Back From the Land
Here in the digital age, the time might be right for a second back-to-the-land movement. The first movement, which happened in mainly in the 1970s, was energized by political instability, an iconoclastic culture, worries about food safety and energy shortages, and the young generation’s weariness with consumption and commercialization. Mother Earth News, which was the movement’s publication of record, still hits the shelves of every Barnes and Noble in suburbia, telling you how you can make a comfortable life living in an earth home and raising sheep.
Before you contact a real-estate agent about rural acreage, however, skim through Back From the Land, a chronicle of an earlier generation’s dabbling in sheep raising, tuber farming, and the not-so-gentle art of going broke. Eleanor Agnew aims to show that while the back-to-the-land movement had some noble motivations—a sense of environmentalism, a yearning to live close to the land, and a militant rejection of materialism—the participants of the movement had romanticized country life.
Back From the Land is an odd book—part history, part memoir, and structured mainly on the stringing together of anecdotes, with some supplemental facts, figures, and cultural analysis to fill out the narrative. While that makes for a jolting read at times, it can be interesting for anyone who has fantasized about country life. Many portions of the narrative focus on Agnew’s own experience, when she and her husband quit solid but dull jobs in the city, sold their house and belongings, and moved with their two kids to a remote piece of property in Maine in 1975. Like many back-to-the-landers, they had limited experience “roughing it” and were soon overwhelmed by the daily tasks of chopping wood, firing up the iron stove, washing clothes by hand, growing food, butchering animals, and keeping the VW bug in barely running condition.
Naturally, this life took its toll on Agnew and her husband, and they separated within four years. She moved back to the city, while he stayed in the country. It was a fate common among back-to-the-land couples, Agnew points out. She says that although her generation was liberated and enlightened in the comfort of the city, men and women settled into more traditional roles in the country, which often suited the men better than the women.
Agnew seems to infer that failure on the land was inevitable for her generation, as it would be for most people of other generations. Idiocy seems to be main reason for the failure of back-to-the-landers she discusses—people who move to bitter cold country with no idea how to build a home, people who stake their income and food supply on crops, although they have little experience as growers. Agnew describes a scene from her own country home, when a mouse’s nest, full of tiny mice, falls out of the ceiling onto her bed. With a naive sense of mercy, she stuffs the nest back into the hole, then is surprised weeks later to have a house overrun with rodents.
But Agnew retains some sentimentality for her old country life, and dedicates Land’s closing chapters to people who made something out of their experience in the woods. While most people fell flat and came back from the land, she says, they retained the values they had learned through trial and (mostly) error. “Not only did we come back from the land as stronger people,” Agnew writes, “but as people with character.”