Saturday, May 14, 2011

What I'm Reading

SlowBoat is STILL in Catskill.  But the Erie Canal should open this weekend.  Soon we'll be on our home waters.

Meanwhile, we're in State College, to see our niece Margot graduate from Penn State.  If you see us on the streets, yes, we're here!  But no, we are not really back.  Our trip ends May 31.

A lull in travel means a chance to catch up on reading. As you know, I like to read books set in the places I am traveling . . .  which means I SHOULD have read Shantyboat: A River Way of Life when we were cruising the Mississippi River. Better late than never.

The book was a gift from a new friend, Craig Ligibel, whom we met on the island of Useppa in January. Shantyboat is the true story of a young couple, Harlan and Anna Hubbard, who in the 1940s built a little house on a wooden barge and floated it down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, from Kentucky to New Orleans.

At the time, a whole class of people called shantyboaters lived on the river. They were literally drifters--these boats had no means of propulsion and only the most rudimentary steering Most shantyboaters were people on the fringes, fishermen or traders. (For some historic pictures of shantyboats, click HERE.)

Meanwhile Hubbard was a talented artist, writer, and musician, educated in New York. Distressed by the industrialization of America,  he wanted to try living in a self-sufficient way.  Here's how he described the motivation for the trip.

“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."

Hubbard and his wife Anna took six years to make their trip down the river. They lived simply but graciously on their cleverly designed boat, which had spaces to stow Anna's cello and Harlan's easel and a tiny rooftop cabin for their frequent guests.

They drifted in the winter months, when the water was high, snagging driftwood to burn in their woodstove. They stopped each spring, finding likely coves where they would beg permission from a landowner to plant a big garden.

Before we left on our trip, people asked us, 'Where will you get food? How will you do laundry?" Accustomed to 21st century domestic comforts, our friends found it hard to imagine we could walk to a grocery story, or carry clothes to a laundromat.  We felt like positive slackers compared to the Hubbards. They canned and preserved what they grew in their garden, caught fish and smoked them, and picked wild nuts and berries. To do laundry, they had to find a cove with a spring for clear water, heat water on a wood fire, scrub by hand, and dry clothes on a line. They had no GPS, no LED lights, no internet or cell phone to keep in touch with folks back home.

The book is charmingly illustrated with Hubbard's line drawings. So much of Shantyboat captures perfectly the sights we've seen along the way, and the way we've felt as we tucked our boat into a quiet cove, to spend an evening: warm and comfortable and well fed, contemplating sunset over an unspoiled marsh. Critics call this book "an underappreciated American masterpiece that ought to be mentioned in the same sentence as Thoreau's Walden and Twain's Life on the Mississippi."  I have to agree.

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