Was the Back-to-the-Land “movement” a failure or a success?


Portland-based author Joseph Conway wrote Get Back Stay Back, a book about the evolution of the back-to-the-land movement and its relationship with Maine. He tells the stories of 13 families based here in the state. Through his multi-generational conversations, particularly his exchanges with the children of the movement who are now running farms themselves, he explores how the ethos has evolved over the past half of a century.

The project came together in part through involvement of the ICA at MECA. It is part of a larger nationwide project that is working to bring publishing into galleries and treat the form as we treat art in order to foster public conversation.

Joseph and I discussed the back-to-the-land movement, what about the “movement” makes it difficult to classify, how insane the 70s were.

You can watch a short video about the project here, and you can find out more about the book, including how to buy it, here.

How did this come together?

Before I moved to Maine from San Francisco I had never heard of the concept of “back-to-the-land” discussed as a movement. Then I started to hear it a lot. I think when people talk about it here, they tend to talk about that first wave of late 60s through the mid-70s and you could maybe even stretch it into the early 80s. I am originally from a little hippie town outside of Boston and I guess I had just taken it for granted that New England—Burlington, Vermont and parts of Maine—just had that endemic, granola character to it. You know, older people in Birkenstocks starting candle companies and farming or whatever. I didn’t realize that at a certain point there had been this mass exodus out to the country.

I was interested and wanted to generally write about that, so I started researching it and interviewing people and it just kind of seemed like a massive topic. The more I talked to people, the more it seemed like… they did it in a million different ways for a million different reasons. Despite the fact that people talk about it like it was one specific sort of moment done for one specific sort of reason—largely imaging the homesteading movement—it was this massive societal phenomenon.

No one signed a charter and got behind this one idea.

Right. Some people moved out and dug a cellar hole and built a cabin over it and tried to grow their own food. Some people just moved up here and bought an old decapitated farmhouse, got some sheep and did carpentry. I was trying to sort that out and figure out what was what with the hope of figuring out which ideas worked and endured and then ideas that didn’t work.

I encountered a fair amount of interest surrounding the issue, it is still a hot topic and a contentious issue.

To who?

To the people who were there. It seems like there is kind of an element of holdover from that period. There is all of this speculation about whether or not people had family money, particularly the people who made it versus the people who didn’t. I was interviewed on MPBN in the early stages of writing this and a guy called up to say that it was terrible what the Nearings—Helen and Scott Nearing, famous Maine back-to-the-landers—did. He said that they had money and trust funds and weren’t honest about their means so everyone who was trying to do it like them ended up out on their own. I was pretty amazed to see how contentious it was all these years later.

I think all of the native Mainers looked at all of these kids who were moving up here, trying to adopt a way of life that had been largely outdated for a generation at least and they kind of scratched their heads. There were lot of lines of division, especially when it came to the counter-culture, between these generations.

Yeah, I am from Cornish and I know farmers who grew up farming in the generation of the first wave, but they came up in farming families. They never had anywhere to go back to, they were already at the land. And they look at the newer generation of young farmers with a bit of admiration, maybe, but they are also scratching their heads.

That’s exactly it. The debate itself is part of Maine’s culture. I wanted to see what ideas had worked and what ideas hadn’t. And I think anyone who comes to Maine is enchanted with this idea of living life at a different pace, in a different way, with a little more independence. So I wanted to look at what worked and what didn’t, but then it became clear that there was more to it than that.

A good deal of your book is focused on the second generation of the movement. Why?

This mindset that exists within a lot of us where we would prefer to slow things down somehow and live more deliberately. Is that possible in this day in age? What happens when you try to do that? And is it worthwhile to do if your kids are able to get a taste of it growing up but are then unable to do it themselves? I wanted to explore that further.

I wanted to find as many of these families as I could where there were second generation back-to-the-land kids who had grown up, seen it what worked and what didn’t, and in many instances took breaks before returning to farming. I found 13 different families. The “kids” of that generation that I interviewed are between their mid 20s and their early 40s. I tried to track how the ideals underlying the movement have evolved over the past 40 years. There is always going to be a component of kids feeling as though their parents don’t know what they are doing, but these young farmers in particular have a really sophisticated take on idealism. Whereas a lot of their parents were really against this system of capitalism in particular, the kids are a little bit more pragmatic. They see it as a flawed system that they will work within while doing these economic things that create community and honor the place they are from.

What motivated me to write this book in the first place is I just think we can be really bad at passing down information despite all of the tools that we have. In terms of inter-generational sharing we aren’t that good, and that has been echoed by some many of the conversations as part of this project.

It is interesting to see how things have changed over time. I have a 5 year old daughter. Of course generations get increasingly better at figuring out parenting, and we are light years beyond where we were just a century a go. I feel, though, like the wide expectation that you just try your best to answer all of your questions is a relatively new one. My parents loved me and were positive and proactive when I was young, but there weren’t so hot on answering questions. You look back on media and it seems that even acknowledging children as human beings, as equals, was something that only started to happen somewhere in the 80s. Now the bare minimum for interaction includes, at the very, very least, trying to provide them with answers for their questions.

This is something I think about constantly as we are expecting our first child. The idea that as you get older you can see that parents were people before they were parents… The interesting thing about this period is that this is the first generation where you can look back at your parents in full color and see them at your age. I have photos in this book of the kids now and scanned archival photos of their parents when they were young. They all could easily have been contemporaries. This may help finally facilitate that passage of information.

Well it is also the first time we can actively see ourselves in the fourth dimension thanks to the Internet. This is the first time we can draw a line between the past, present and future at any given time.

It is kind of a phenomenal thing. The focus has tended to be on whether the back-to-the-land movement was a success or not and even simply qualifying the terms of success is so complicated. But I see in general that we tend to judge accomplishments in terms of one generation where realistically real social change or evolution of any kind takes multiple generations to carry out. A friend keyed me in to Hegel’s dialectic, where you have the status quo as the baseline, the hypothesis, which is a 90 degree departure from that, and the consensus usually ends up being roughly 45 degrees in the middle of that. I think we find some of that in this new generation of farmers. Their approach, by and large, is a tempered one. It comes in between some of the extreme measures that were taken in the 70s.

And it’s also a different time. 9/11 happened when I was coming right out of college and I entered adulthood during a time of 13 straight years of war. This is a contentious time, but it is nothing compared to what the 70s were.

It is a curious thing to try to figure out if something that had no charter or convention establishing unified principals was a success. Hundreds of years in, we don’t even know if American democracy is a success. Decades after we all agreed upon what it was about, there was a bloody civil war over slavery, the least democratic of institutions. And then whose standards of success are we talking? Is it comparative or contextual? If you look at our first 80 years of existence as a country, let along our long term history, you would say that this is a work in progress to say the least. And the 70s…

That’s the thing. I am really grateful for the perspective that talking with this many people gave me. These kids’ parents, almost all of them, were like, “Do you even know what happened in the 70s?”

Right. That they expressed their extremism in the form of farming and not joining militant groups and blowing up buildings is sort of shocking. The two moves are close in many ways, as it requires putting your life on the line, becoming an extreme outlier, going into extreme isolation.

It was close for a while.

A lot of people talk about why the back-to-the-land thing all came about. People talk about it like it was an evolution of the ideas of the 60s but I would say that the model the Nearings set forth—their book was published in 1954—is a totally different idea of activism. Whereas the 60s were about active engagement and trying to change the system from within, this system was about changing it from without by cutting ties and setting a better example. The ideas was that people would read about it and follow that example. I have come to see the whole thing as just inevitable. A society is going to go off the deep end from time to time. With everything that would happen in that time with globalization, drugs, and all of that kind of stuff, I think it was inevitable.

It is both counter-cultural and philosophically secular, which is interesting as a lot of the societal divestment movements from the end of the 19th century were rooted in religion. Then there were the 1950s, from which the seeds of a number of counter-cultural players and movements were ultimately inspired or born. That mix of new spiritualism that came after the war alone was enough to change everything about the culture as it was known, but as a result a lot of the movements were wacky and unsustainable. Interestingly, it seems as though the only movements from this time that survived are Scientology and the back-to-the-land movement.

Scientology stayed alive largely through brute force, and it was the chaos of the core of what going back to the land was all about that kept it alive. You could do it however you needed to. It was a form of anarchy, it seems, and as such it belongs to conservatives, liberals, socialists, anarchists and whoever else. Its survival isn’t contingent on the success of a larger political movement.

That is part of why I wanted to touch on this. Google “homesteading” and you get a full spectrum of results. There are urban Brooklynites doing it and there are conservatives doing it to lesson the impact of government on their lives. Homeschooling is both a really hippie thing and really conservative Christian thing. Getting away from it all is this darling idea in the American narrative.

I tried to never refer to that initial move in the 70s as the “original” back-to-the-land movement because it wasn’t. People have been doing this in one way or another in this country for hundreds of years. Scott Nearing was born in the 1890s and at the turn of the 20th century he was living in a cabin and growing what he then referred to as an organic garden, so we just keep on coming back to it. So maybe let’s study it and come to a consensus on what kind of an idea this has been.

IMAGE CREDIT: Screenshot from the Get Back Stay Back book trailer

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.