Six Kinds of Back-to-the-Landers

Moving out to the country. It’s a very simple concept—what I mean to say is, there’s really nothing implied in it besides the bare fact of leaving the city and living where there aren’t so many buildings. But, if you mention “moving out to the country” to every person you meet, each person will translate that one simple idea into a complicated vision that’s fleshed out into a degree of detail that was never implied at all by the original idea. And the strange thing is, it seems like almost everyone slips automatically into imagining that their own very specific vision is, more or less, the one and only way of moving back to the land.

I’ve noticed a lot of these visions over the last year or so as I’ve been talking more and more about moving out to the country, and it seems to me that you could sort most people’s visions into a few broad archetypes—each one based on how that person thinks they would live in the country. Which one are you?

The vacationer

If you’re the vacationer you’re really, at heart, a city person, or at least a suburb person. You can easily picture going out to the country for a week, maybe two weeks at a stretch. In fact, you might treasure that—it’s an amazing annual way to unwind and wash off some of the stress of the daily grind. You can go out and spend a while fishing or canoeing in lake country, or hike in the mountains, or take an annual trip out to the forest and hunt some deer. But to spend any stretch of time longer than a couple weeks is almost inconceivable. You’re aware that some people actually do live out in the country their entire lives, but you feel somehow that those people must be missing something fundamental in life that you get from living in the city, where the people are. Your version of “moving out to the country”, if you had unlimited money, would be to buy forty acres out on the lakeshore or in the woods or the foothills, where you could have a cabin built. Then you could take off to it whenever you want. And since that doesn’t really constitute moving, you’d also buy a house in an outer-ring suburb or a nice medium-sized town, where it’d be at least a little peaceful, and maybe deer would visit your yard, but there’d still be a grocery store and some good restaurants.

The hobby farmer

You may have grown up on a farm, or maybe you just always thought it seemed like a nice way to live. In any case, you’ve spent enough time in the city and if you had the chance and the disposable income, you’d be done with it and just move out to start a little farm in the country. You’d grow some of your own vegetables, have a chicken coop—maybe even a little flock of goats. You have no interest in selling at a farmers’ market, because you’re just in this for the lifestyle, not to start a business. You might have an abstract ideal of growing most or all of your own food, but you’re not really planning on that too much: there’s a sweet spot between hard work and relaxation. You’ll send canned vegetables to your family out of town and trade some with your neighbors, but you’ll never sell or turn a profit, and you’ll always depend on the grocery store, whether it’s only your fallback option for the cold season, or whether it’s where you get your “real” food, the staples and the day-to-day meat.

The doomsteader

You’ve seen the handwriting on the wall. The system we all live in is dying, and it won’t be long at all before it falls apart in a very big way. When that happens, the city will be a great place to get killed quick: as soon as the grocery store shelves start getting bare and the fuel pumps are all empty, the city will turn into one big, seething riot. You could buy a lot of guns and take your chances, but your odds with those guns are a lot better in the country. If you had unlimited money, you’d buy land somewhere far away from everyone, lots of it, and you’d build a bunker underground stocked with ten years’ worth of canned meat, vegetables, sacks of flour, sacks of beans, gas masks, guns, and ammo. You’d make sure there was enough room for your family and maybe a carefully chosen cadre of friends, but you’re suspicious of letting too many people know your plans, because if your location is known when the SHTF,1 that’s the first place all the roving hordes of cannibals will go. When you mention roving hordes of cannibals, you’re sort of joking, but only halfway.

The organic farmer

You’ve read every book Michael Pollan has written, and you know that America desperately needs a generation of new farmers—and they need to be ones who will respect the land itself, who won’t degrade it the way fifty years of industrialized agribusiness has, washing away an inch of topsoil every year, dousing the entire country with billions of pounds of poison, creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that keeps getting bigger each season. You’re probably young, and probably college-educated, but when everyone tried to tell you to get a career in industry, you knew that wasn’t your real calling, so you’re walking the talk by joining the movement of young people going out to farm.

You have a few acres of vegetables and you work incessantly, from dawn to dusk at the very least, through the whole warm season: tilling, planting, weeding, continuing to weed, weeding again, weeding some more, harvesting, selling to affluent people at the farmers’ market for meager profits. You curse Monsanto and Archer Daniel Midland and all the other agribusiness multinationals that use their billions in profit to keep small organic farms from becoming anything but a small niche market. But you hold out hope, deep inside, that Americans will slowly realize that they need to eat real food, and that something bad will happen the megacorporations, or the government will force them to stop.

The dropout

Fuck the system! You’ve lived your entire life doing what’s expected of you, from elementary school to high school to getting prodded into college (whether you’ve gone or not), and the prospect of working a 9-to-5 job for forty years until you can finally spend some time on cruise ships in your sixties and seventies is, non-negotiably, not an option. Laws and the government are even worse than all these societal expectations, and you dream of going somewhere where none of those things can touch you. You want to get away, you want to live in the country with other people who’ve seen through the American Dream the way you have. The hippie communes of the ’70s are where your forerunners went when they figured it out. Out there you can do what you want, you can smoke and walk around naked and never have to work. The land offers abundance and you’ll be able to grow your own food and drop off the grid, to sunder your dependence on the system once and for all, and live in harmony and community with your brothers and sisters in the only real sane way to live.

The permaculturalist

Most of the things that people talk about doing out in the country ring hollow to you; they sound like continuations, with just slight changes, of the way of life that’s gotten the planet into its current mess. Organic farming is attractive, but it doesn’t go far enough. Instead of repairing the land, it settles for not doing (much) harm; it relies on the capitalist profit motive that leads to hierarchicalization and depletion of resources. (And it’s fighting a losing battle against agribusiness: organic farming sustains itself by making money, but agribusiness is far more persistent and ruthless in its pursuit of that money, so organic farming is basically hamstringing itself by having morals.)

You’d rather make the world better, rather than just stop making it worse—rebuild the topsoil, reforest the clearcuts, let plants grow to take the carbon out of the air. And you believe that learning how to do these things is the best way to get humanity through the future, which will be marked by oil shortage and shrinking economies. The solution is permaculture, with its small, simple solutions that encourage everyone to re-localize and rediscover their neighbors (human and—especially—nonhuman), and don’t depend on massive infrastructures and centralization. We have to learn how to depend not on the system, and not on our individual selves, but on our communities.

I’ve made no secret of being a permaculturalist, the last one. When I describe what I want to do, though, I’m sometimes perplexed at how people hear it. Often it’s not that they think I’m doing a completely different thing, it’s just that they assume that the part that resembles their vision is the main point. Yes, I’ll be growing some vegetables and raising some animals, but I’m not just doing that because I have a Protestant work ethic, or because I want to be self-reliant, or because that’s what you have to do if you’re living where the cops won’t bother you. It’s because I want to learn new ways of doing all those things with less energy while improving the soil and the water around me, and then I want to spread those ideas as far as I can. I want to help build a new society that works with nature instead of against it.

I’m not saying (at least here) that people with a different focus are all wrong, I’m just saying that that’s not my focus. That’s why I wrote this: so that, in the future, when I talk about moving back to the land, I can show people this and maybe they’ll understand what I’m actually talking about, instead of how it’s a little bit like their own vision.

  1. Shit Hits the Fan. This is a very common abbreviation among doomsteaders. 

File under: homesteading, deep thoughts, new world, permaculture


Anonymous

History

Chuck, I enjoyed reading your take on the different back to the land types.

Now here's a "I have Attention Deficit There's a Butterfly Disorder, Subject Change":

This link may interest you,

https://www.facebook.com/savewardernurserynow/

Reply

Chuck

History

Micah has their sign up in the yard. I was going to call, but I found their email address on that page, so I wrote them a letter. I hope it's not too late for Warder. I'm going to do what I can for them, which might just be writing a letter or a story, but I hope Warder can be there for future generations of suburban kids.

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david troxel

History

It's possible that some want to move to the country moved solely by a vague notion of change, simplification, decompression of some sort. Not necessarily motivated by existential eco-angst, sin guilt projection, or any other intellectual construct. We just think we may like it. Then perhaps we could buy a horse, chew some tobacco, and ride a motorcycle across the back 40 naked.

Reply

Chuck

History

That's why I decided to call this "Six Kinds…", not "The Six Kinds…". Sounds like you've found a seventh. If you'd like to write it up like the ones I wrote about, I'd actually put it in the post.

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