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.
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.
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:
The idea is at the heart of the early American dream: Land for anyone who’s willing to work it.
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
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.
If you haven’t checked out Singles Club yet, do it. It’s one of the most compelling mix-media creations I’ve seen recently. I’m honored to get to be a part of it soon, when the Small Sur capsule premiers on the site May 6. I wrote one of the pieces that will hopefully give you a deeper appreciation for Bob and his music.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up to tell a story of your own.
And actual tweet from a production company in the UK:
@DevolopmentRaw CASTING Docu-Series – Moving Off-Grid in pursuit of independence & self-sufficiency? Email us for info! Casting@raw.co.uk #backtotheland
When does something qualify as a trend? When the New York Times gives it a nod, or when it gets its own reality tv show?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
At long last, it’s almost here. This Thursday, February 13, 2014, I’ll be hurling two and half years of hard work out into the world in the form of my first book. GET BACK STAY BACK looks at the back-to-the-land movement as it unfolds over the course of two generation here in Maine. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but rolling my sleeves up and diving deep into this topic led me to a place where a lot of what’s important to me in life comes together at a critical juncture. Food, farming, wilderness, art, handcraft, and the pursuit of simplicity — specifically how hard it can be to pursue — it’s all in there.
If you’re interested and so moved, we’d love to have you at the launch party on from 7:30-9:00 at the ICA at MECA in downtown Portland. Support independent publishing and all the elbow grease that goes into it, and maybe share this post or shout about it from a mountain top if you enjoy WW&W from time to time. There’s more to come, which you can keep up with here: www.getbackstayback.com.
If you can’t make it down, copies will soon be available for purchase online. Link to come!
Couldn’t have said it any better myself. And while we’re on the topic of Ira Glass and This American Life, how cool is it that podcasts have contribute to, rather than detracted from, the tradition of narrative radio shows. This is the technology era, after all, and it often seems like every brave new step erases something grand and old.
And despite what this piece says about Why Audio Never Goes Viral, TAM has an audience of over two million listeners. I mean, it’s not Lone Ranger, but there’s still just something about the state of half-zone out one can only achieve while listening to a story without any associated visual stimuli.
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