Book Review: Back to the Land by Dona Brown

When most people think of the “Back to the Land” movement, the image that generally comes to mind is of hippies retreating to rural communes in the early 1970s. However, in her new book entitled Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, Dona Brown effectively shows how those back-to-the-landers were simply the latest manifestation of a very old American cultural tradition. As she powerfully demonstrates, the impulse to return to the land can be traced to the era when Americans first began to leave it for life in industrial cities.

A professor of history at the University of Vermont, Dr. Brown buttresses her narrative with numerous examples drawn from her extensive knowledge of the primary sources, beginning with the very first back to the land book. Published in response to the economic crisis of 1857, Ten Acres is Enough initiated a pattern that would continue for more than a century. In moments of crisis when unemployment became rife in the cities, many people came to see owning a farm as a powerful buffer against the vagaries of the market economy (in particular, the movement seems to have appealed to the higher echelons of blue collar workers and the lower middle class). In the time from the panic of 1893 to the First World War, the back to the land impulse became an actual movement, with powerful backers, several magazines, and an extensive number of published books.

The War and the prosperity of the 1920s moderated the movement’s goals and vision, but its radical side reemerged with a vengeance in the 1930s, when some aspects of it were incorporated into the New Deal. Partially in response to that institutionalization, a decentralist, alternative back to the land movement, which was very suspicious of the central government, also emerged during this period, centering in Vermont. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for Vermont to be one of the main stops for the subsequent generation’s own back to the landers.

Outlining in great detail the projects and personalities that characterized the back to the land movement over the course of the past century and a half, Dr. Brown’s book is not only a rich source of information about the past, but also casts many of the projects of the present in a new light. As her work demonstrates, things like food sovereignty and the local food movement exist are not wholly new developments, but descend from a long and venerable lineage. Even Vermont secession, which most contemporary advocates trace back to Frank Bryan’s work in the late 1980s, is shown to have reared its head in previous iterations (Vrest Orton, the founder of the still extant Vermont Country Store, was advocating a second Vermont republic as early as 1928). As such, this book is not only of great interest to those with an affinity for the history of social movements or of Vermont, but it is also essential reading for anyone involved in contemporary projects inspired by the back to the land spirit. Understanding the motivations and experiences of one’s intellectual ancestors is essential to fully comprehending the meaning of one’s own work, and Dr. Brown’s book is the best tool I’ve encountered for cultivating that consciousness. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Back to the Land!

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