See the Documentary “Wonder: The Lives of Anna and Harlan Hubbard” if You Can


Anna and Harlan Hubbard may not be names familiar to most readers. But if you have ever thought dreamily of Henry David Thoreau’s experiment, forsaking the “slavery of time” and roughing it on Walden Pond, you  Wonder might like to know a bit more about the Hubbards. For over 40 years, they lived a life in nature along the Ohio River.

Thoreau packed up and headed back to town after two years at Walden. Furthermore, for him “roughing it” included regular trips home to have his mother do his laundry. Yet this has never meant that Thoreau’s philosophy shouldn’t inspire others. Harlan Hubbard was inspired by his injunction to “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”

The Thoreau Society, curious about these Kentucky role models from Payne Hollow, last week invited filmmaker Morgan Atkinson to Concord, Massachusetts, for a screening of his documentary, Wonder: The Lives of Anna and Harlan Hubbard. Atkinson has previously produced documentaries on Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me.

Thirty-five people showed up last week at the Masonic Temple to meet Atkinson and view the screening during The Thoreau Society’s Annual Conference. The historic building, built during the tenure of Grand Master Paul Revere in 1797, hasn’t been updated to air conditioning (surely a fact the Hubbards would have approved of), but none was needed. It was a mild afternoon.

Author Wendell Berry provides the film’s narration; musician and actor Will Oldham is the voice of Harlan; stage actress Katie Blackerby is the voice of Anna; and cellist Ben Sollee is the primary music composer.

Last week’s film screening attendees knew Wendell Berry, though none had heard of the Hubbards. Berry, a friend of the Hubbards, wrote Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work. He describes the Hubbard’s vocation: “[Anna and Harlan] lived at the crossroads of a vital paradox; by having little, they had much; by living frugally, they lived abundantly; by living ‘apart from the world’ they lived in the world intimately and truly.”

Though the Hubbards lived off the grid, their lives were enriched with art, music and gardening. Anna and Harlan produced most of what they ate and bartered for the rest— including art supplies, violin strings and other “country provender.” They were used to “littling along.” They shunned modern “conveniences” but were not shut-ins. They enjoyed visits from strangers as diverse as “young radicals, to the conservative and orthodox” and often rowed across the river to Madison, Indiana, to take part in Hanover College’s cultural activities.

Cultural activities brought them together in the first place. In their early 40s, Anna and Harlan met in a Cincinnati library. Anna was a librarian and pianist. Harlan, a frequent library visitor, was an artist, carpenter, violinist and, of course, a reader.

Anna and Harlan on the shantyboat

He was a library patron for four years before they started life as couple on a shantyboat that they built together. Anna and Harlan later drifted down the Ohio River with their dog Skipper, a violin, cello, viola and a beehive. Eventually they negotiated the treacherous Mississippi River—“a fool’s graveyard”—and made it to the Louisiana bayous. “I was old enough to be called middle-aged before I ceased being a dilettante and took to the river in earnest,” Harlan wrote.

Anna and Harlan returned in 1951 to Payne Hollow, a spot along the Ohio River in Trimble County they had remembered fondly on their float trip downstream. “If we sometimes thought with dismay of giving up a floating, nomadic life, we were consoled by certain advantages offered by a house on land. There would be more space for books and music, even a (Steinway) piano… I could have a workshop to fill with tools and junks, and a separate studio to paint… The possibilities seemed unlimited, and more and more delightful.” They purchased seven acres of marginal land from a neighbor for $300. They were “taking root.”

Anna and I were attracted by the very conditions which caused it to be abandoned. We were unique among its inhabitants, not farmers, nor fisherman nor shantyboaters in the accepted sense; yet closer to the earth than any of them, with true respect for the river and soil, and for Payne Hollow. May it long remain as it is, not merely for our selfish enjoyment, but for the satisfaction it must give many people to know there is such a place. Few wild pockets are left along the river these days.

My beautiful picture
Hanover College students help the Hubbards in the ’80s.

Anna and Harlan remained at Payne Hollow, gardening, foraging, canning, fishing, painting, writing, and playing Chopin preludes until their deaths in the late 1980s.

Atkinson’s “Wonder” has enjoyed national screenings and been seen on Kentucky Educational Television. PBS hasn’t yet shown interest in a national airing. The programmers can’t possibly believe that love and adventure might be a subject only of regional interest? That would be a pity, as it would be a pity to miss one of the closing thoughts expressed by Harlan Hubbard:

I sometimes regret that my old longing to live closer to the earth can never be fulfilled, but our life together has been richer, more satisfying and productive, than my solitary one would ever have been. Of this I am sure.

The Idea Festival is sponsoring a San Francisco screening of Wonder: The Lives of Anna and Harlan Hubbard on Friday night, July 19th.


  1. I’d very much like to see this documentary and hope it gets wider release. I just checked and it’s not on Netflix yet, maybe it will be soon.

  2. I do hope PBS picks it up – I’d really like to see their story. Does PBS take requests? Maybe my local affiliate? But if it’s available as DVD, then I can likely get it from Kentucky ETV’s website, right? Scampering off right away ….

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