Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Arwen Donahue is an artist, farmer, and oral historian residing in rural Kentucky. Her book, Landings: A Crooked Creek Farm Year, is a graphic memoir releasing from Hub City Press next Tuesday, October 11th. While providing a beautiful depiction of one family’s attempt to stay committed to a plot of land, it’s also an argument against the separation of art from manual labor, a testament to that fusion.
Enjoy my conversation with the author – about the agency that comes from “writing your own life,” and the perils of impermeable fences – below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: I know from your bio that you’ve worked at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and received a BFA from the California College of the Arts – how’d you end up living on a farm in Nicholas County, Kentucky?
Arwen Donahue: Within days of getting married, my husband David and I started talking about leaving the Washington DC area and buying a farm. We both read Wendell Berry’s biography of Harlan Hubbard, and were moved by the lives and work of Harlan and his wife, Anna. They lived in a little house on the Ohio River that they had built by hand, where they raised their own food, cut firewood, painted, wrote, and played music together. I did not want to give up money or electricity, but I did want to live in daily intimacy with the cycles of the natural world. David had started a community garden in our neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, and he took up the sod in the front and back yards of our rental house and planted vegetables and fruit trees. Everyone in the neighborhood called him Farmer Dave. It was pretty clear that he needed land, if we could find a way to get some.
David grew up in Lexington, and when we went to visit his family there a few months after our wedding, we stopped in to see Wendell and Tanya Berry at their home in Henry County. In giving us advice about where and how to live, Wendell said, “Make the choice from inside of it, not outside of it. Don’t live your life by a script that someone else has written.” I still find those words useful.
David’s cousin was selling her farmstead in Nicholas County, not far from where his ancestors had lived and farmed: a 3-bedroom house on 100 acres, mostly wooded, with a creek running through the center of the land. We paid $79,000 for the whole thing, which seemed a ridiculously low price even back then. Within a year of moving to the farm, we established a CSA and started selling produce subscriptions.
DY: You write that, at certain points, your artistic life and your life of manual labor were compartmentalized, with the former sometimes acting as an escape from the latter. Tell me more about how drawing came to bring you closer to your life on the farm.
AD: I needed that compartmentalization in our early years here, because the farm’s demands were so intense. I had to fight to preserve my artistic practice, and my studio time was a welcome escape. But after more than a decade of living on this land — of cultivating, drawing, harvesting, writing, cooking, birthing and raising a child here — it was inevitable that each practice would naturally grow into and nourish the others, if I would allow it to happen. And I discovered that I would be all the more enthusiastic about hoeing weeds or trellising tomatoes if I gave myself permission to draw and write about these things. It leads back to the idea of writing your own life, rather than assuming that you have to just play the part you have been assigned.
DY: I wanna know more about the different phases of creating Landings. What was your practice like when you were drawing the images for the book? What about when you were writing it?
AD: At first, I believed I was drawing the pictures as a technical exercise. I wanted to get better at working with watercolors, because I planned to make portraits of people I was interviewing for an oral history project, and I figured I could just draw my daily life. It wouldn’t take too much time, I thought. But pretty soon I was spending 10 to 20 hours a week on these drawings, and it was hard to stop. I’d get into a trance and then emerge and scramble to catch up with all the other things I needed to get done. But it was a surprise and a delight to see this conversation emerge between what I looked at every day and what my hand drew when I landed at my drawing table — to see how there is a hint of rust in the deep green of the cedars that populate our hillsides, or to see how intricately light plays in a puddle on the lane, and to immerse myself in these moments.
The story is anchored in the year I made the drawings, but in order to write the book, I went through all the journals I’d kept since moving to the farm and wove this deeper, longer-arc history in. I also wove in the history of what some of our neighbors and family members have told us over the years about this land and the people who have lived here. David’s ancestors settled on Crooked Creek in the community of Barefoot over 200 years ago, so there’s a lot there. Yet the tricky part was how to suggest the stories we were not told, without wagging any fingers. We occupy Shawnee, Eastern Band Cherokee, and Osage land. The white farmers who settled along Crooked Creek two centuries ago were, for the most part, too poor to enslave people, but the legacy of slavery and racism are still very much here.
DY: Landings, in addition to its gorgeous images, is full of hard-earned bits of wisdom. In one entry you write that “an impermeable fence will kill what it contains.” Where it appears in the book, this line refers to the control a farmer has to impose upon nature. Elsewhere in the book, however, you write that the best thing for rural America would be the welcoming of diversity, a task which you say stands in opposition to the incentives of our economy. Do you think the danger of impermeable fences applies more broadly to communities like yours?
AD: Oh, yes. The farmer has to impose some control upon nature, but we will destroy ourselves and the land if we impose too much. The danger of impermeable fences applies to national borders and to the divisions we impose between self and other. Our dominant global culture is structured around the idea of fences and borders — who gets to belong in a place, who is kept out; who is allowed to “own” land, and who is not. In the late 1600s, poor white Europeans who had suffered the loss of common grazing lands due to practices of enclosure fled to America and imposed their ideas of land ownership here, like people fleeing a deadly virus who unknowingly carry that virus along with them. Embracing diversity only appears to stand in opposition to the incentives of our economy; in fact, it is essential to the health of our economy, just as it is to the health of our land. I find it wondrously ironic that we humans tend to consider ourselves more evolved and intelligent than songbirds, and yet, as I say in the book: “The fences and walls we erect and protect mean nothing to a songbird. This farm’s population is largely a migrant one, and that population is always in flux.”
DY: You end the book by asking why we spend so little time being amazed, and describing the particular emotional tenor of the frogs and crickets you heard that morning. I’m curious, when was the last time you were amazed – on your farm or otherwise? Can you describe it to me?
AD: I am amazed every time I walk out the door and into the beautiful world I am honored to call home. I try to walk in the woods every day, and there I see such wisdom and complexity in every leaf, spiderweb, and stone. It is amazing that if I am walking up a hollow and pick up a hunk of limestone, I am likely holding the fossilized remains of a handful of brachiopods, ocean creatures that became extinct millions of years ago.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.