A man named Harlan Hubbard—a writer, a painter, a musician, a husband, and a lover of the good earth—once wrote: “It happened this morning that I left for wild, far off places.”
Some 15 years ago, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was myself setting out for a wild and far off place when I first read Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow. The place came in the form of a fictional town called Port William, and the wild in a cast of beloved characters. But as I’d learn as I explored the breadth and depth of Berry’s writing, his towns and people, his sentences and poems, were not the destination itself—but instead the path, a path that would lead me not from the world but deeper into it. Berry’s love of Port William (and by extension, his love of his actual home in Port Royal, Kentucky) would teach me to love my own places and my own people in deeper, truer ways.
It happens in life that we often find ourselves in need of a guide, of someone to show us the wild and far-off facts that often lie right in our own backyards or back-woods or creeks or brothers or sisters or wives or husbands. Wendell Berry, I suspect, is no different from you or I in that regard. And though many of those who guided him may be unknown to us, I think perhaps Harlan Hubbard was one of them.
It happens in life that we often find ourselves in need of a guide, of someone to show us the wild and far-off facts that often lie right in our own backyards or back-woods or creeks or brothers or sisters or wives or husbands.Pete Peterson
He was a man of the generation before Berry, as Berry is of the generation before mine. Harlan loved the earth and was spellkept by it all his life. The industrial noise of engines and the callous grind of commerce frustrated him. He dreamed of an escape from them, and so in time he married Anna and together they left for wild, far off places upon a shanty boat on the Ohio river. They would make it as far as New Orleans before returning to the Kentucky hills to settle in Payne Hollow, a little piece of earth along the river they loved. There they lived out the remainder of their lives.
They had no running water, no electricity, no modern conveniences, but their lives were full of wonder and music. She played piano and cello, he the violin. And their songs filled the Kentucky woods for 30 years. He also was a serious writer and a talented painter, and the subject of both his words and his art was the earth about him, the river, and the preservation of its beauty.
It’s impossible to know the story of Anna and Harlan without seeing them as literary and ideological ancestors of Wendell Berry, as if in them we better understand the soil out of which Port William and its characters have grown. In fact, the cover of every one of Wendell Berry’s novels is adorned with one of Harlan’s paintings, like a watermark suggesting some underlying ownership or heritage.
To say that without Harlan and Anna Hubbard we might have no Wendell Berry is to state the case too strongly. But certainly, I think, their lives have given greater depth and direction to Berry and his work, for as T. S. Eliot said, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” And therefore to know Harlan and Anna Hubbard is to know Wendell Berry with more completeness than we have without them.
Anna Hubbard died in 1986. Harlan followed her two years later in 1988. And in the wake of their lives and music and writing and painting and care for the goodness of the earth, it seems right that Wendell Berry would offer us his remembrance of them. That remembrance takes the form of a fifteen- minute, one-act play called Sonata at Payne Hollow.
On October 11th, The Rabbit Room is proud to present a special staged reading of this unique piece of theater. Drawing talent from Nashville’s rich theater community, we aim to create, in the space of just a few short minutes on stage, something that captures the timelessness of Berry’s words and also of Harlan & Anna’s lives. During our online event, Hutchmoot: Homebound, join us down at the riverbank for Wendell Berry’s Sonata at Payne Hollow.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.