Back from the Land
I stole my parents' dream of going back to the land, I don't want
to share the end of their story --- fleeing to town and selling the
farm. So when I heared about Eleanor Agnew's Back
from the Land: How Young Americans Went to Nature in the 1970s, and Why
They Came Back, I
had to check it out.
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The reviews for Agnew's
book aren't all glowing, and I can see why
not. She interviews a variety of ex-back-to-the-landers, some of
whom seem to have enjoyed the experience, but Agnew herself has nearly
nothing good to say about her four-year stint on a farm in Maine.
Her book includes phrases like "Building a house from scratch is a
labor from hell," and, although she doesn't use these exact words, I
can tell she thinks current homesteaders and adherents to voluntary
simplicity are naive. However, it's worth reading a more
pessimistic view of the movement in the interest of preventing history
from repeating itself, and the book is well written and easy to read if
you don't give yourself a tension stomachache taking it all personally
the way I did.
As Agnew sees it, most of the
four to five million back-to-the-landers
who existed by the end of the 1970s were young, white, middle class,
and educated. Reading between the lines, it sounds like they were
also philosophers who envisioned genteel poverty on the land as
requiring little work and lots of fun.
Their reasons for going
back to the land were similar to those of
today's homesteaders in many ways, but there were striking
differences. Many 1970s back-to-the-landers joined up because
they liked the idea of being part of something larger than themselves,
and many more ended up in intentional communities or communes than do
today. The 1970s back-to-the-landers also seem to have been more
dogmatic and less willing to compromise --- for example, Agnew seems to
have thought that everything from hooking up to the electric grid to
getting a white-collar job equated to selling out --- and
they also were more isolated and had fewer job opportunities in the
days before the internet.
Differences between the
two movements aside, I think modern
homesteaders should take note of the reasons 1970s back-to-the-landers
fled to cities. For some, the issue was a simple dislike of the
reality of homesteading, whether that was cold weather or slaughtering
meat animals. Chores like carrying water that had at first seemed
so romantic turned into inconveniences, and the hard work left little
time for the creative pursuits many had fled the rat race to
puruse. Agnew (and many others) eventually concluded "if it's
simplicity I want, it's simpler to play along with the system."
Another common theme was being torn down by
Sources like the Nearings (who actually had an annual
speaking income that would translate to $17,000 to $55,000 in today's
dollars) caused these young people to drastically underestimate the
amount of capital required to keep a farm going, so they thought they'd
be able to make a good living selling fruits and vegetables or arts and
crafts (something I preach against in Microbusiness
When that didn't pan out, they tried to get traditional jobs, but rural
areas had few opportunities that paid above minimum wage, so the
more and more time off their farms trying to make a living.
A reason for failure
that seems just as prevalent in today's
homesteading community is relationship ills. Often one partner
was more interested in the homesteading gig than the other, and they
never learned to compromise their work ethics and coordinate their
dreams. The period was also marked by a belief in the importance
of individual fulfillment, and that, along with a lack of personal
space, stress over money, and exhaustion from hard work, caused many
couples to fall apart. When a couple split, at least one of them
inevitably left the land.
Although I found Back
from the Land
to be a handy cautionary tale, I think that most of us have a better
chance of success than our parents did, especially if we're able to
compromise. Now more of us believe we can choose to be part of
society on our
own terms without losing sight of the goal we're striving toward.
We can take advantage of the power of the internet to make a living,
can hire local craftspeople to help us improve our living conditions,
and can still enjoy the benefits of homegrown food and a debt-free
Meanwhile (and as
usual), I think there's also another book waiting to
be written about the flip side of the coin. I know of at least
one couple in our county who went back to the land in the 1970s and
still lives the dream today, so there must be other examples out
there. If you're one of those success stories, I hope you'll
comment with your tips for the next generation.