Each issue of Seeds from Sirius over the next year will contain a very brief sketch of someone who did things their own way, who lived their own iconoclastic life. Last month we looked at the cycle of creation and destruction present in the work of Cincinnati legend and outsider artist, Raymond Thundersky. This month we look at the life of fringe dweller Harlan Hubbard.
(If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
DWELLING ON THE FRINGE THRESHOLD WITH THE HUBBARDS
Harlan Hubbard was an eccentric in that he didn't buy into the games of mainstream society. He was an iconoclast in the way he lived by his own rule. He was an outsider in that he spent a lot of his time outside. He was a fringe dweller in that he made a deliberate choice to live his life in the unsettled margins.
I first heard of Harlan Hubbard in the writings and work of his fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry. The Unsettling of America by Berry had made a great impression on me when I first read it, and I proceeded to work my way through a few volumes of his essays and it was in one of those where Hubbard first appeared. I haven't heard much of Hubbard from other people, and I haven't thought of him much except here and there, so I'm learning about him anew as I write this.
One thing that comes to mind with Hubbard relates to my associations with his name. Harlan brings to mind Harlan County, Kentucky, coal mining territory. That portion of land has been on my mind this year as my wife Audrey and I watched the television show Justified over the winter, and as I started reading the books by Elmore Leonard that the show was based on. Harlan County was where the action took place. I also read a nice little young adult novel, The Empty Places, by Kathy Cannon Wiechman, about growing up a coal miners daughter in eastern Kentucky during the depression.
His last name, Hubbard, brings to mind L. Ron, but luckily for us, Harlan Hubbard has nothing to do with the Church of Scientology.
Harlan Hubbard does have a Cincinnati connection. He was born just across the river from this fair town in Bellevue, Kentucky. As the centuries roll on, who knows, Bellevue may become just another burgh in the great city-state of Cincinnati-to-come; a city, that likes its eastern European counterpart, Budapest, spans the river and dwells on both sides. I guess that's just my deindustrial imagination typing out loud.
Hubbard's father died when he was just a tender lad, aged seven. His mother moved the family to New York City where his older brothers had moved. While there he went to highschool in the Bronx and then started his formal education in art at New York's National Academy of Design. He came back to this are in 1919 with his mom. It was there he went to the Art Academy of Cincinnati, settling in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.
As Harlan grew up he saw the wreckage of industrial development unfold. He saw it here, in this area, and in New York, and most likely read about the destructive developments in the papers of the day. He came to reject the culture of consumerism and its saccharine enticements that hid a hollow middle, empty of meaning, and whose cost to the natural world was born at a terrible price.
In order to live by the dictates of his conscience, he chose to simplify. In doing so he eventually out-Thoreaued Thoreau. Thoreau had his Walden Pond, where he only lived for like, three years. Harlan Hubbard and his wife Anna had their Payne Hollow, on the Ohio River in Trimble County, where they lived for like, thirty-five years and more.
But what led him to this life on the fringe? First, it came through Hubbard's reflections and contemplation, through his engagement with his own mind and imagination. He started keeping a journal in 1929 where he wrote about life and his thoughts about society. In 1943 he married his life long love Anna Eikenhout. Of his marriage he said, "I do not know just how it came about… it has all happened naturally, as something growing into ripeness, or a flowing together of water.”
Together they built their first home, which was a shantyboat. They traveled on this from Brent, Kentucky down the rest of the Ohio, to Cairo, Illinois where it joins the Mississippi and from there all the way down to New Orleans.
On his trip to New Orleans he wrote, "I had no theories to prove. I merely wanted to try living by my own hands, independent as far as possible from a system of division of labor in which the participant loses most of the pleasure of making and growing things for himself. I wanted to bring in my own fuel and smell its sweet smell as it burned on the hearth I had made. I wanted to grow my own food, catch it in the river, or forage after it. In short, I wanted to do as much as I could for myself, because I had already realized from partial experience the inexpressible joy of so doing.”
These travels formed the basis for his 1953 book Shantyboat, and Shantyboat in the Bayous which was published posthumously. Wendell Berry had written introductions to later editions of the first book.
After their river travels, the life of subsisting by what they could catch and grow themselves was well established, but they wanted to settle down. They kept their roots in the Kentucky loam, and not far from the sight of their beloved river. They built their home in Payne Hollow, Trimble County, right on the shore of the Ohio. It was a place where they could continue to live by the philosophy Hubbard had written about in his journal and had practiced on their meandering boat.
They lived a frugal life. Hubbard was a natural mudlark, and he would go down to the river and find things that washed up and put them to use around the homestead. In between their chores he continued to paint and to write. Two more books were published, his Journals 1929-1944 where his philosophy of simple living was expounded, and Payne Hollow.
The subjects of Hubbard's paintings were of the place he lived, pastoral strokes of the brush brought fields and clouds and farms to life. He also loved to paint the boats that trafficked up and down the long waterway outside his door.
They fished, kept chickens, and gardened. They went back to the land before it became a hippie trend and homesteaded without posting a single pic on instagram. They did so because Hubbard had been prescient about the process of separation from nature industry had set in motion, and he didn't want to be part of the life of consumption he saw so many others around him blinded by.
Together they created a paradise on Earth. He wrote, "To arise in the frosty morning at the point of daybreak, climb the hill and cut wood, while the sky lightens above the trees; to eat this wholesome, sweet food(;) to use my body, hands and mind at the endless work I have to do; to read by the firelight, to sleep warm and snug; all this shared and enjoyed by my loving partner – what manner of a man originated this idea of a happier life beyond death?"
His books, his paintings, his tender marriage, and the way they carried themselves through this world garnered Harlan and Anna no shortage of admirers who came to visit them, buy paintings, and learn what they could from them. Many went on to incorporate ideas of simple living into their own lives, even if they never went as far off-the-grid as the Hubbard's had.
They followed their path of voluntary simplicity until the end came, until they crossed over the river of life. Anna died on May 3rd, 1986 and Hubbard left this world at the age of 88 two years later.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.