A subsistence farm in the 1930s provided the backdrop for Harriette Arnow’s distinguished Kentucky novel. Today the land has grown into awilderness.
Harriette and Harold Arnow were writers who met working on the Works Progress Administration Writer’s Project in Cincinnati in the 1930s. They dreamed of getting through the Depression as subsistence farmers in Harriette’s home area of Southeastern Kentucky, writing in their spare time. What dreamers.
They bought 150 acres in the hills of Pulaski County in 1939 and purchased chickens, a pig and a cow. The pictures above show the farmhouse as it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the time Harold and Harriette owned it, the place was in rough condition. It is now collapsed.
Like many others in the mountain South, they found farming arduous and precarious. And like many of their neighbors, in the run up to World War II, they moved to where the jobs were in Detroit.
Harold went back to being a newspaperman covering the courts at the Detroit News. They lived in public housing for a time, raising their two children, Marcella and Tom. Later they moved to a small farm on Nixon Road in Ann Arbor.
Inspiration born of hardship
Harriette wrote histories and novels set in Kentucky and Michigan. The novels Hunter’s Horn and The Dollmaker, published in 1949 and 1954, are her most well known. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates called Hunter’s Horn “an American masterpiece,” comparing it to Moby Dick because of one man’s destructive obsession with a predator, in this case, a red fox.
The setting of Hunter’s Horn, as seen in the first edition’s inside covers–was this farm–with the place names changed.
The inside cover of the novel Hunter’s Horn illustrated with a map of the Arnow farm and surrounding area in the 1930s, and the 1968 survey map of the land.Harriette’s first novel, Mountain Path, about being a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse, was set on adjacent land.
After the Arnows moved to Michigan, the farm remained uninhabited, the tiny community of Keno depopulated. Today the farm has grown into a remote forest. You have to cross Indian Creek to get to most of the property. It is wild and beautiful.
After Harold died in 1985 and Harriette in 1986, the farm went to their daughter Marcella. When she died in England in 2010, the land came to me—Harold and Harriette’s niece. Marcella hoped to preserve the land wisely. I was able to do that under the US Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Forests Reserve Program. The land is now under a conservation easement. It can never be mined, drilled or developed. It is a wild and beautiful forest today. Here is the USDA’s description of the program and this land.
Many thanks to Wanda Worley, who is one of the descendants of people who owned the land before the Arnows did. She visits and worries about and cares for the land–and for me.
When I embarked on a Midwestern road trip in October, I was pessimistic about a campaign I’ve been working on for three years here in New York. Construction was about to start on the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, which would demolish the big riverside park on the Lower East Side a block from my apartment. An ever-growing group of activists have been trying to persuade or force New York City to adopt a less environmentally devastating flood control plan for East River Park. We were losing and we were feeling horrible. My visit to old friends in Detroit changed my attitude.
“Can you tell where the border of Detroit is?” asked Angela as we biked the quiet, wide streets. It was just minutes after I arrived at her house a few blocks outside of Detroit. She and her husband Mark were eager to show me their favorite places.
It was easy to answer her question. We crossed Mack Avenue, and the pavement became rougher. There were gaps between houses, sometimes many lots wide that were just grass bordered by cracked sidewalks. “Goodbye tax base,” said Angela. Some of the houses that remained were clearly deserted with glassless or boarded up windows, some with weeds and trees engulfing them. Others looked well kept but lonely. The city was decimated in the 21st century with the loss of the auto industry. Population decreased from its peak of 1.85 million in 1950—the fourth largest city in the U.S.—to today’s 639,000–now ranked 27th in population. You can click on a photo to enlarge it, then scroll through:
Angela and Mark are filled with love and hope. They showed me why they are so optimistic. We stopped at Post, a repurposed post office, now a woodworking studio and shop filled with handsome Detroit-made goods. I bought a handmade laminated wood cutting board for my niece’s wedding (that was what got me started planning a Midwestern road trip).
We biked to a favorite restaurant, Coriander, a modest, friendly and tasty place where we dined outside on picnic tables. We stopped at Detroit Abloom, a big garden full of robust and colorful dahlias. The gardener, Tom Milano, had started it on seven vacant lots. It became a nonprofit and now includes community gardens.
Angela and Mark pointed out lots where people were planting rows and rows of saplings to start forests. “If there’s a empty lot next door to your house, you can buy it from the city for $100,” said Angela. You can buy a good-sized house for $10,000, Mark said. He works in real estate and has helped people buy vacant houses. It’ll be a fixer upper, but the good old abandoned houses are a draw for creative people who need space but have few funds.
The next day we met my childhood friend who has lived in Detroit for some 40 years. Sharon and Angela took me to see the Heidelberg Project. Here in the 1980s, Tyree Guyton had painted his grandmother’s house with polka dots. Then he started hanging paintings and toys and sculptures to abandoned buildings in the neighborhood up and down Heidelberg St. on the East Side of Detroit. Soon, people from all over began visiting to see the art made from ruins. Sharon worked on the project for years, raising money and promoting the art site.
And then, the city bulldozed some of abandoned houses/artworks and vandals burned down more. Thirteen houses perished. Tyree, resilient as Detroit itself, did not stop. On the empty lots, he built sculptures made from found objects—grocery carts, dolls, toy cars. He painted clocks on plywood and hung the renderings on trees, propped them on buildings, leaned them alongside a shipping container. You can click on the first photo to enlarge it, then scroll through to get a real impactof Tyree’s work:
We wandered around with other tourists admiring this visionary outdoor museum of junk turned to art.
We visited the Detroit Institute of Arts with the room filled with magnificent murals by Diego Rivera, his best work, Angela said. There were also in the museum Van Goghs, Renoirs, Degas, Gauguin and Reginald Marsh and so many wonderful artists. Ten years ago, when Detroit was utterly devastated economically, it looked as if the DIA would have to sell off its masterpieces in order to survive at all. The city declared bankruptcy in 2013. Benefactors came to the rescue.
Today the museum and its grounds are beautiful. There were few people there because of Covid—we had the mural room to ourselves for nearly an hour—and the staff was friendly and thrilled to extoll the virtues of their workplace. The employee watering the planters lining the base of the murals expressed her pride when we complimented how beautiful they looked.
The guard in the show featuring vintage cars showed a wide knowledge of the vehicles and talked about how there should be a dedicated car museum. We had never encountered museum guards so excited and knowledgable about exhibits.
We went on to admire the 1927 Fisher Building nearby, a decorative wonder of an office building beautifully kept up that shows how Detroit was one of the wealthiest cities in the heyday of the American auto industry. The city is no longer prosperous and hasn’t been for many years, but the pride, hope and resiliency I experienced there were bracing.
Detroit gave me a glimmer of hope. The destruction of East River Park is devastating to our Lower East Side, but I see that we can face it with resiliency.
If you have the opportunity to go to Detroit, do it.
We drove from summer to winter, from a charming disheveled city unprepared for another epic disaster to the clean well-lighted state of Massachusetts.
Monday evening, Steve and I sat out in the little brick backyard of our winter rental house on Octavia Street in New Orleans. A Monarch butterfly drifted by, a mockingbird annoyed Steve as it liked to do every evening. We admired the yellow flowers blooming in the branches of a tree against the blue sky streaked with a contrail. We listened to the song of the trains rolling, squealing, bumping together along the tracks on the other side of Tchoupotoulis along the Mississippi River a block away. The evening star appeared, bright in the sky. It felt like summer.
Tuesday morning as the sun rose, we locked the door of our little house with a purple door, put the key through the mail slot, climbed into my old Honda, and drove away.
Not toward our home, though. Our beloved cities of New York and New Orleans are the hardest hit by COVID-19. We headed to the Berkshires to be near loving family (even if we couldn’t hug them) and a Blue State health care system.
Through Mississippi, we drove past acres of wisteria blooms hanging from branches along the highway. Through Alabama we saw the tender green of trees just leafing out with redbuds blooming everywhere. Many hours later as we climbed to the Tennessee mountains, we saw bare tree branches with just forsythia blooming.
A man waved a banner from an overpass: “Thank you truckers.”
We stopped only for gas, using paper towels between hand and pump handle and keypad. We ate apples and oranges, crackers and hard-boiled eggs, cookies and a great big Snickers. We peed at the side of the road.
After midnight, we followed a tip that Cracker Barrel welcomes people parking overnight. There among the big campers quietly resting, we pulled up, tried to find comfortable positions, Steve in the back seat, me reclining as far back as I could in the front seat. We slept for a few uneasy hours.
At 5 a.m. we set off again in the rain, drinking lukewarm surprisingly ok coffee from the thermos.
We thought there’d be little traffic except for trucks, but there were vehicles of all kinds. The country did not seem shut down. A WalMart lot was full.
We went a bit out of our way so we wouldn’t have to see the New York skyline in the distance, driving instead up the Delaware Water Gap, stopping for a short walk on a peaceful trail, looking at gray skies, brown woods and water, patches of snow.
Late morning, we drove up to our Airbnb in Great Barrington, a duplex on a quiet street where we will self-quarantine for 14 days. Mo and Mike stopped by to deliver cookies, latex gloves, and an alcohol spray bottle. I met them outside and we helplessly waved at each other, promising walks in the country. In two weeks, we can consider being in the same room and petting Baci, who was barking her greeting from the car.
This place is comfortable, and Steve and I were soon napping hard to make up for nearly 27 hours in a metal box that is my heroic 2005 sedan, which just turned over 100,000 miles.
In the evening, we had a good dinner Steve made from the supplies we brought with us. Then Steve called me to the back door. Look up. There, over the snowy landscape, was the evening star.
New Orleans and New York have a lot in common besides their first names. As the infrastructure crumbles, city officials sell out to developers. Both cities cater to rich people and tourists to the detriment of most residents. And both cities are wonderful, full of interesting people, neighborhoods, and food.
There’s one thing New Orleans seems to understand that New York hasn’t worked out. Trees are more important than pavement. The big curvy roots of gigantic live oaks make sidewalks bulge and break. What does the city do? They leave the trees alone. Pedestrians hike over the lumpy sidewalks. Cars swerve around the trees that take up more parking spaces than a bus.
Is it negligence, lack of funds or is it because New Orleans appreciates its trees? I don’t know. I’m one of those pesky tourists (though a long-term one). After spending a year fighting New York government that wants to chop down 1,000 mature trees in our neighborhood East River Park this year, I’m appreciating New Orleans where trees get to be trees.
OK, I do have to stop romanticizing and realize New Orleans is terrible for handicapped people. Though there are curb cuts for wheelchairs on every corner, many sidewalks are impassable for wheelchairs. The streets aren’t better. They are crumbling. New York is much better for getting around. Can there be a way to have our trees and be able to get around smoothly? Look at the creative solution above. Move the sidewalk, not the trees.
New York, take note. Move the floodwalls, not the trees.
The owners of our wonderful little shotgun cottage in New Orleans said we could stay all winter—except for Mardi Gras week. They like to come back to their hometown to celebrate. That was fine with us. We were there for Mardi Gras last year. This year, we saw lots of parades as Carnival season began weeks ago. We were ready for quiet.
Last week, we drove just a couple of hours to a hotel we like, the Malaga Inn in Mobile. It’s got style, a shabby elegance with a fountain in the courtyard.
Our room opened onto a balcony with a filigreed wrought iron railing. Now, to get to it, we had to pry open the tall, heavy sash window and use the stick provided to hold it open so we could climb out. But there in front of us was a magnificent live oak tree, branches loaded with resurrection ferns. (They have that name because they look dead when it’s dry and immediately turn green when it rains.)
The Malaga is why we like to stay in Mobile. And the fish joint, Wintzell’s Oyster House, not far away.
Moon Pie Gras
Mobile says it invented Mardi Gras, and there were parades that night, 10 days before Fat Tuesday. Like New Orleans, people on the floats throw gifts to the crowds. But there weren’t that many of the beads we expected in the parade we saw. Instead, we kept catching packages of Moon Pies and Ramen Noodles.
To the Riviera
Next day, we drove less than two hours to Gulf Shores, Alabama. We rented a beach cottage. In a hike in the maritime forest, we saw an eagle swooping around. We’ve eaten grouper. We watched the rain on the dunes with the Gulf of Mexico beyond. I lured Steve out to the beach on a sunny midday promising shade. I built a big sand hand.
We are at one end of the Gulf Shores, a spit of land called Fort Morgan. It’s not as overdeveloped here as many beach towns. Here, some 15 miles from the town of Gulf Shores there are houses, not big condos, and there are long stretches of coastal forests along the main road. But plenty of building is going on.
The threat of hurricanes and sea level rise is no match for the lovely white sand beaches and clear waters here. People will build and build and come and visit. Including us.
After Fat Tuesday, we will return to New Orleans. We’ll be all fresh-faced and burnished on Ash Wednesday when every one who stayed in the city will be hungover with crosses on their foreheads.
We’ve seen plenty of wonders of the Mardi Gras season. Here are some more parade pictures from the weeks before we came on our vacation from our vacation. Our friend Miriam, who loves Mardi Gras, enticed us to keep on going to parades and begging for beads (she’s with us showing off her throws in the photo lower right, below).
People who haven’t been to Mardi Gras think it’s crowded and dangerous. No. The parades are extravagant, noisy, musical, and exciting. People who line the routes are friendly and only step on you accidentally. (I wore sandals one day. Don’t do that.) Kids are everywhere. They get bags and bags of toys and beads. It’s really fun. Go.
East New Orleans is a large, low-lying neighborhood far from the center of the city. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina, it has come back in patches. There are brick bungalows, some lonely on a block, others clustered together in new subdivisions with names like Sherwood Forest. On some blocks partly rebuilt houses and abandoned houses still stand. There are blocks of empty fields that used to be lined with houses. Running through the neighborhood is Chef Menteur Highway (translated as Chief Liar), sparsely populated with businesses.
I wanted to visit East New Orleans because I had just finished The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. I had never noticed the neighborhood before I read the book, even though I’ve visited and explored New Orleans many times. Like East New York way out in Brooklyn, in East New Orleans, there are no tourist attractions, parks, museums or exciting business strips. It’s just a place to live for people of modest means and often a long commute to work.
The Yellow House is a biography of a home bought by the author’s mother, who raised 12 children there. The house and family’s tenuous existence show us a history of people prevailing as best they can in a neighborhood built by strivers but abandoned by the early developers and the city. It’s a portrait of inequality and discrimination. It’s a story of people whose lives have been shattered and remade over and over despite institutional neglect and abuse.
It’s an unromanticized view of New Orleans, a corrective to our gushy illusions. We drove by the address where the author’s house once stood, and it was filled with junked cars.
Yet, here in February 2020 was the first Carnival parade ever in East New Orleans, the all-new all-women Nefertiti parade passing in front of a new East New Orleans Public Library and many families cheering and stretching their arms out to catch beads and toys. Here is the popular Tet Fest in the Vietnamese neighborhood, tables filled with people and good food. These festivals were by and for residents. We were clearly outsiders at both events, though we were cordially accepted. Here we saw the flaws and resilience of New Orleans.