Halfway Back to the Land

I recently finished Dona Brown’s Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, and I highly recommend it as an insightful history of the back-to-the-land movement in the United States. 


I admit that I was initially skeptical of the back-to-the-land movement. My preconceived notions were that the back-to-the-landers came from a 1960s counterculture of being anti-establishment but economically privileged. I was aware that many back-to-the-landers were committed to their ideals and thrived on their small-scale farms, but it also seemed like many of them were not suited to the farming life.


While there is some truth to those preconceived notions, Brown demonstrates two things that I did not know about this movement:


  • Back-to-the-land’s roots stretch much further back to the nineteenth century, and it had various waves of adherents throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century.
  • Back-to-the-land is about more than just farming. It is also about “preserving artisanal skills [and] personal autonomy” against the forces of “mechanization, monopoly, and consumerism”. Brown refers to this desire to preserve skills and autonomy as producerism.


In other words, much of the back-to-the-land movement is about people being tired of how the political-economic system structures their lives and yearning to make things for themselves. Using your own hands and skills to make something is one way of achieving self-actualization.


Ants in an Anthill


I was struck by how relevant many of the quotes and situations from nearly a hundred years ago are today. Brown, referencing famed back-to-the-landers Scott and Helen Nearing: 


The average urbanite is like any ant in an anthill—a helpless creature of circumstance set up by landlord, merchant, factory owner, and banker. [Urban life would] snare the unwary, reduce them to dependence, and force them into a life of servitude in the impersonal mechanism of an acquisitive society.”


Many back-to-the-landers (and dreamers of going back to the land) of the early twentieth century were men and women working white-collar clerical jobs. By the standards of the day, these jobs paid above average wages, but many of these workers were still struggling to costs of housing, food, transport, healthcare, and so forth. These people felt unfulfilled by their work, but they were also tied to their jobs to survive. Sound familiar?


For many would-be back-to-the-landers, some kind of catastrophe, whether personal or societal, usually impelled them to leave their jobs to pursue their producerist tendencies in rural areas. The desire to produce food was linked to freedom from the uncertainty and stresses of wage employment. 


Depression-era back-to-the-land stories reflected a perception common to many Americans, that the the system was truly broken, that the country had gone too far down the path of industrialism, urbanism, and specialization, and that sharp and perhaps permanent change was inevitable. The Depression had unmasked something fundamentally wrong with he American economy, perhaps even with the nation’s polity and culture.” (Dona Brown)


Instead of the Great Depression, one could substitute in Covid-19 or the Great Recession of 2008 and still mostly retain the feeling that the system is broken.




How many of us have ever daydreamed at a job about other things we would rather do? Perhaps during that tenth Zoom call of the day or after that clopen retail shift (again)? What we seek to do during our unstructured time says a lot about us as individuals and as a society. 


Some of us are delusional enough to start a blog and try to write a book. Others want to learn an instrument, pick up sewing, or study a new language. People binge-watch HGTV and fantasize about DIY home projects. Some have stopped saving for tomorrow to live for today.


In my opinion, all these dreams speak to our senses of control and self-actualization. In my post on American values, one of the key American values is self-help, or the desire to take credit for what we have accomplished ourselves. For many of us, it feels good to accomplish something, to feel that we have improved in some way. We want to feel like we are achieving some kind of purpose, whether or not we can articulate what our purposes are.


For some lucky people, that sense of purpose is established through work. For others, we might find purpose in being a parent. In terms of feeling successful, most Americans still point to the need to own a home. But being (financially) successful and owning a home is not the same as feeling that you have accomplished your purpose.


So why are we not making time for the things we yearn for, for the things we dream about for our ‘spare time’? Well, there is an obvious answer. Because most of us have to work full-time jobs to maintain ourselves and our families, to pay our rent or mortgages. Maybe we’ll pursue our passions in retirement! (If that still exists.) We can try to get higher-paying jobs and work longer hours to buy ourselves time and happiness. But more income may not be a substitute for self-actualization. Brown, quoting Carla Emery:


Many people spend their time a paycheck away from hunger or homelessness—because they must pay other people to supply their most basic needs.”


Is this the best we can do as a society?


Halfway Back to the Land


Now, most of us are not going back to the land. It’s not clear to me that large numbers of people would want to be subsistence farmers. It’s hard work. Land is expensive and I would guess much less available than before. There are also more people now.


But Brown does discuss various movements over the twentieth century to go “halfway back to the land”, which did not necessarily require land purchases or complete subsistence farming. Many cities in the early twentieth century started urban and suburban gardens to help improve local populations’ food security. Places like Detroit are doing that same thing today. Urban farms in Detroit have become an integral part of their communities, with many people volunteering on the farms, using convivial tools. And the produce is free.


In a way, going halfway back to the land both reinforces and challenges Americans’ notions of self-help and producerism. Community-level urban and suburban farms allow us to use our hands and make tangible things. We can feel proud of helping to grow food and actually tasting it at our dinner tables.


On the other hand, these community institutions challenge the self part of self-help. We didn’t do these things alone. Others were there to teach us, work with us, support us. In literature, going back to the land has been portrayed as an individual endeavor, but perhaps we need to reframe back to the land as a community effort.


As my sabbatical starts later this summer, I plan to learn how basic services can be supported or provided by community institutions, like those urban farms in Detroit. Can we reimagine how basic services are provided at the community level? Could that ultimately free up time for more people to actualize what they yearn to do and be?