Posted 14th June 2005
Being a city-lover and devoid of manual skills, I was never drawn to growing crops, cutting wood, milking cows, shearing sheep, or becoming a full time countryman. But in the 60s and early 70s I remember some of my urban streetwise students (the sons and daughters of construction workers, cops, and secretaries) talking vaguely about fleeing the city’s ‘rat race’ and going to live on rural communes or in isolated log cabins, where the counterculture’s vision of a more liberated way of life could be fully realized. My hunch is that few of my students ever did more than live for a couple of months on a farm or spend a weekend baring their souls at a sensitivity session in the Catskills or Berkshires, but the notion of going “back to the land” had a great deal of cultural currency during that period.
Its participants viewed the back-to-the-land movement as an alternative to the soul-destructiveness of technology and the avarice of consumer culture. They also saw it as a way of combating their growing anxiety about the dangers of polluted air and water, chemically adulterated food, and energy shortages. Most of the movement’s participants were college graduates who had been energized by the culture of the sixties. They had read their Thoreau, the Nearings’ Living the Good Life, and Mother Earth News, and felt ready to leave their soft urban and suburban existences for what they saw as the purity of a rural life free of modern machines and comforts.
Eleanor Agnew’s Back From the Land (Ivan R. Dee) - a book that is part memoir and part cultural analysis - provides a balanced, perceptive portrait of the movement. In 1975 she and her husband quit their solid jobs in the city, sold their house and belongings, and moved with their two kids to a remote piece of property in Maine. Agnew not only describes her own experiences, but also offers up many anecdotes from the lives of other back-to-the-landers.
Swept up in their romantic fantasies the back-to-the-landers aspired to create bucolic utopias, but rural life quickly wore them down. Agnew writes that “like the pioneers of old, we saw industry and progress as the enemy of the natural world,” but they naively forgot that the land could be unforgiving as well as bountiful.
Much of the book details their disenchantment - “the downside” - that Agnew and many of the others experienced in their new wilderness life. The counterculture economy just did not work, so self-sufficiency turned out to be near to impossible: “It did not have the size, complexity, cash flow, or diversity of goods and services to survive very well independently.” As a result many of these idealists had to take low-paying, unskilled town jobs that were more alienating than the careers they were fleeing.
The Agnews and the others may have rejected traditional medical care and embraced holistic and natural approaches to health, but they were still beset with illness and injury that demanded the use of 20th century technology - chipping away at their limited finances. Relationships also easily broke up in a world where a premium was placed on personal liberation and close proximity. And men and women often settled into more traditional roles in the country, which often suited the men better than the women. In fact, the percentage of break-ups among these rural idealists probably exceeded the national divorce rate.
Eleanor and her husband separated within four years - she seeking creative fulfilment and a steady paycheck by moving back to the city where she ultimately became a professor of writing, while he stayed on in the country. There were others among their brethren who didn’t surrender their rural dreams, but modestly compromised them by commuting to decent paying jobs in the city and deciding to modernize their plumbing.
Agnew may have given up on her countercultural dream, but is not without happy memories of the years spent on the land - a time when “everything seemed possible.” And she’s positive about the legacy of those years in the wilderness - feeling that the returnees were “people of character,” who learned to appreciate a “balanced life.” Most of them did not become high-powered lawyers or CEOs, but turned their social vision into careers in the arts, or worked as nurses, teachers, social workers and community activists.
Agnew concludes her memoir by writing: “Would I do it again? Heck, no! The experience was enriching, challenging, life-altering, and exhilarating, but once was enough.”
Still, according to Berkshire farmer and documentary filmmaker, Laura Meister, there are a number of college educated twenty and thirty something Berkshire residents who have returned to the land. They pursue less utopian and more realistic goals than Agnew’s generation - blending the use of modern technology with growing organic crops. Meister, co-director with Erica Spizz of Sweet Soil - a film about the relationship of local farmers to the Berkshire Coop Market, left Boston two years ago, and embraced organic farming and community supported agriculture. It’s the kind of farming that respects the land and the animals in their care.
Most of the communes of the back-to-the land movement of the 60s and 70s may have failed, but they left as a legacy a consciousness that the environment was something precious and shouldn’t be callously despoiled. And the struggle to protect the environment from those that would exploit it continues to be fought.