Three years ago when I began research on my book on the back-to-the-land movement, “Get Back Stay Back,” my motivations were mostly practical. Long before my wife and I moved to Maine, we began talking with friends about buying land together. It seemed to make sense; it was a handy way for us to be able to afford a place of our own, we could garden and build our own homes to save money, and raise our kids with good friends.
But would it actually pan out? When I met a few older folks who self-identified as back-to-the-landers — old hippies and more straight-laced types alike — I figured it made sense to ask. What had worked? What hadn’t? Was it all just an exercise in overly ambitious idealism, or did they accomplish something real back in the ’70s?
I knew the answer most likely lay somewhere in between. Few ideas are either all good or bad, but I was surprised by the amount of controversy still swirling around when it came to the back-to-the-land movement’s legacy. Both people who were there and people who weren’t had very strong opinions. Few Mainers, it turns out, are neutral on the subject.
So I read as much as I could: the founding documents by the moveme nt’s figureheads in-residence , th e Nearings; the firsthand accounts of twenty-somethings who tried to carve out a life for themselves in the woods; reactions from locals who stood by and shook their heads in disbelief at the influx of kids embracing long outdated ways.
And I drove long loops through the state, 900 miles at a time. My goal was to talk to as many people, in as many places as I could. Initially, things didn’t get much clearer. No one seemed to agree even on what the movement looked like in actual practice. Total self-sufficiency? Homesteading? Farming? Ax and adz or chainsaw? Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? Stick out or blend in?
Essentially, what I learned was that people went back-to-the-land in a lot of different ways, for a lot of different reasons.
When it came to those who stayed and those who left, basic human factors couldn’t be ignored. Building a house — that is to say having a house built for you — has been known to break up marriages in and of itself. And those who did stay often edited their approach over time. They got solar panels and tractors, sold off their herds but kept their gardens, and in some cases, got haircuts. So where does the line between success and failure lie?
As Americans we’ve proven ourselves to be obsessed with the idea of going back-to-the-land. At odd intervals throughout our history as a nation one group or another has come to believe that all the answers to life’s problems lie on a few sunny acres out in the country.
The uninitiated, when confronted with the reality of exactly how hard it is to grow food and live off the land, always recoil. The Pilgrims, the early colonists, Emerson and Thoreau, the utopian experiments of the mid-1800s, even Henry Ford in the 1930s — the back-to-the-landers were just the next generation in a long line. Forty years later, I and anyone else who idealizes rural life as “simple” in any way also stands to learn a lesson or two.
But then I met a few young farmers and homesteaders around the state who made me look at things differently. They grew up in the thick of it, watching their parents navigate all the challenges that came with going back-to-the-land. Many of the kids grew up looking for an excuse to leave Maine and do something — anything — different. It took leaving to see the wisdom in their parents’ decision to try to “get away from it all” and give them a different kind of life in a different kind of place.
Now they’ve returned, a second generation of back-to-the-landers, picking up where their parents left off. Times have changed and so has their approach. The stories of the 13 families in my book, “Get Back Stay Back: 2nd Generation Back-to-the-landers,” detail how some ideals endure and some have unraveled as the debate about the movement’s legacy continues, here in the place where it all began.
Joseph Conway is a writer and editor based in Portland. More information about his book, “Get Back Stay Back: 2nd Generation Back-to-the-landers,” is available at www.getbackstayback.com.