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Back to the Future

November, 2007
By John Huckans

The “back-to-the-land” movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s reflected the counter-culture’s disaffection with the high cost of going along with industrial-based consumerism. The idea was nothing new—every other generation or so, in this country at least, has witnessed a revival of the romantic view of a simpler life in the country.

It often follows close on the heels of economic hard times or war—whether the Panic of 1837, the Civil War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, Vietnam or more recent events, it also has a lot to do with people wanting to assert more control over their own lives. Each revival has been accompanied by an outpouring of books and magazine articles that both encourage and feed off the spirit of the moment and the latest hint of a movement in that direction seems to be driven by a curious combination of the economy, environmental politics, and fashion.

In the anonymously published Ten Acres Enough…(NY, James Miller, 1864), author Edmund Morris alludes to the Panic of 1837, unpopular tariffs, civil war and a lending crisis as factors contributing to dissatisfaction with urban life and the attractions of a small-scale rural lifestyle.

“More than once I had seen the values of all city property, improved and unimproved, apparently disappear—lots without purchasers, and houses without tenants, the community so poor and panic-stricken that real estate became the merest drug. Yesterday the collapse was caused by the destruction of the National Bank; to-day it is the Tariff. Sheriffs played havoc with houses and lands incumbered [sic] by mortgages, and lawyers fattened on the rich harvest of fees inaugurated by a Bankrupt Law.


Withal, Morris hangs on to his fundamental belief in the permanent value of land—which has nothing to do with its price in the real estate market. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of how to make a living on a small piece of land, in a paragraph a little suggestive of forester-philosopher Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (Oxford, 1949), Morris takes the longer view.

Wheat grows and corn ripens though all the banks in the world may break, for seed-time and harvest is one of the divine promises to man…they grew and ripened before banks were invented, and will continue to do so when banks and railroad bonds shall have become obsolete.

He stoked the urban-dweller’s fantasy of a more peaceful life in the country, in an anecdote-filled, practical handbook based on his experiences growing vegetables and fruits in New Jersey, and like small farmers everywhere he had the advantage of being able to keep the best for his family, selling the rest to nearby city markets. Ten Acres… was widely read at the time and was into at least the tenth edition by 1868. Commercial success tends to spawn criticism or parody and Morris was a sitting duck for the likes of Robert Roosevelt, a clever writer who had written and published several books of his own (on hunting and fishing). In Five Acres Too Much… (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1869) he jumps right in:

If an uneducated mechanic could leave Philadelphia, rescue a decaying farm, and make it splendidly remunerative, why could not an educated lawyer from New York convert an uninjured farm into the eighth or ninth…wonder of the world? (and) After all, what is the wonderful science in farming? You put a seed in the ground and it comes up—that is, if it does come up—either a pea or a bean, a carrot or a turnip, and, with your best skill and greatest learning, you can not plant a pea and induce it to come up a bean, or convert a carrot into a turnip…

Maybe he was getting even for the dig about lawyers who “fattened on the rich harvest of fees inaugurated by a Bankrupt Law.” At any rate, the rest of the book is an amusing saga and catalogue of his misadventures in house-building, vegetable-growing, livestock-raising, butter-making—in short anything to do with trying to make a go on five acres in the pastoral surroundings of Flushing on Long Island. Five Acres Too Much… teaches us how any gentleman-farmer from the city can, with a lot of hard work (mostly performed by Irish day-laborers) and considerable expense, make very little money.

During the Great Depression, M[aurice] G[renville] Kains wrote what turned out to be the modern, classic how-to book on subsistence farming. Five Acres and Independence… (NY, Greenberg, 1935) was not the work of a romantic dilettante—Kains had been a Special Crop Culturist with the USDA, Head of the Horticulture Department at Pennsylvania State College, and had published widely in the field. The combination of good science (at the time), an easy-to-follow Popular Mechanics approach and plenty of helpful line drawings, gave readers hope that something resembling an earthly paradise might be within reach of anyone with a small income and very little land. His intent was to offer realistic help and guidance to the vast army of unemployed.

One of the most striking characteristics of each “depression period” is the tacit acknowledgment of city dwellers that “the farm is the safest place to live” (but) so long as the income continues the employee is prone to quell what desires he may have for rural life and to tolerate the disadvantages of urban surroundings…but when hard times arrive and his savings steadily melt away he begins to appreciate the advantages of a home which does not gobble up his hard-earned money but produces much of its up-keep, especially in the way of food for the family.

By 1942, Five Acres… had already gone through fifteen printings and the book had a new life mostly because of the Victory Garden movement during the Second World War. I t remained popular through the ’60s and ’70s and is still widely available on nearly all of the bookselling sites.

My own introduction to organic gardening was as a small child helping my father with his vegetable garden during the late1940s and early ’50s. He was one of the charter subscribers to what was then called Organic Gardening and Farming—later on they would drop “and Farming” from the magazine’s title. He also had one of the earliest TroyBilt tillers made as well as really, really serious compost piles. Later on one of my jobs was to help turn them—great for helping to build upper body strength, but not a lot of fun for a kid. J.I. Rodale (OG&F’s first editor and publisher), who more than anyone else popularized organic gardening, would probably be puzzled to see how the word “organic” has become one of today’s most successful branding and marketing tools, used to flog everything from food and fiber to cosmetics.

In the early ’70s, The Mother Earth News (and the Whole Earth Catalogue) became the periodical and handbook that most symbolized the back-to-the-land segment of the counter culture movement. TMEN wasn’t as glossy in those days and early in the game editor John Shuttleworth hired me to write an article on mini-gardens—I cringe when I think about it now, but my excuse is that at the time most of us didn’t know much more than the people we were writing for.

All of this must seem strange to people marinated in the hyper-consumerist ethic of the present day. Since the 1980s much of the countryside surrounding our major cities has and is being developed into five-acre homesteads of a different sort—magnificent two or three SUV-sized garages, with attached homes, acres of grass to mow, and long commutes to get there. As far as living in the country goes nowadays, the paradigm has shifted dramatically. Five Acres and Independence has become five acres and dependence on everybody and everything. Very little Edmund Morris or M.G. Kains, but a lot of Robert Roosevelt—with much of the work performed not by Irish day-laborers, but more likely day-laborers from Mexico or Central America.

Lawn-mowing and professional landscaping is a fast-growing part of the economy. Mulch dyed to nearly any color you might want, riding mowers costing as much as a used car and extraordinary quantities of oil, gasoline, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, a lot of it shipped halfway around the world, are not exactly the makings of an environmentally friendly life style. But then a cup of “fair trade” latte or bag of carrots from the organic section of the supermarket can do wonders to soothe the conscience and help people feel like they’re doing something to combat global warming.

Nonetheless there are indications of the start of a reaction to what one must hope are the last throes of the consumerist excesses that grew out of the 1980s. For example, of the recent flurry of a year-of-doing-this-or-that books, Barbara Kingsolver (author of The Poisonwood Bible), in her recent best-selling Animal, Vegetable, Miracle… (HarperCollins, 2007), confronts the problem head-on. The premise, a good one, is that it is possible to live well by growing your own food or buying it from local sources.

There are also moral implications—increased self-sufficiency on the local level is not just good for the environment or good for the psyche; practiced nationally, it could help eliminate the need to invent disingenuous reasons for invading and occupying other countries to gain control of their natural resources in order to support the affluent lifestyle to which many Americans feel entitled. In American Theocracy…(NY, Viking 2006) former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips writes:

In the years before the 2003 U.S. invasion left Iraq’s oil production in disarray from disrepair and insurgent attacks, ExxonMobil and Chevron had both smacked their lips over sharing access. ExxonMobil, foreign observers reported, hoped to get the Majnoon field, with its twenty to twenty-five billion barrels (and) in early 2004…the New York-based Global Policy Forum published calculations of how much the U.S. and U.K. oil giants stood to make from control over Iraqi oil reserves estimated at close to four hundred billion barrels

A higher standard of living for some, a lower standard of living for others and nothing at all for those whose lives were taken to pay for all that oil. In the meantime, should super-sized SUVs become as rare as dinosaurs, and should vegetable gardens and clotheslines start re-appearing in our backyards, it would be a sign that the idle chatter is over and serious change is on the way.