Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Couple set their own course, down the river and into the hollow

Harlan and Anna Hubbard built this shantyboat after they married in 1943. They lived on it for almost eight years.
Harlan and Anna Hubbard built this shantyboat after they married in 1943. They lived on it for almost eight years. Herald-Leader

It is a common fantasy: Quit the rat race. Get back to nature. Embrace adventure.

Few people ever do it, at least not for long. Even Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century writer and icon for this fantasy, moved back to civilization after a couple of years on Walden Pond.

But Kentuckians Anna and Harlan Hubbard did it for more than four decades, until their deaths in 1986 and 1988. They floated down rivers on a shantyboat, then lived in a riverbank cabin, both built with their own hands.

The newest telling of the Hubbards' story is a charming documentary, Wonder: The Lives of Anna & Harlan Hubbard, by Louisville filmmaker Morgan Atkinson. The film ( premiered last week in Louisville. Atkinson is looking for a non-profit group to sponsor a Lexington showing, and he hopes to have the film shown on KET.

Atkinson's previous work has includeed documentaries about other American originals: Thomas Merton, the Nelson County monk and writer; and John Howard Griffin, a white man who turned his skin dark and traveled the Deep South in 1959 to write the best-selling book, Black Like Me.

Atkinson never met the Hubbards, but he read about them. "One night, I had this very vivid dream about Harlan Hubbard," he said. "I woke up thinking, that's odd."

He started reading more, and, before he knew it, he was making this film.

It tells the Hubbards' story through old photos and film, re-enacted scenes and narration by actor Will Oldham, who reads from Harlan's journals, and writer Wendell Berry, who reads from his 1989 book, Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work.

"They were enormously gifted people," Berry said in an interview. "What made them unique was they were determined to live according to the requirements of their gifts, and that's what they did."

Harlan, who was born in 1900, grew up in Northern Kentucky and New York City.

He liked to paint, write, play music and explore nature. He earned money as a day laborer, having little interest in the modern world or its definitions of success.

He met Anna Eikenhout, two years his junior, at the Cincinnati Public Library, where she was a librarian. After several years, they began a courtship by playing music together — he the violin and viola, she the cello and piano. They married in 1943 and chose adventure over conformity.

They lived in a shack on the Ohio riverbank while Hubbard built a shantyboat. They lived on that boat for nearly eight years, five of which they spent drifting down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, fishing, hunting and stopping for months at a time to grow vegetables.

When they ran out of river in Louisiana, they headed back to Kentucky and settled at Payne Hollow in Trimble County, which had been the first long stop on their river odyssey. Harlan bought seven acres, built a cabin and planted a garden. Anna cooked, kept house and had family in Michigan send down her Steinway grand piano.

The Hubbards read to each other after meals — in French and German, as well as English. In the evenings, they played music together. Harlan had studied art in New York and Cincinnati, and he earned what little money they needed by selling his prolific output of paintings and drawings of scenes along the river.

"It's hard to tell how long work by Harlan will be turning up, because he gave away pictures and traded them for sacks of corn or sold them for $5," said Berry, who has used Harlan's paintings on the covers of several of his books.

Harlan wrote three books about their life and adventures, and they attracted a steady stream of visitors to the cabin. Among them was Berry, who said he happened upon it by accident in 1963 while canoeing with a friend. Over the years, Berry and the Hubbards became close friends.

Other visitors included Louisville's Bingham family, wealthy former owners of The Courier-Journal. Eleanor Bingham Miller, who as a child visited the Hubbards on family boat outings, was a major funder of the documentary, along with the Rivers Institute at Hanover College, across the river from Payne Hollow in Indiana.

"I think a lot of people subscribe to the Hubbards' values," Berry said. "There are some very serious flaws in modern life and the life of the industrial world. I think people were attracted by that. They were attracted by curiosity, too."

Few people really would or even could live as the Hubbards did. But Atkinson thinks there is a lot to learn from them, and he tried to bring out those lessons in his film.

"I would hope that people would be inspired to be open to adventure in their own lives, whatever that may be," he said. "To be aware of the wonder of the natural world. And just appreciate what a person or a couple can do. It's being unafraid of what convention might make of what you're doing."

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