Monday, September 21, 2009

Historical Perspectives on "Back to the Land"

For quite some time I've been asking myself the question "Why did the bright promise of the 60s turn out so terribly wrong?"  As one of the rare back to the landers who stayed on the land, I'm reading several books about the subject to try to satisfy my curiosity.  I've read Arthur Kopecky's New Buffalo:  Journal of a Taos Commune, and am most of the way through the sequel, in which he ends up getting kicked out by an insurgent faction within the commune.  I've got several more books still to read.  This is all apropos of not much, because we're already past the point of no return on a planetary level.  But at least this gives me something to do with my ever-active mind.

I'll just meander along here.  First, time scale.  As far as back to the land goes, 1967 is early.  Anything earlier than that is archaic.  1972-75 is peak, post-1976 is late.  1980 onward is empty husk.  I would put the peak as 1975; this is borne out in the pages of Mother Earth News.  BTW, Mother Earth News started out as a vital, happenin' thing, very unlike the concoction it turned into.

Every time somebody organizes a sustainability conference or whatever, it makes me laugh in a sad sort of way.  Because the sustainability "movement" has remained at entry level for the past 40+ years, while the condition of the planet has deteriorated at an ever-increasing rate.  "Living in harmony with the Earth" never really caught on.  I'm supposed to get all enthused at this late date?  Clearly, the people now promoting sustainability are either deficient in some way (particularly in historical perspective), or have a cynical motivation (trying to make money off it somehow... good luck!). 

Back to the land never caught on because of several factors:

* Too much hard work.  "Physical labor?  You gotta be kidding me!  My skin is white!"

* Not enough money.  People prefer having a "real job" with a regular paycheck with benefits.

* Too much isolation.  Living in the country might be beautiful, but you're surrounded by teabaggin' rednecks, and there's no entertainment.  "I mean yeah, you can listen to the coyotes howl and the wind blow and all that, but, like, where's the ACTION, y'know?"

* Lack of social support.  Working for an organization, you're part of the hive.  You have your place, you know your role.  Grubbing in the dirt back on the land, most people feel cast adrift as soon as the drugs wear off.

There are probably more factors at work, but those four cover a lot of ground.

One thing that struck me about New Buffalo is how hard they worked.  They were working fools (at least, the ones who worked), but never had enough money.  They never had a consistent membership, except for Kopecky (from 1971-79) and a handful of others.  His book is in journal form, not an overview written after the fact.  Kopecky, like all of us, didn't really know what was happening at the time.  (In an earlier, Uncle Gordon incarnation, I used to say, "You never know what's happening until afterwards."  Which is to say, you need time to consolidate the data, analyze the information, and draw some conclusions.  In the moment, we're all just winging it.)

Kopecky kept asking, "Where are all the quality people that will surely be drawn to our quality scene?"  New Buffalo never had any trouble attracting parasites and losers.  But hardworking, consistent people you could depend on?  Pretty rare, and they seldom stayed for long.  Looking back, the dynamics are obvious:  the more intelligent ones quickly said "This sucks" and went back to school so they could get a good job and make lots of money.  I'd say that most people who went back to the land lasted anywhere between 2 months and 2 years, with 6 months being typical. 

I'm supposed to harvest honey today.  The weather forecast says clear with a high of 90 degrees, perfect harvesting weather.  It's now raining outside.  Go figure.

Thus endeth today's episode.