University of Vermont

Dona Brown

Professor of history, author

Dona Brown

As Americans find themselves facing economic, climate and energy crises, they have begun to reexamine what constitutes the good life, says history professor Dona Brown, author of the book Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America. But this movement can be identified several times in our country's history.

So ingrained is the association between back-to-the-landers and sprout-eating hippies of the 1970s that discovering two early, distinct waves of the movement was a surprise to University of Vermont history professor Dona Brown,“Like most people I had no idea about it,” she says.

Her original idea for the book which was to investigate the nostalgia for rural life in a country that was so invested in the image of itself as an agrarian nation. But while there are invariably touches of that, it became clear to Brown that the strongest link between the movements is the desire for self-sufficiency.

Related ...

“It’s an old idea,” Brown says, “that people are valuable in proportion to how they can provide for themselves, how they can stand on their own two feet, how they can be independent of other people and the exigencies of fate or of the government.”

Discovery of what drove the third wave

Most groundbreaking about her book may not be that there were such movements before the 1970s, but the little understood essence of what drove that third wave of back-to-the-landers. Those who left for the land at that time are viewed as part of the environmental movement and Brown acknowledges that, but only to a degree.

"Generally speaking,” Brown says of the first movement, “people started thinking about going back to the land at the moment where there was a tipping point in the population as more people move in and cities become more significant politically and culturally. That happens in the U.S. somewhere between the 1880s and the 1920s. You see people rethinking their personal positions, rethinking whether they wouldn’t be better off in the countryside.”

The second back-to-the-land movement came with the New Deal, which sponsored a series of subsistence homesteads of varying sizes. “It was very much the same idea,” Brown says, “that the land would provide people with a safety net that nothing else they could think of could.”

“There are ideas that I didn’t realize were at the heart of it all along,” Brown says. “I think the thing that ties the interest that the people in the 1970s had to the interests that people in the early twentieth century had was a very strong desire to be independent, to be self-sufficient, to feel the dignity that comes from providing for yourself. That’s very deep-rooted in some people. I think if I have a contribution to make that’s different from how people have written about back-to-the-landers, that’s it...."

As Brown notes in her book, unlike in previous generations, going back in the '70s was not a kinder economic choice given higher land prices and taxes, along with other factors. “That people continued to go back to the land in the face of all those challenges,” she writes, “says a great deal about the persistence of the dream.”