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Soul in the Soil

Historian’s new book examines the roots of America’s longing for the land

Maybe you can you make your own soup. But can you grow the onions and garlic for its aromatic beginnings? Can you darn a sock or even imagine why you would consider it? There are some around who will tell you, like it or not, to have your hoes and needles at the ready with the coming of peak oil and climate destruction, but the truth is that many Americans have yearned to return to their rural roots almost from the time they left for the city.

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, author of the new book Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America. “Like most people I had no idea about it,” she says. “I didn’t know they existed. I fell into documents.”

Falling into documents sounds like a historian’s wonderland, but it upturned 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 people were – and still are – driven by ideas far more pragmatic and steeped in the fundamentals of individual character.

The strongest link between the movements, she found, is the desire for self-sufficiency. “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.”

Country road

By the late nineteenth century, along with the influx of European immigrants moving into cities and taking industrial work, there were smaller yet significant numbers of native-born Americans coming to look for more interesting, less back-breaking professional jobs, as well as night life notably missing on the farm. But that shifted.

“Generally speaking,” Brown says, “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.” 

There were two distinct generators of this first back-to-the-land movement, the only one in which the majority of people were literally returning to rural life. On the less seemly side was what Brown characterizes as paternalism by progressive reformers in which they instituted agricultural programs for immigrants that she surmises were in many cases coercive. “They wanted to get people out of the cities where they were (perceived as) spreading disease and causing all kinds of problems. It was the nature of the helping professions in that generation,” she wryly explains. “It’s very difficult to disentangle their paternalism from their desire for social justice.” But there were immigrants, most notably Jewish, who were strongly motivated to move to the land. They set up small widely dispersed farming communities from New Jersey to California.

To Brown the decision to move out of the city was highly rational. “My argument is that these early back-to-the-landers were motivated primarily by their very well placed fear of the insecurity that they encountered in the cities,” she says. “They were living in volatile economic times, they had very little protection, their wages were not sufficient or reliable enough to protect them.”

The second back-to-the-land movement came with the New Deal, which sponsored a series of subsistence homesteads of varying sizes. For the jobless population – essentially everyone – accepting this offer was an easy call. “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.”

Following tracks

Brown has taken care to keep a healthy skepticism of authors on the topic. “When people write back-to-the-land books – and this goes back to the very beginning – they have to present themselves as the case study. That’s the nature of the back-to-the-land book. ‘This is what I did and it was a great success and you should go and do the same thing.’ In order to do that you can’t be strictly honest a lot of the time. Or at least it’s difficult… the tendency to think that what writers propose for people to do is what they actually went and did is pervasive in cultural history because that’s what you have, the printed text.”

She wouldn’t have written the book, Brown says, if she hadn’t been able to find evidence of people who went back to the land to live and work and raise their families without a more grandiose objective. She did this by painstaking census tracking and the discovery of fan mail to writers from ordinary people who were living the life and asking practical questions.

The most famous of these books may be Scott and Helen Nearing’s Living the Good Life, an account of their living off the land in Vermont in the 1930s. The book came out in the ‘50s but didn’t attract much attention until it was republished in the 1970s, “catching that wave,” of the resurgent movement. They eventually moved to Maine and to visit them there became something of a pilgrimage for the new back-to-the-land generation.

The Nearings, according to Brown, were vital for a historian seeking a narrative to link the back-to-the-land movements. “(Scott) is actually a cool smoking gun across the whole century. He’s old!” Brown says. “He was already blacklisted (as a communist) during World War I, went back to the land in the '30s and then lived long enough to influence the third wave of back-to-the-landers.”

As Brown reports in her book, the couple was later criticized for what some see as a betrayal of their followers. They don’t mention, for instance, that inherited money helped their experiment succeed. They also wrote fervently in the book that owning domestic pets was a form of slavery while it turns out that Helen had a cat. Brown seems to have her sympathies, suggesting that the most radical ideology came from Scott. But she understands the reaction.

“People got angry and disillusioned,” Brown says, “in part because they had tried to do what Helen and Scott did. At first if you fail and things go miserably for you, you blame yourself. Then later you say, ‘Wait a minute, they didn’t have kids, they had extra money,’ those kinds of things.”

Common ground

Brown’s book carefully and richly details back-to-the-land movements across the 20th century. Most groundbreaking, however, may not be that there were such movements before the 1970s, but the little understood essence of what drove that third wave. 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.

“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. That’s not the issue most people have assigned to them. I’m really looking at something very different.”

As Brown notes in her book, unlike in previous generations, going back in the '70s was an economic calculus against people’s self interest. Land prices and taxes were higher and food costs in cities were far lower as a percentage of wages than they had been during other movements. “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.”

As Americans find themselves facing another economic crisis, as well as climate and energy issues, they have begun to reexamine, Brown says, what constitutes the good life, whether we’ve gone too far toward self-indulgence, whether kids know how to do anything except buy stuff. In this she sees a fourth wave of back-to-the-land thinking, though she finds with community-supported farms and local cheesemakers next to bread bakers that there is less of a go-it-alone approach than there once was. Everyone doesn’t have to make their own yogurt to be part of the movement. 

She is amused at changing styles: “For an observer of an older generation,” Brown writes in the book, “nothing is more startling than to overhear bandana- and earring-clad young people in the local co-op swapping recipes – not for tofu and vegetarian chili anymore but for pork belly and organ meats from heritage-breed pigs and cattle.”

For those deeply worried about the end of oil, as Paul Roberts puts it, the end of food and the end of easily replaced socks, transition towns, Brown says, are springing up from Britain to Bennington with the idea of a “great reskilling.” While you can still power up the Web, you can even find a darning group.