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Back to the land

The back-to-the-land movement was a migration from cities to rural areas that took place in the United States mainly in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The roots of the movement can be traced to the 1954 publication of Helen and Scott Nearing's book, Living the Good Life (Reprint edition ISBN 0805209700). The book chronicled the Nearing's move to a cottage in a rural area of Vermont and their simple, self-sufficient lifestyle. The Nearings, in turn, were influenced by earlier writers, particularly Henry David Thoreau.

The movement was fuelled by rampant consumerism and failings of government and society, including the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the 1973 energy crisis, and growing public concern about air and water pollution. While not strictly part of the 1960s counterculture movement, the two movements had some overlap in participation.

Besides the Nearings and other authors later writing along similar lines, another influence from the world of American publishing was the unprecedented, vigorous, and intelligent Whole Earth Catalogs. Stewart Brand and a circle of friends and family began the effort in 1968, because Brand believed that there was a groundswell - perhaps especially among the young - of biologists, designers, engineers, sociologists, organic farmers, and social experimenters who wished to transform civilization along lines that might be called "sustainable." Brand and cohorts created a catalog of "tools" - defined broadly to include useful books, design aids, maps, gardening implements, carpentry and masonry tools, metalworking equipment, and a great deal more.

Many of the North American back-to-the-landers of the 1960s and 1970s made use of the Whole Earth Catalogs and successor publications.


The target lifestyle

Most of the back-to-the-landers wanted greater contact with nature, and sought to become self-employed workers in a cottage industry . Many wished to build their own house, and produce a good deal of their own food. Solar energy was sometimes used for either heat or electricity, and wood heat was popular.

The few who succeeded

Generally, the back-to-the-landers who stayed on the land shared three common traits:

  1. Source of regular income from external sources
  2. Married or in a relationship with a comparable level of commitment
  3. Previous exposure to rural living

Many had flexible occupations, like writing and other creative work, that they could engage in from their home. Others had steady, if less glamorous, jobs in a nearby town. Those who succeeded were realistic about their financial needs, and also chose a homestead that was comfortable and practical.

The many who returned

For the most part, the back-to-the-landers were unprepared for the realities of a rural lifestyle, and many believed that they could get by without a steady source of income by selling produce and other home-made items. Most returned to city living after a few years in the country, mainly because of financial trouble and relationship problems.

The end of the movement

There is no well-defined event that can be used to mark the end of the era. Rising prosperity, and a sense that the earlier social problems were solved (though we still hear about many of them in the media), led to reduced interest in rural lifestyles in the late 1970s. Instead, the more focused environmental movement, voluntary simplicity, and renewed interest in outdoor recreation took its place.

While the influential Stewart Brand was not "married" to the rural-homestead concept (he himself has mainly lived in town, in Northern California), he and the many thinkers and doers associated with his publications have tended to remain involved with exploring and promoting values related to ecological and social "sustainability."

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45