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At times in human history where people and power become increasingly focused in towns and cities, there has probably always been an urge amongst some to head the other way. This could mean going ‘back to the land’, or back to nature.

In North America, there has long been a reverence and respect for the natural environment – as illustrated by the sayings of the native American, Chief Seattle. In the same century (the 19th) the Scottish-American John Muir travelled to California in order to experience spirituality through direct physical immersion in nature [1]. And the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote his book Walden, about simpler living amongst natural surroundings.

Fast forward to the 1930s, and the Great Depression led many urbanites to try their hand at homesteading [2]. There was also interest (on both sides of the Atlantic) for a simpler rural life after the Second World War. This trend was also pronounced amongst the hippies of the 1960s, who built their geodesic domes and got naked in the mud [3]. In the 1970s, the desire for self-sufficiency, and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, led many to seek the freedom and peace of a rural lifestyle.

A similar movement can be identified in the UK. In the late nineteenth century, living conditions in the cities led some to advocate a return to a mythical England countryside; this can be seen in the writings of John Ruskin [4]. Pushing forward to the 1970s, and John and Sally Seymour published books on self-sufficiency, and there was a growth in smallholdings – smaller than a farm but bigger than an allotment. Later that decade, the attempts of two fictional suburbanites to grow their own food in their back garden became a popular TV series (The Good Life).

Despite these waves of enthusiasm for living off the land (in one way or another), it didn’t always work out. In an article titled ‘Why the Back to Nature Movement Failed’, one blogger attributes this to the hard work that is required – and that many urbanites were out of their depth: “They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, ‘Where’s the bar?’” Many would return to the cities… “where the action is” [5].

Another blogger, writing about ‘Smallholdings; the not so happy dream’, reflects on the financial challenges of buying a rural smallholding [6]. In many Western countries, with high land and property prices, this can be an impossible dream.

The same blogpost does however reflect that “smallholdings can make a valuable contribution to the food chain and our economy. According to the Low Impact Living Initiative, smallholdings are more environmentally aware, provide more employment, and are more productive per acre than large farms” [7]. And “the concept [of self-sufficiency] has never been so popular than it is today” [8].

In the US, a resurgence in the millennial generation going back-to-the-land has been reported – tapping into an enthusiasm for fresh and organic foods [9]. In the UK, determined living-off-the-landers have been making good use of the One Planet Development policy in Wales, to set up their smallholdings.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those drawn to simpler living and growing your own food, the back-to-the-land movement lives on.

The story of Hoppi and Tao, two of the founders of the Lammas ecovillage in Wales:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL-LfLsE25w

Endnotes:

[1] Brannon, 2006

[2] Wikipedia Contributors, 2020

[3] Jackisch, 2017

[4] Chettle, 1983

[5] Jackisch, 2017

[6] Nina & Co, 2013

[7] Nina & Co, 2013

[8] Nina & Co, 2013

[9] Graves, 2018

 

References:

Brannon, J. (2006). Radical Transcendentalism: Emerson, Muir and the Experience of Nature by James Brannon – John Muir Exhibit. [online] Sierraclub.org. Available at: https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/john_muir_newsletter/radical_transcendentalism.aspx. [Accessed 4 Jan. 2020]

Chettle, J. (1983). “Back to nature” movement nothing new – dates back to 1880; Back to the Land: The Pastoral Impulse in England, from 1880 to 1914, by Jan Marsh. New… [online] The Christian Science Monitor. Available at: https://www.csmonitor.com/1983/1215/121523.html [Accessed 31 Dec. 2019].

Graves, L. (2018). Back to the land: are young farmers the new starving artists? [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/17/young-farmers-millennials [Accessed 31 Dec. 2019].

Jackisch, S. (2017) Why the Back to Nature Movement Failed. [online] The Oakland Futurist. Available at: http://oaklandfuturist.com/why-the-back-to-nature-movement-failed [Accessed 31 Dec. 2019]

Nina & Co. (2013). Smallholdings; the not so happy dream. [online] Nina & Co. Available at: https://ninanco.com/foodethical/smallholdings-the-not-so-happy-dream/ [Accessed 31 Dec. 2019].

Wikipedia Contributors (2020). Back-to-the-land movement. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back-to-the-land_movement [Accessed 4 Jan. 2020].

 

 

Written by

Mark Andrew studied environmental sciences and policy at university, before working for many years as a town planner. He also has a longstanding interest in most things ancient and mysterious, from Atlantis to the Zoroastrians. He likes to travel to interesting places home and abroad. Currently, he lives and works in South West England.

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