Doing the bidding of someone else is distasteful, whether the work is physically straining or not. The body wants to work but not as someone else’s slave. My work is pleasant and satisfying.”

He stated his work philosophy more gracefully in Payne Hollow.

I try to conceive a life of more leisure, a condition which men have ever been trying to achieve by various means—by forcing slaves or captives in war to do their menial work, or by letting it devolve upon womenfolk, or by hiring servants and nowadays by innumerable machines and gadgets. This last solution allows everyone to play the master, but it is well known that machines are on the way to become masters of man.

…We… get all our living by as direct means as possible, that we may be self-sufficient and avoid contributing to the ruthless mechanical system that is destroying the earth.

In this endeavor, no sacrifice is called for, no struggle or effort of will. Such a way is natural. Rather than hardship, it brings peace and inner rewards beyond measure.

One of the main rewards that Harlan and Anna’s lifestyle brought them was more time to spend at pursuits other than livelihood work, the kind of time that all of us were supposed to be trying frantically to find. Seemingly out of place in the small house stood a grand piano, which Anna played often. Harlan accompanied her on the violin. Both read much and widely, often aloud to each other in German and French as well as English. Once a month they rowed across the river to Madison, Indiana, for the few essentials that they could not produce themselves and to exchange books at the library. Nature-watching, especially bird-watching, was an amusement always available just by looking out the window.

Dining at the Hubbards was an elegant affair despite the lack of electrical refrigeration and other modern amenities. The dinner that Anna served started out with a salad of sliced, fresh Jerusalem artichokes, fresh violets, including the blossoms, parsley, new Bibb lettuce from the cold frame, comfrey, plus several other greens that I did not recognize, all sprinkled over with crumbled black walnut meats. The soup was from stock canned three years previously. It possessed superb flavor. The main dish was smoked goat meat, shredded and creamed, flanked by asparagus. The heavy, moist homemade bread consisted of whole wheat flour and soybean flour in equal portions. We drank goat’s milk as sweet as any milk I had ever tasted, and later, herb tea. Anna made tea from comfrey, spice bush, stinging nettle, sassafras, pennyroyal, and parsley.

A constant stream of visitors arrived at their solitary home. In fact, the Hubbards often wished they were not so popular. “People seem to think we have nothing to do,” Harlan said wryly. But he turned no one away. “We’re not here to put on a show,” he said, “but if we can demonstrate how our way of life is practically attainable, we feel it will be worth the effort.”

All this work and play took place as a background to Harlan’s writing and painting. While he was grinding wheat and we were alone in his workshop, I asked him why he didn’t write a book telling people in minute detail how he and Anna managed their daily lives. He smiled. “Most people don’t really want to know that much detail about anything. What I would write would be too tedious for them. No publisher would publish it.” He turned the crank on the grinder a few more times, then stopped and stared out the window. “It would be like trying to teach someone how to paint a picture. There are certain obvious things that might be pointed out, but you can’t teach someone to be an artist. It is something that can’t be taught.”

A few more cranks, and the last of the wheat spilled out as flour into a bowl. “Teaching is overemphasized in our society,” he continued. “Learning is the thing. Teaching doesn’t automatically result in learning. Learning requires love and desire, and when you have that, anything and everybody is a teacher.”

“Would you say that your whole life here is a work of art?”

“I see it that way. I am doing art whether I am chopping wood or painting a picture or writing a book or making a pair of sandals.”

“Can you imagine living this way without painting or writing?”

He looked at me curiously. “I never asked myself that. I just sort of always wanted to paint and write, just like I always wanted to canoe the river or have a garden. I used to think there was a kind of pride involved, that I wanted to paint something others would appreciate. I like it when someone buys a painting. The money can be useful, but, more than that, it’s a way you know the person really likes the painting.”

He paused again, then asked, shyly: “Would you like to see some paintings?”

“Oh yes.” I had refrained from asking, not wanting to cross what might be a fine line of privacy.

We went into the studio. There were no paintings hanging up—there was hardly enough space to allow that. Most of the wall space was taken up by the north window. But there were canvases, or, rather, masonites, leaning against the wall. Harlan turned them one at a time to my gaze. They were mostly paintings of steamboats. I had not been prepared for that. To my mind steamboats were alien to his life. Why steamboats? I wondered.

He proceeded to tell me. Payne Hollow, this very place where he lived, had once been a regular steamboat packet stop. The whole farming country along the river for miles and miles depended as much on small steamboats and the river for transportation and trade as it did on horses and roads! “Farm families often built their own little boats the same as they would build wagons,” Harlan pointed out matter-of-factly. “Wives would go down to the landing and take a boat to town about like taking a taxi today. The packets responded to every hail from shore.” He smiled. “A favorite story is that a farmer once hailed a steamboat to get change for a fifty-cent piece.”

Painting steamboats, Harlan was painting his place! Steamboats had once been part of the agrarian lifestyle along navigable rivers. I was reminded of the Wyeth family’s island sheep off the coast of Maine grazing on seaweed. Steamboat farmers and sheep grazing the ocean floor! This deep kind of knowledge was at the basis of real art. I had a hunch that Jamie Wyeth lovingly painted those island sheep (Portrait of a Lady [1968]) knowing that the sheep were partial to seaweed. I had a similar hunch that Harlan lovingly painted steamboats knowing that there had been a time when a packet had stopped at Payne Hollow to give a farmer change for fifty cents.

It was not until some years later that I had a chance to see a good selection of Harlan’s paintings, at Hanover College, and then I was embarrassed, remembering how ignorant I had been when I visited Payne Hollow. I did not yet know about his early (1930-40) landscapes of Kentucky hill farms, like Campbell County Hill Farm (1933), which captivated me. Those landscapes seem to have sprung onto the canvas suddenly, ingenuously, like the way a morel mushroom seems suddenly to appear on the forest floor where the hunter has just looked seconds earlier. I thought the farm scenes looked exactly the way they would look to someone who saw them every day without actually looking at them, the way a child living there would see them. In his journals, Harlan talked about the paintings in somewhat the same way. While possessing a certain stylistic or impressionistic character, the paintings looked real and fresh, with people at work or passing through the scenes almost incidentally. They were everyday kind of paintings, the kind of everydayness that a person loves in an old shoe that fits comfortably, the kind of everydayness that only intimate knowledge can convey. Harlan once described the effect he was trying to achieve in one of his journal entries: “I am concerned with two aspects—one a representation of what I see, working in three dimensions, in light and air molding with my hands, almost, a bit of the earth’s surface. The other is abstract, a pattern of color and line, whose relation to the pictorial I am not sure of. Above these two, making a trinity, is the guiding force: in me perhaps a love of what I see, and what I feel when observing the landscape.”

Since Harlan was equally adept at both writing and painting, I asked him how the two kinds of art were different and how they were alike. He didn’t answer right away. But finally: “The mental state I suppose is the same for all art, at least when you start out. There’s a sort of sudden coming together of idea and object, of mind and matter. Then, as the work enfolds, there is the same problem in both painting and writing—what to leave in or leave out. It took me a long time to write Payne Hollow. It wasn’t like journal entries, which don’t have to be organized and integrated. I often wrote something and then discarded it. That is true in a painting too. The artist is always playing the part of a little god, creating his own world almost. For me, I like to paint sort of quickly, that is, without too much thinking. Thinking can wreck it. But at some point writing becomes a very intellectual activity. Demands a lot of thinking. With painting, well, you have brushes, and colors, and shapes, and the light. Painting is more physical.”

“I guess you could hardly paint a comma and hang it on the wall,” I said. He smiled an nodded.

I remembered a whimsical little poem Harlan had written, a bit of verse about himself at work building a boat and what it might sound like to anyone hearing him from afar:

That pounding seems to come from Payne Hollow
Some think to themselves—
that nail went wrong,
He hit the wood that time.

I found my mind looping back to my conversations with Andrew Wyeth and Wendell Berry—Andy’s insistence on not letting the paint hide the real thing and Wendell’s emphasis on intimate knowledge at the root of art. Only people who knew the intimate details of what they were writing about or reading about—in this case a carpenter at work—could write such perfectly appropriate lines:

that nail went wrong,
He hit the wood that time.

~
See also HarlanHubbard.com
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from The Mother of All Arts
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts

Editorial Notes: I've wanted to learn more about the extraordinary Hubbards. Wendell Berry has written about them in Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work. Their homestead was also featured in the science fiction novel by Judith Moffett: Time, Like an Ever-rolling Stream. -BA

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