Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Back-to-the-land: a Self-Serving Adventure

I have been fascinated with the Back-to-the-Land movement for years.

Back when I was in junior high school (or elementary school - can't remember, exactly when it was or how old I was), we lived in a very suburban neighborhood just outside of the third largest city in Georgia.

Diagonally across the road from my house was a typical split-level with a fenced back yard, and it was in that yard that I first discovered zipper spiders and a backyard corn field. I was hooked ... although I didn't know it, yet.

Fast forward several decades and one night, after everyone else is in bed, I'm awake (mostly), sitting on the couch, nursing my youngest and channel surfing. PBS is playing the BBC television program called The Good Life about the upper middle class couple, who decided to turn their home in a London suburb into a farm. I was fascinated. Really? In a suburb? Hmmm ....

From there, I read Dolly Freed's Possum Living - another story about suburban back-to-the-landers, and then, I started reading stories from the real back-to-the-landers, starting with the Grandfather and Grandmother of the entire movement, Helen and Scott Nearing.

The thing that kept niggling me, though, was that for every one person who went back-to-the-land and stayed there, hundreds more came back-from-the-land. I wanted to know their stories, because I felt in their experience was the key to making the movement a success.

Recently, I was reading this article. In the last decade, or so, we've seen a resurgence of the back-to-the-land ideologies, with more and more people rushing to buy up small acreages (and 40 acres isn't "small", but compared to the 300 acres the settlers back in the 18th and 19th centuries felt they needed to subsist, 40 acres is pretty darned small for a farm) and learn to live off the land.

What they are discovering is the same thing that the original back-to-the-landers discovered. Indeed it is what many of the settlers who pushed their way across the continent toward the Pacific discovered: it's hard work, and living completely in concert with the land in a society that values money above all things is nearly impossible. Even those settlers, the original pioneers, needed some money (as we saw in the PBS series Frontier House), and also as we were told in that PBS series, most of the people who left city life to try their hand at homesteading didn't succeed.

I wondered, why so many people fail? It is a good life, or it can be, but one needs to be very willing to make sacrifices. They touch on that subject in a few episodes of the television show The Good Life, and in their writings about The Farm (the communal settlement founded in Tennessee by Stephen Gaskin in the 1970s), Ina May admits that one of the requirements of taking up residence in the commune was a willingness to sign a declaration of poverty. Stephen knew that to live the back-to-the-land lifestyle so many were envisioning would require a shedding of all money-centric ideologies and conveniences.

It was a wonderful goal - to live like the Natives, completely off the land - but it was unrealistic, as so many people discovered, and are still learning in their attempts to truly go back. The unfortunate reality is that there is no place to go back to, and if we hope to live differently, perhaps, more kindly on our Mother Earth, we need to modify our ideas of what that will look like. In essence, we have to go forward - push through the ... whatever this life is that we've created ... and make something else.

Perhaps the answer is to compromise, to live where we can have an income, but also where we can move ourselves further away from the money-economy for our basic, daily needs. Maybe we need to pare-down and simplify and figure out what it is we can live without ... and what we feel very strongly we need to live happily.

The question in the article, and the one that probably plagues anyone who is living a lifestyle with the goal of making a difference, is what wider good is being done by my living like this?. It's a valid question, and I'm sure there are days when I think about that - what good is my not having a clothes dryer doing the rest of the world? And it's especially confounding when I look out the window, on days like today, when a load of towels was left on the line and it is raining on the clothes, which are, now, too wet to bring inside to dry. I'll probably have to wash them again. How are my wet towels saving the world?

The answer is they're not. We, back-to-the-landers in the suburbs, aren't going to save the world. I'm not sure any of us even have that lofty of a goal.

And when I consider my lifestyle choices, I know that what I'm doing should not, and can not, be about saving the rest of the world. I don't have to make a difference in the world.

But I am making a difference in my own life, and really, it's the only one I have control over anyway.

So, in the end, that's why. I'm doing this stuff for me, because living this way is what makes me happy ... wet towels and all.

1 comment:

  1. I loved watching The Good Life as a kid! I need to watch some re-runs.

    40 acres sounds huge! There are very strict Planning controls on building houses in the countryside in the UK. Houses have been sold separately from land because they are worth so much. Rich Londoners like to have a country home! This means the land gets swallowed up into large farms and it is almost impossible for people wanting to start a smallholding. If you buy 10 acres of land - it is almost impossible to get permission to build a home there. It generally takes 10 years and you still may not get permission. The average price for a smallholding (a house with a few acres) is £450,000 - this is way out of the reach of most people. There is a momentum of people who want to grow their own food, but no outlet. Many people choose to move to France or Spain, where property is more affordable. My cousin has just moved to France with her husband and baby.

    You might find this report by the Ecological Land Coop interesting about earning an income on 10 acres or less. http://www.ecologicalland.coop/small-successful-0