Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Back-to-the-land Road to Success

I've been trying to get a copy of Eleanor Agnew's book, "Back from the Land" for a couple of months. It's on my PBS wishlist, and I even ordered a copy from a local bookstore, but they told me that they might have trouble getting it. As it's been a couple of months since I first placed the order, and I haven't heard back from them, I'm thinking their trouble means they haven't been able to get a copy, and I just need to try elsewhere.

Yesterday evening, I was sorting my PBS wishlist, and I went to to have a look at a couple of the books I had listed, including Agnew's book. I often read the reviews, because sometimes they're actually good. One of the reviews of Agnew's book was really long, and as I was also doing a transcript of a town hall meeting, I decided to copy and paste the review, print it, and read it later.

The printed copy of the review was seven pages long. I read it this morning with my second cup of tea.

What a great article! Insightful, interesting, well-written and well-thought out arguments. I just wish that instead of putting her article on an review for a book that not enough people are going to want to read, the author, Alice Friedemann had published her article someplace where the average Joe could find it.

I think her message is one that more of us need to read - the most important point she makes is that we need to revive and succeed in a "new" back-to-the-land movement, because our current way of life is unsustainable.

I loved her compare/contrast of the 1970s back-to-the-land movement and how we should be working toward those same goals today. Perhaps she didn't mean to, but as I was reading the article, I kept nodding, because what she said fully supports my premise that we can (and should) survive in the suburbs.

As we sink deeper and deeper into energy depletion and as global climate change makes our weather more and more unsettled, we will start to see things like massive crop failures. The only way to mitigate food scarcity is to learn to grow (or forage for ... or both!) our food.

Additionally, as Friedemann points out in her review, there is no substitute for oil that will allow us to continue living as we are living. She says that the oil reserves we now have should be allocated to continue shoring up government-based, community-wide programs (like infrastructure maintenance, water purification and delivery, and garbage collection and disposal). I won't disagree with her, but what that means is that we all need to be responsible for cutting our own usasge, finding alternatives for things like electrical appliances, and/or generating our own energy on an individual level. The fact is that when we take away some of the unnecessary appliances (like the clothes dryer and the television), the amount of electricity we actually need is significantly reduced.

The foundation of the 1970s back-to-the-land movement (e.g. the thing that sent the "hippies" running into the wild) was the disillusionment of a whole generation of young people with the status quo (which was too starkly similar to our current status quo) and their desire to be self-sufficient and remove themselves from the money economy.

What they found, as they went back to the land, was that they were sorely ill-equipped to handle the rigors of primitive living. They had very high ideals, but no practical skills. Heck, there's even a learning curve for somethiing as simple as learning to cook with whole ingredients (versus cooking stuff from cans or boxes), and growing 180 lbs of hubbard squash is all well and good, unless one doesn't know what to do with it once it's harvested. What caused most of them to fail was the stark contrast between their idyllic vision and the reality of subsistence farming.

I think the real problem, though, was that they never really did "go back to the land." They wanted to farm and be self-sufficient, but too many of them lacked the basic skills, experience and training necessary to manufacture even the simplest of the goods they needed. In fact, how many of the back-to-the-landers even had the skill to do something as rudimentary as planing a log using hand tools? And I say it's "rudimentary", because in that wonderful series of books compiled and written by Eliot Wigginton and his students only four decades ago, old-time mountain folk teach those kinds of skills. It's not been so very long ago that such skills were commonplace, and we've lost them.

Simple things like: how to make lye, how to render fat, how to make soap from lye and rendered fat, how to weave baskets, how to make a simple quilt using discarded/stained/irreparable clothing, how to split a log, how to make barn boards out of a cut log, how much cord wood is needed to heat a house for the winter, how to butcher a rabbit/chicken/deer, how to preserve the harvest, how to find spring greens, how to process acorns for flour, how to make grits, how to shoe a mule, how to dig an outhouse, how to ....

These are skills that my grandparents (perhaps even my parents) simply took for granted, and things they knew how to do, because knowing how to do those things made their lives easier.

I think Friedmanne's article brings up some very important points, and I think Agnew's book, and the similar Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life, should be primers in how-not-to. In fact, I don't think we should be striving, today, to "go back" to the land, rather I think we should be bringing the land to us.

The back to the landers were given an apple, and they smashed the apple on the ground, stomping it into a juicy pulp. Then, they carefully took out the seed and replanted it someplace else, not knowing if that someplace else was even a place the seed would like.

We, twenty-first century back-to-the-landers, need to take a different approach, and instead of having apples, we need to have onions. We need to carefully peel back each layer, wait until our eyes stop stinging, and then peel back the next layer, until we reach the core. By then, it's likely that our onion will have started to sprout, and we can take the sprout, put it into the ground in the spring and have a new onion in the fall.

Perhaps we don't have time to get down to the core of the onion, perhaps it's too late to be taking our time, but using the onion as our guide, if each layer is one more skill we learn or one more thing we learn to live without that takes us closer to being self-sufficient where we are, then we are that much closer to the ideals that the original back-to-the-landers were trying to achieve - freedom, independence and self-sufficiency.

We may not have time to achieve total self-sufficiency, and, indeed, that may not even be possible on quarter-acre suburban lots, but we definitely don't have time to fail and hope that there's something to come back to, if we, like our 1970s predecessors, discover that living primitively without any prior skills or training is just too hard.

Funny. I just realized that going forward, we should be moving backward ;).


  1. Enjoyed reading your post this morning, I have to agree, its not always about going forward, but it should be a mix of old knowledge with new.

    I love the idea's that some of my local friends have in regards to "back to land movement" but I am always a little bit sad to see just how little 'work' they want to put in when it comes to their end goals..

    There is a large gap between those that dream and those that do.

  2. I have a copy of the book if you would like to borrow it. I've read it a couple of times. Although I thought that some of the authors insights were accurate. I often felt at times that her own personal experience clouded the basic theme of the book.

    It is a lifestyle that does not fit all and the authors own experience was not one that she enjoyed. I know a few people who have been homesteading, off grid for well over 30 years and would not choose to live any other way. Even though they still was their laundry by hand.

    To each their own. I think regardless of how long we have until TEOTWAWKI the skill learned are invaluable.