Thursday, October 22, 2009

Back From the Land

Like millions of others, Eleanor Agnew went “back to the land” in the 1970s, and like millions of others, she eventually returned. (Her husband, soon to become her ex-husband, remained.) In 2003 she wrote a book about the 70s back-to-the-land phenomenon, entitled Back From the Land. Her book is a fascinating compendium of stories from young Americans who tried the “homestead adventure.”

Communes were common back then, but most of the back-to-the-landers were young couples setting off on their own. During the peak of the movement in the mid-70s, they could locate just about anywhere and find other like-minded couples and groups to associate with. But living on the land proved to be a hard slog, and most back-to-the-landers didn’t stay for long.

Typically, a young couple would find themselves working nowhere jobs in the city. The money might be good, but they felt unfulfilled. A mass vibration was in the air: move back to the land, live in harmony with the Earth, form communities of one type or another, develop a new culture – a counterculture – that would provide an antidote to the warmongering, Earth-destroying madness of the mainstream Megamachine.

We know how that one turned out, don’t we? But back then, the future seemed bright with promise. Anything seemed possible.

So the young people would work a few more months, or another year or two, save as much money as possible, and move back to the land. If they moved back during the summer, they had a magical introduction to country life at its best, especially if they had a good stash of marijuana to keep them in the mellow zone. Planting a garden, building a house, herding some goats, having potlucks with whatever like-minded neighbors were to be found, life was good.

Come winter, however, things turned grim, especially in cold climates like Maine or upstate New York. Their handmade log cabin was uninsulated, and it leaked. Their wood stove was inadequate. They were running out of firewood and it’s only January. Worse, they were running out of money and had to find a minimum-wage job in the nearest small city 40 miles away. Their car wouldn’t start on cold winter mornings. They got the flu at the same time and spent a week in bed, cold and miserable. Their parents thought they were crazy, and told them so in every letter.

In most cases sooner rather than later, the young couple either split up and returned to the city separately, or stayed together and returned to the city together. But it was a no-brainer: go back to school, finish that degree, get a good job with benefits. Just like their parents. That’s why it’s called the Freeway Path – because so many people are taking it. It’s “The Path Most Traveled.” The Goat Path, on the other hand, often you can’t even tell if there’s a path. You might very well find yourself lost and alone out there in the wilderness. So it’s no wonder that the Freeway Path was so popular, with its gentle grades, rest stops, and helpful signs pointing the way.

Agnew was one of the back-to-the-landers who left, so her perspective is understandably skewed to the 90% or more who didn’t stay. But what about the ones who stayed? Now there would be a book worth reading! How did they manage to carve out a niche on the land when the entire mainstream zeitgeist hurricane was howling in exactly the opposite direction? Do they have anything to tell us?

For one thing, those who stayed managed to create a gig for themselves. In northern California, for example, many of the 70s back-to-the-landers became marijuana farmers. Over time they created a curious hybrid culture – stoned and alternative on one hand, prosperous and mainstream on the other. Another common gig was to become artists or craftspeople – spend the winter and spring making items to sell, then hit the Renaissance Faire circuit during the summer and fall. Another way was to utilize one’s university degree and get a job in the nearest town while still living on the land.

In most cases, the countryside became suburbia – the homestead became a bedroom with a pretty view. The original goal – to live as independently of the mainstream as possible – was quickly lost.

I’m interested in the ones who not only stayed, but managed to create a sustainable lifestyle for themselves and for the planet. These people would be hard to locate, because they would – almost by definition – keep a low profile. But it would be fascinating to interview a few dozen sustainably long-term residents of the countryside and see what they have to say.

In my own case, I really had no choice. I went back to the mainstream briefly (for five months) in 1971, and was so miserable I would rather starve on the land than make good money in the city. (We never did starve, but we were down to white flour frybreads and greens for awhile there.) I just lucked out. I ended up just the right distance (not too close, not too far) from the second-largest city in New Mexico, in an area that provided a lot of bee forage – mesquite, cotton, alfalfa, saltcedar, wildflowers. So not only could I produce honey, I could easily sell it. The rest is history. I’m far more middle-class then I would prefer. My life, as far as the Earth is concerned, is unsustainable. Yet I have always asked myself, “What if I could build all the infrastructure I needed – garden, orchard, irrigation system, water catchments, etc. – would I ever be able to live sustainably? Really and truly sustainably?” The answer seems to be: “Perhaps, but nobody else will. And if nobody else does, I’m still screwed.”

It’s a shame the Pied Piper of Dirt gig never worked out for me. That’s the career I really wanted all along: Live sustainably, write about it, hopefully inspire others to do their own version of it. Lord knows I tried for 30 years. I promoted the hell out of the back-to-the-land trip in my own small way. But the Megamachine was too powerful, and my voice was too feeble, to change the trajectory of the mass culture. (If a bird is singing in a tree next to a busy freeway, what do you hear?) So these days I write for the hell of it, because I enjoy it, and occasionally somebody tells me that they like it. But it’s a pity things didn’t turn out like we hoped they would. It’s a shame the back-to-the landers gave up so easily, but then again, they really had no choice.