Twighlight at Rowbottom's Dairy just outside Skowhegan, Maine.

Twighlight at Rowbottom's Dairy just outside Skowhegan, Maine.


A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane to Oregon, planning a lecture for a history class at my alma mater–Lewis and Clark College. For the better part of three years I had puzzled over the dynamic that I watched play out time and time again as I researched and studied the back-to-the-land movement. I just couldn’t understand why it was such a contentious chapter in our state’s history. A bunch of kids moved out to the country and tried to grow their own food–what could be more American than that?

Somewhere over the mountain states, it finally occurred to me. By asking people about what had actually happened back then, here where the movement really began, I wasn’t just stirring up the pot. As a younger person who was not there, by approaching the topic in a serious way–treating it as something worthy of being researched and studied–I was assigning it significance. To the people who lived it, many times it was just a moment of youthful idealism, gone and faded back into the fabric of the culture from whence it sprang. But by calling it a significant moment, me and everyone else who finds themselves interested in back-to-the-land living are essentially calling it history.

That means that, at least on some levels, we’re validating some of what went on back then. Sure, everything that the hippies who fled to the hillsides of Maine tried out didn’t work, but that they tried–in the wake of an unprecedented period of social upheaval that’s hard to comprehend today–matters. Somewhere over the mountain states, at 35,000 feet, I finally got it.

The dairy barn, just after 2nd milking and just before dinner.


It would seem that the idea of going back to the land is having another moment, and it’s pretty awesome to have my book be a part of the conversation. Shortly after it was released, I had a great talk with Meredith Goad at the Portland Press Herald headquarters. It was exciting to have a few of my thoughts about the evolution of the back-to-the-land movement included in the comprehensive piece she later put together on the origins of farm-to-table dining in Maine.

But while customers who help feed Maine’s booming farmers’ market economy may be willing to shell out a little more for MOO products or a lot more for raw milk at $8 a gallon, the price tags on Maine farmland are another story altogether.

“People in the ’70s came up here and bought tons of acreage for $1,500 bucks or whatever, and their children now, by and large, have almost nothing relating to that kind of access to land,” says Joseph Conway, the author of a book about second-generation farmers called “Get Back, Stay Back.” This generation, he noticed, tends to lease. They are less romantic about their choices, because they have to be. “They’re not looking at a huge old farmhouse that costs so much to heat and keep up in addition to the farming commitment,” Conway said. They’ve scaled back the intensity, he added, “they’re not trying to reinvent the whole financial system, but they’re trying to use the basic functions of capitalism to do things like build community.” Capitalism, but 21st-century capitalism, where a Kickstarter campaign might get you that mill stone you need.

Such an approach may not have as much counter-cultural oomph as scruffy hair, unruly beards and tie-dyed clothes, but in becoming more mainstream the new generation of back-to-the-landers may have more impact on the world than their parents did. They’ll just do it wearing a MOFGA T-shirt, Carhartts and work boots. And they’ll do it with a better understanding of the opportunities the food they grow have. Their wheat could end up in Jim Amaral’s artisanal bakery, Borealis Breads. Or their beets on David Levi’s table at Vinland. Or their tempeh in the hands of a parent eager to cook for his family using only ingredients from farms they can visit, here in Maine.

But real tests may lie ahead.

Author Conway said his generation of new farmers are in a “touch and go” situation, despite all they’ve got going for them. Government regulations, he pointed out, favor corporate farming. “The fact that some of these people are choosing this lifestyle is borderline miraculous. The deck is really stacked against small farms, of any type, in our society.”

Then, earlier this week, the Bangor Daily News dropped the first installment in a series of articles on Mainers chasing The Good Life. It’s a great primer on how the movement built up a head of steam forty years ago.

Three years ago, I had a hunch all of this sentiment was about to come back around. It’s been fun to study, and even more fun to watch the idea take back off.

Panorama shot on one of my research trips for Get Back Stay Back, downeast Maine.

Pacific Standard magazine is really getting it done these days. First, there was this story about $4 toast in San Francisco by deputy editor John Gravois that This American Life picked up (hint: it’s about what you think it’s about).

Then, over the course of a week in early April, Yukon Territory-based freelance writer Eva Holland summarily lined up and knocked down a series of pieces on what it means to opt out of society in the modern world. Below are links to a few of my favorites, along with a smattering of the best lines from each:

Opting Out: What Is Homesteading, and Why Does It Matter Today?

The idea is at the heart of the early American dream: Land for anyone who’s willing to work it.

Opting Out: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity

The people who are most interested in pursuing these kinds of slowed-down, more home-focused lifestyles are educated middle-class people. They have the education and enough money to even consider spending their free time growing vegetables (as opposed to having to work double shifts cleaning office buildings, say), but don’t have enough money to simply buy their way out of the problems of modern life—hiring nannies, buying all of their expensive organic veggies at Whole Foods. They have the education level to have high expectations for job satisfaction, yet are likely to have mid-level, unsatisfying jobs (as opposed to the high-powered, high-status jobs of the truly rich).

–Emily Matchar, author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity

 

Opting Out: Papa Pilgrim and the Lure of Off-Grid Wilderness Living

Alaska’s national parks legislation allowed for people to live off-grid in pockets of privately held land within the larger preserves, but it didn’t allow for what Papa Pilgrim did next: bulldoze a road across 13 miles of federal land.


Last October I was lucky enough to get hired to write grants for an amazing organization here in Portland. It’s called The Telling Room, and it’s a writing and literacy center for kids. I think we all know that kids are some of the best storytellers out there, and it turns out that helping them put their experiences and ideas down on paper can sometimes be profound and sometimes be hilarious (and in the best cases, both!).

A few times a year, Telling Room staff get the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. As “writers” working for a writing organization, can we really walk the walk?

Last winter, my number came up. There was an open slot in SLANT, our quarterly live storytelling event, so I jumped on that grenade. It’s a bit like The Moth, if you’re familiar–12 minutes, no notes, no props. It’s just you and mic on stage, wilting in the bright lights in front of a significant portion of the population of Portland.

How’d it go? You can tell for yourself now that The Telling Room’s new podcast is up. Check out Episode 20: Soundtrack of My Life. I was fourth in a lineup of some seriously accomplished Mainers, a scenario that saw me almost heaving before taking the stage.

The next SLANT is coming up fast! It’ll be sometime this summer, so keep and eye out and come down. Or, if you’re brave enough, contact us at writers@tellingroom.org and sign up to tell a story of your own.

April 15, 2014 Maine, Simple Living


Two and a half years ago, I started writing a book. Or, to be more accurate, I began research that would lead to me writing a book a yeah and half later.

From the start, I knew I wanted to write something about the back-to-the-land movement. What I didn’t know was what form it would take, what I specifically write about it or really what the movement actually was.

a model wearing earthy, back to the land style clothing
I have a knack for picking up on the beginning of trends and social phenomena in their nascent stages, and I could feel something building back in 2010. The global financial meltdown had left everybody shook. I personally had friends who lost six-digit retirement funds, which they had slaved to build up in high stress corporate jobs for years to accumulate. In a flash, it was all gone, and maybe the notion that long hours and hard work in a cubicle day-in and day-out eventually pays off. The carrot at the end of the stick–grad school, a career, homeownership, stability and retirement–increasingly looked like lead weight, weighing us all down rather than coaxing us forward.
a model wearing earthy, back to the land style clothing
So what if you just sidestepped it all? Could you? Drop out, trade the cramped apartment for a place in the country, grow your own food without the trepidation of out ghastly, horrorshow modern food system, kick back around the occasional bonfire at night. Was it possible?

When I moved to Maine almost six years ago, the general idea was to do something like that. Chase tangibility for a bit, learn to love hard work of a different kind where you’re body-tired at the end of the day instead of angsty and mentally drained. Before long, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my aspirations. At the margins of popular culture, things were taking on a decidedly earthy note. Chicks necks dripped crystals, psychedelic music–in tone, not necessarily chemically–made a resurgence, then came the teepee fetish and the heritage workwear fashion craze.
a model wearing earthy, back to the land style clothing
I saw my generation grasp at authenticity, but would it amount to more than just another consumerist rouse? What would happen if we actually rolled our sleeves up, flipped The Man the bird and lit out for the sticks? Could you really get away from it all?
a model wearing earthy, back to the land style clothing
That’s still being sorted out. My book, Get Back Stay Back: 2nd Generation Back-to-the-Landers looks back to the origins of the movement in the 60s and 70s and traces its evolution to today. Fittingly, two weeks before it came out, “back to the land” was all the craze at New York Fashion week. According the New York Times back to the land The Moment feature, “There’s a handcrafted earthiness to urban dressing this season.” The return of aesthetic, at least on some level, was imminent–but what about the actual investment in ideas like getting back to basics, voluntary simplicity, sustainability and self-sufficiency?

Get Back ⇄ Stay Back · 2nd Generation Back-to-the-Landers from Wool Wood and Whiskey on Vimeo.

IT’S HERE. IT’S FINALLY HERE. My book about the back-to-the-land movement here in Maine is now available for purchase HERE.

If you’ve been scratching your head all along, asking yourself, “back-to-the-what?” the trailer above does a pretty good job of summing it up. I can’t really express enough gratitude to my brother-from-another-mother-and-generation Joey Dello Russo. Add extra thanks to the good dudes from PEALS for the music that glues the images together, and you have yourself a heaping serving of “completely blown away by how generous my friends are.”


So listen up day dreamers, aspiring agriculturalists, burgeoning farmers, homesteaders, cooks, outdoors people, hippies and fellow country living enthusiasts — this book is for you. If you’ve ever dreamed of dropping out, getting back to basics and leaving the rat race behind, I literally wrote it just for you (which is to say for me, too). It’s about sustainability, self-sufficiency, counter cultures, communes, voluntary simplicity and figuring out what life looks like lived outside the mainstream. Really it’s about doing things differently and the way that idealism endures over the course of forty years and two generations.

If you read this blog, and enjoy it, do me a solid and take a step outside the “like and move on” box. Order it and I’ll be grateful, but please go the extra mile and spread the word. Share it, talk to me about it, and let people know what you think about this whole thing. At the end of the day, if you’ve ever wondered if it’s still possible to find yourself a place in the sun, out among the grass and the trees, we’re on the same page.

WWW.GETBACKSTAYBACK.COM

February 17, 2014 Simple Living

February 5, 2014 Simple Living

Snails and periwinkles in Maine.

There are always things that you mean to do but don’t. Sometimes it’s the stupid little stuff: picking up paper towels at the grocery store, bringing your lunch to work or remembering to get your laundry out of the dryer.

Foraging for periwinkles and snails in Maine

But sometimes it’s the big things, the “life experience category” stuff that you know you should make happen for big reasons. When you live in an amazing place, the meant-tos and should-haves can pile up pretty deep.

Foraged periwinkles and snails.

Last week I made one happen though, finally. I’ve been meaning to take advantage of the ample supply of periwinkles and other snails on the nearby crooks and bends of Maine’s coastline for at least three years. Somehow, it just never happened.

Foraged periwinkles and snails.

Countless dinners with friends, a few pop-up suppers and more trips to the beach than I can even remember, and I still never did it. I’ve sweat over more than my fair share of stoves at this point, but never while ushering snails plucked from the rocks with my own hand into the after life (in my belly).

Foraging in Maine.

Well, I still haven’t actually done that, because this time around, when I went out to find these little morsels of meat tucked into their swirling bone homes, it was for a friend. “Snacking on mollusks, straight from the shell, is just a very Vietnamese thing to do…” he implored me in the lead up to the dinner he was preparing for 30 of our pals.

So out I went and crossed an item off the list: forage for snails a stones throw from my home on the ocean. Okay, a bit more than a stones throw, but it was on the way to the beach to check the surf. And I brought this guy, who you know loves to get wet. I’m not sure how he feels about mollusks.

Aka, Louis C.K. — on kids and smart phones.

Oh my god. It’s cool, I’ll stop hyperventilating in a sec, it’s just that… OH MY GOD! THIS ULTRA-HEADY POSTER, TOO! I’ll buy Google Glass if I can have this movie playing in front of my eyes at all times of the day.

July 6, 2013 Classics, Simple Living

If you read this thing on the regular side, you know that I am very fond of a certain band called Small Sur. Well, great news! They’re playing New England all this week, so you can become fond of them, too! Then we can bond over our fondness — you know for great music, stuff old men like to wear, and adventures and stuff like that.

Seriously, catch them here:

6/17 : Portsmouth, NH : The Red Door : w/ Peals
6/18 : Portland, ME : Space Gallery : w/ Peals
6/19 : Providence, RI : Machines With Magnets : w/ Peals
6/20 : Boston, MA : Hive : w/ Peals
6/21 : Brooklyn, NY : Death By Audio : w/ Peals, Pure Junk
6/23 : Baltimore, MD : Ottobar : w/ Roomrunner, Pure Junk, Peals

Check them out before you go if you gotta, but don’t not go! That’s it, over and out until I see you at any of the shows in Portsmouth, Portland or Boston.

June 17, 2013 Classics, Simple Living