Back to the land

From Academic Kids

Today, the phrase "back-to-the-land movement" usually refers to a North American social phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s (which is discussed further, below in this article). This particular back-to-the-land movement was a migration from cities to rural areas that took place in the United States, its greatest vigor being before the mid '70s.


A recurring pattern

By way of context, a few things may be usefully said. The American poet/anthropologist Gary Snyder (who is also an amateur historian) has related in a published interview that there have been back-to-the-land population movements down through the centuries. These have happened in different parts of the world, largely due to the occurrence of severe urban problems and people's felt need to live a better life, often simply to survive.

The historian and philosopher of urbanism Jane Jacobs remarked in interview with Stewart Brand that with the Fall of Rome city dwellers re-inhabited the rural areas of the region.

The recent North American instance

Regarding North America, many individual persons and households have moved from urban or suburban circumstances to rural ones at different times; for instance, the economic theorist and land-based American experimenter Ralph Borsodi is said to have influenced thousands of urban-living people to try a modern homesteading life during the Great Depression.

There was again a fair degree of interest in moving to rural land after World War II. In 1947 Betty MacDonald published what became a popular book, The Egg and I, telling her story of marrying and then moving to a small farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. This story was the basis of a successful comedy film starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray.

The Canadian writer Farley Mowat says that many returned veterans after World War II sought a meaningful life far from the ignobility of modern warfare, regarding his own experience as typical of the pattern. In Canada, those who sought a life completely outside of the cities, suburbs, and towns frequently moved into semi-wilderness environs.

But what made the later phenomenon of the ‘60s and ‘70s especially significant was that the rural-relocation trend was sizable enough that it was identified in the American demographic statistics.

Roots of this movement can perhaps be traced to the 1954 publication of Helen and Scott Nearing's book, Living the Good Life. The book chronicled the Nearings' move to a cottage in a rural area of Vermont and their simple, self-sufficient lifestyle. In their initial move, the Nearings were driven by the circumstances of the Great Depression and influenced by earlier writers, perhaps particularly Henry David Thoreau. Their book was published six years after a profound and moving statement, A Sand County Almanac, by the ecologist and environmental activist Aldo Leopold was published, in 1948. Influences aside, the Nearings had planned and worked hard, developing their homestead and life according to a twelve-point plan they had drafted.

By the late '60s, many people had recognized that, living their city or suburban lives, they completely lacked any familiarity with such basics of life as food sources (for instance, what a potato plant looks like, or the act of milking a cow) - and they felt out of touch with nature, in general. While the back-to-the-land movement was not strictly part of the 1960s counterculture movement, the two movements had some overlap in participation.

Many people were attracted to getting more in touch with the basics just mentioned, but the movement was also fuelled by the "negatives" of modern life: rampant consumerism, the failings of government and society, including the Vietnam War, and a perceived general urban deterioration, including a growing public concern about air and water pollution. Events such as the Watergate scandal and the 1973 energy crisis contributed to these views. Some people rejected the struggle or boredom of "moving up the company ladder." Paralleling the desire for reconnection with nature was a desire to reconnect with physical work, for many were drawn by some sense of dignity in physical labor, just as they might feel depressed contemplating the prospect of a worklife at a desk in the city.

Besides the Nearings and other authors writing later along similar lines, another influence from the world of American publishing was the unprecedented, vigorous, and intelligent Whole Earth Catalogs. Stewart Brand and a circle of friends and family began the effort in 1968, because Brand believed that there was a groundswell - perhaps especially among the young - of biologists, designers, engineers, sociologists, organic farmers, and social experimenters who wished to transform civilization along lines that might be called "sustainable." Brand and cohorts created a catalog of "tools" - defined broadly to include useful books, design aids, maps, gardening implements, carpentry and masonry tools, metalworking equipment, and a great deal more.

Many of the North American back-to-the-landers of the 1960s and 1970s made use of the Whole Earth Catalogs and successor publications. But as time went on, the movement itself drew more people into it, more or less independently of impetus from the publishing world.

The target lifestyle

Most of the back-to-the-landers wanted greater contact with nature, and sought to become self-employed workers in a cottage industry. Many wished to build their own house, and produce a good deal of their own food. Solar energy was sometimes used for either heat or electricity, and wood fuel was popular. Most back-to-the-landers wanted to know their neighbors, and some expected to be cooperatively part of neighborhood or community projects and processes.

Helen and Scott Nearing, in their life and their books, had embraced organic horticulture and had pursued a healthy diet and general lifestyle. To these interests, the back-to-the-land publications which had sprung up around 1970 added a promotion of new (or at least recently refined) methods of utilizing or generating energy on a modern homestead, such as solar, wind, and small-hydro electricity generation. Worldwide, there had been a very lengthy utilization of wind energy in villages and rural regions, and in fact many farms in North America had employed windmills to drive well pumps for household and irrigation water. In the 1970s, though, electricity-generating wind turbines (which had been developed in previous decades) were reaching new levels of efficiency. As well, passive solar principles were becoming more widely recognized for their efficacy in space heating (e.g., of houses or outbuildings), and photovoltaic equipment for generating electricity was emerging and was seen to be an exciting new realm.

With regard to community processes, a common practice was the incorporation of barter, a form of trade where goods or services from one individual or household are exchanged for a certain amount of other goods or services from another individual or household, and in which no money is involved in the transaction. The idea was that barter (along with occasional friendly neighborly assistance) helped to reduce the need for cash income.

The few who succeeded

Generally, the back-to-the-landers who stayed on the land shared three common traits:

  1. Source of regular income from external sources
  2. Married or in a relationship with someone with a comparable level of commitment
  3. Previous exposure to rural living

Many had flexible occupations—like writing and other creative work, or a trade—that they could engage in from their home. Others had steady, if less glamorous, jobs in a nearby town. Those who succeeded were realistic about their financial needs, and also chose a homestead that was comfortable and practical.

The many who returned

For the most part, the back-to-the-landers of the 1970s were unprepared for the realities of a rural lifestyle, and many believed that they could get by without a steady source of income by selling produce and other home-made items. In reality, the problems of costs (machinery, household expenses, seeds and other supplies) and limited produce-distribution options for family farms of modest scale were difficult ones even for farmers who had been raised in the lifestyle by their parents and grandparents. Some back-to-the-landers became integrated fully into their adopted rural communities, but perhaps most returned to city living after a few years in the country, mainly because of financial trouble and relationship problems.

The end of the movement?

There is no well-defined event that can be used to mark the end of the era. A factor that came into play was the increased cost of rural land parcels; at the start of the back-to-the-land trend, previously low demand for rural properties in many areas meant that they fetched low prices in the real estate market, but this changed after some years of increased buyer interest. Also, rising urban prosperity, and a sense that the earlier social problems were solved (though we still hear about many of them in the media), led to reduced interest in rural lifestyles among urbanites in the 1980s.

Instead, the more focused environmental movement, voluntary simplicity, and renewed interest in outdoor recreation took the place of a relocation to the country. For example, while the influential Stewart Brand was not "married" to the rural-homestead concept (he himself has mainly lived in town, in coastal Northern California), he and the many thinkers and doers associated with his publications have tended to remain involved with exploring and promoting values related to ecological and social "sustainability."

Interestingly, a good deal of research that could be of value to modern-day homesteaders was carried on into the 1980s and after. Agricultural colleges and departments within universities, as well as independent teams of designers, engineers, agronomists, and technologists researched and devised many refinements and new approaches to food production, on-site energy production, waste management, home design, and other dimensions of living well and reasonably self-sufficiently on the land. For instance, a group of engineering graduates from Stanford University published a thick compendium of findings and advice in the early '80s.

As it stands, people still purchase rural properties that come onto the real-estate market, and in many areas of North America purchases are not limited to those by corporate farms. And clearly, there is migration in both directions: to the cities, and to the rural areas. A Web search on the term "back to the land" brings up very many hits that indicate a strong interest in non-urban living.

Regarding another possible trend, it is possible that social or economic conditions, coupled with the new technical capabilities, will result in future waves of emigration from the cities and immigration to the rural regions. The worldwide ecovillage movement, while not yet of a scale to be called a "wave," has both urban and rural components that aim at building sustainable village cultures. This global network, along with systematic approaches to ecologically more sensitive design, such as permaculture, have evolved out of the back-to-the-land movement. There are those who see these phenomena as interlinked parts of an agrarian revolution that only began with the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s.

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