The “Back to the Land” Movement

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“To a privileged generation exhausted by shouting NO to every aspect of the American society they were raised to inherit, rural life represented a way to say yes.”
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“We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America” by Kate Daloz.

In the 1970s, without mass communication or decisions of any kind, a desire to become self-sufficient and live on the open land gripped the young adults of America. Yearning for freedom, rural peace, and a better world away uptight parents and the Vietnam War, the back-to-the-landers made the move to the countryside en masse. In We Are As Gods(PublicAffairs Books, 2016), Kate Daloz recounts not only the joyous experiences of a group of these back-to-the-landers, but the consequences of making this move with little planning and even fewer practical skills. With parents who were of this generation, and having grown up in the dome her mom and dad built, Daloz offers true insight into these people who wanted to first change their lives so that they could change the world.

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[Loraine] was not alone. “There’s a definite panic on the hip scene in Cambridge,” wrote student radical Raymond Mungo that year, “people going to uncommonly arduous lengths (debt, sacrifice, the prospect of cold toes and brown rice forever) to get away while there’s still time.” And it wasn’t just Cambridge. All over the nation at the dawn of the 1970s, young people were suddenly feeling an urge to get away, to leave the city behind for a new way of life in the country.

Some, like Mungo, filled an elderly New England farmhouse with a tangle of comrades. Others sought out mountain-side hermitages in New Mexico or remote single-family Edens in Tennessee. Hilltop Maoists traversed their fields with horse-drawn plows. Graduate students who had never before held a hammer overhauled tobacco barns and flipped through the Whole Earth Catalog by the light of kerosene lamps. Vietnam vets hand-mixed adobe bricks. Born-and-bred Brooklynites felled cedar in Oregon. Former debutants milked goats in Humboldt County and weeded strawberry beds with their babies strapped to their backs. Famous musicians forked organic compost into upstate gardens. College professors committed themselves to winter commutes that required swapping high heels for cross-country skis. Computer programmers turned the last page of Scott and Helen Nearing’s Living the Good Life and packed their families into the car the next day.

Most had no farming or carpentry experience, but no matter. To go back to the land, it seemed, all that was necessary was an ardent belief that life in Middle America was corrupt and hollow, that consumer goods were burdensome and unnecessary, that protest was better lived than shouted, and that the best response to a broken culture was to simply reinvent it from scratch.

What felt to each like a deeply personal, unique response to the pressures and opportunities of their own lives, was in fact being made almost simultaneously by thousands of other young people all across the country at the same moment for almost the same reasons.

They were acting, in part, on a characteristically American assumption that if things get bad where we are — too hectic, too dangerous, too messy — we can simply decamp to a new frontier and start again, that all we need to begin a new venture or even create a new society is a new piece of land. But while there have always been individuals, families, or groups who walked away from city life with high hopes, no other moment in American history has seen anything like the shift that happened as the 1960s turned into the 1970s.

In the shadow of the Vietnam War and amidst widespread social upheaval, this ever-present American urge to reinvent ourselves in the wilderness spiked into its largest, most influential and most radical manifestation ever. That decade, as many as a million young Americans uprooted themselves, almost en masse, abandoning their urban and suburban backgrounds in favor of a life in the countryside.

They were almost all white, well-educated, and from middle-class or wealthy backgrounds. This was not a coincidence. For many, the choice to live a life of radical austerity and anachronism was certainly a rebellion against the comfort and prosperity of their Eisenhower-era childhoods, but that same background of comfort also offered a security and safety net that made such radical choices possible. For some, trust funds and allowances actually financed their rural experiments; for most others, family support was more implied than actual — if things really went wrong on the farm, they knew, their parents could bail them out or take them in. But even those who had cut ties with their families altogether were still the recipients of a particular, inherited confidence. Writing in 1968, sociologist Kenneth Keniston noted that the undergraduates he studied were concerned about finding “exciting, honorable and effective ways of using their intelligence,” but that in over a decade of interviews, he had not met a single one who was worried about finding work. White parents who had exited the Depression into the middle class had raised their children to take affluence and freedom from want for granted, and to expect that a college education entitled you to a good job, whenever you might choose to pursue it. “The feeling — to be very Superkids!” Tom Wolfe wrote in 1968, “feeling immune, beyond calamity. One’s parents remembered the sloughing common order, War & Depression — but Superkids knew only the emotional surge of the great payoff.”

But parents who’d lived through the Depression and the Holocaust hadn’t shed their own anxieties, and they didn’t fully succeed in hiding them from their children. Postwar kids listened to adults assure them that the world was now perfectly safe, but they saw evidence to the contrary everywhere — in their father’s penny-pinching and their mother’s overstuffed pantry, in photographs of Dachau and of Hiroshima. Parents and teachers who insisted to children that ducking under desks would save them from a nuclear attack succeeded only in pushing the children’s fear deeper — not only were they not safe, many concluded, the adults wouldn’t even admit it. They’d have to save themselves.

“Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living,” wrote the authors of the Port Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto that helped kick off a decade of student activism. Young people’s Cold War fears were temporarily assuaged by the Atomic Test Ban Treaty of 1963 — only to be replaced immediately by another horrifying specter. “The Bomb had receded to the status of an abstract threat,” writes historian and former student activist, Todd Gitlin, “but the Vietnam war was actual, nothing potential or abstract about it; napalm was scorching actual flesh, bombs were tearing apart actual bodies, and there, right there, were the traces, smeared across the tube and the daily paper — every day you had to go out of your way to duck them.”

The sudden, spontaneous back-to-the-land movement emerged from the collision between this crushing, apocalyptic fear and the generational confidence that convinced its young people they were still entitled to the world as they wanted it. As Keniston put it, “Never before have so many who had so much been so deeply disenchanted with their inheritance.” To a privileged generation exhausted by shouting NO to every aspect of the American society they were raised to inherit, rural life represented a way to say yes.

Reprinted fromWe Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New Americaby Kate Daloz, with permission from PublicAffairs Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group, published 2016.

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