The “Back to the Land” Movement

Living in communes, co-ops, and handmade geodesic domes, each feeling a deep personal objection to their current lives, the youth of the 1970s surged at once away from their urban lifestyles into sustainable rural living.


| September 2016



Rural scene

“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.”

Photo by Fotolia/emoraes

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.