Harlan Hubbard

by Wendell Berry

Harlan’s life will be seen by some as eccentric for the reason that, during the entire course of it, he had no interest whatever in that phenomenon known as “economic growth,” and he did not share in any of the motives or emotions that go with it. Harlan grew, as his works abundantly testify, but his growth was in spirit, character, accomplishment, pleasure, and joy. His life and his efforts did not result in a great accumulation of worldly goods or worldly power. He lived a satisfying life completely apart from, indeed disdain for, the customary satisfactions of the United States in the twentieth century. 

When the Hubbards settled at Payne Hollow, the place was abandoned, but a stone chimney, a root cellar, and other relics testified to a life that had been lived there once and given up. The place was available to the Hubbards because no one else saw any good in it. Harlan himself had seen the old rural life come to an end in such places: the hill country south of the Ohio is full of abandoned homesites in hollows and small creek valleys. If the traditional farming of the country was good at its best, at its worst it was extremely destructive, and it tended to grow worse in proportion to the steepness, shallowness, or rockiness of the land. We never developed a good way of using such places; the families who farmed them wore them out. The example of the Hubbards’ life at Payne Hollow puts that failed history into a proper perspective, and suggests a proper correction.

It does the same for the opposite extreme of large-scale industrial exploitation of the countryside. In the Hubbards’ last years, Public Service Indiana began building a nuclear power plant on the hilltop across the river and a little downstream from Payne Hollow. As the land was condemned and construction begun, there was a good deal of protest against the project. All objections, however were overruled, the protests failed, and construction went ahead. Eventually the huge walls of the plant appeared over the woods, clearly visible from the riverbank at Payne Hollow. This plant, like all others, had been conceived and designed in perfect indifference to the place in which it was to be built.

I wondered, as I am sure other people did, if the Hubbards would take part in the protest. They did not. Harlan acknowledged the intrusion only with a small joke: it was, he said, their castle on the Rhine. Since I was involved in the protest, I wished that they would at least give it their endorsement. I don’t believe they were ever asked to do so, but I was a little disappointed that they did not. The power plant was, after all, a direct and unignorable affront to all thay had done and stood for.

Later, I understood that by the life they led Harlan and Anna had opposed the power plant longer than any of us, and not because they had been, or ever would be its “opponents.” They were opposed to it because they were opposite to it, because their way of life joined them to everything in the world that was opposite to it. What could be more radically or effectively opposite to a power plant than to live abundantly with no need for electricity? As the power plant rose, demonstrating the wrong way to live in the Ohio Valley, the Hubbards’ life at Payne Hollow quietly went on as before, demonstrating the right way, without bothering to think of itself as a demonstration. And then the Marble Hill project collapsed under the burden of technological folly and economic fantasy.

History thus contrived a curious and perhaps fitting emblem to stand at the end of the Hubbards’ life at Payne Hollow. The monstrous wealth and power, whose influence Harlan and Anna had renounced, finally confronted them in their own place. The industrialist’s contempt for any life in any place was balanced across the river by a place and two lives joined together in love. The men of the industrial dream, who served the abstractions of technical ambition, raised their walls above the trees on the hilltop to look down upon a man and a woman who served the goodness and beauty of the earth.

10.5.15

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