Q of the Week: Back to the Land

As I help out with the work of getting Raven’s Knoll ready for next year’s festival and events season, I find myself thinking about all various attempts by ecologically conscious people to go “back to the land”. That is, I’m thinking of all the people I’ve met over the years who have dreamed of building eco-communes, intentional communities, and the like; those who dreamed of living in an environmentally sustainable or low-impact home, on a mostly self-sustaining organic farm. On Philip Carr-Gomm’s blog I saw a link and a video about That Round House, a low-impact “deliberate peasant” home in Pembrokeshire, Wales. My girlfriend then sent me links to a cob home in British Columbia, and also a cordwood home in eastern USA.

I must admit, these are beautiful homes. Indeed I’d be delighted to live in a place like Hobbiton, making my own bread and wine, and raising money through a few carpentry projects, and through writing philosophical books and traveling to book-signing and speaking gigs. I’d be following the footsteps of a few philosophers who I admire, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, who walked across the Alps alone as he composed his early works, or Henry David Thoreau, who wrote the first ‘modern’ environmental philosophy texts in his cottage by Lake Walden. A simple life close to one’s landscape can be a good life, and indeed a happy one.

But I’m also skeptical about such a life. For one thing, there are certain amenities of civilisation and modernity that I really like: running water, flush toilets, electricity, central heating (especially in winter), the internet, and so on. Not that I’d have to give up all of those things in order to live in a low-impact rural home: the builders of That Round House have electricity and running water, for instance. Speaking personally, were I to move to a place like it, I would be giving up rather a lot: a prospective career in academia or in government, as my various qualifications make possible for me, for instance. I also suspect I’d be giving up other things too.

Living in an eco-village would also require great psychological resources, for instance to prevent loneliness and isolation, and to preserve relationships like marriages and families. But a lot of the people I’ve met who dream of building eco-sustainable houses in the countryside are people I wouldn’t want to live with: people motivated by resentment, begrudgery, even hatred, of modernity. They understand quite astutely that modernity has serious problems, but the solution they offer is to drop out of it altogether, and “return to the old ways” of mediaeval or iron-age peasant life. But with solar panels.

I think we can’t ask everyone in society to give up modernity and return to peasant life that way: not just because most people no longer have the traditional farming knowledge anymore (that knowledge could be re-learned), but because most people benefit from modernity, and are glad to have the material prosperity and comfort it brings to most of us. The emphasis on individualism, as a social value, which we have all learned from an early age, probably presses against the kind of community values that would be necessary for an intentional eco-community’s success. But if we ask people to give up some of their individualist values, then we would be in effect asking them to give up a major part of their identities too. That might be too much to ask of most people.

Well, I understand that a lot of modern life is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable. And like most of you, I want to see a more ecologically conscious, artistically flourishing, economically prosperous and socially just world too. But I’m not sure if going “back to the land” is the way to make that world happen. So, let me put the question. If you have ever had a dream for an ecologically low-impact, mostly-self-sustaining rural community, of if you know anyone who has such a dream, what motivates it? Why is such a place appealing? What do you think its problems are likely to be? Would such a place turn the wheels of history backward, or usher it ahead? Could such a life truly serve as a better alternative to modernity? Why, or why not?


This is one of my photos of the hills and farms
to the south of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

This entry was posted in Archive 2007-2009. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Q of the Week: Back to the Land

  1. erynn999 says:

    I grew up on a farm through much of my youth. I bucked hay bales, mucked stalls, milked cows, dug potatoes, ran a trapline, and walked to grade school in the snow. I wouldn’t go back to it on a bet. This isn’t just due to my physical limitations. I would be nearly useless on a farm because of them and I know it, but the largest part of why I wouldn’t do it is because I love what cities give me.

    I love variety — ethnic cuisine, global music, art film, nightlife, bookshops, friends. I love the openness of city life where people are allowed to be themselves because there are so many of us that nobody cares if you’re different. I die a little under small town conditions where everyone is in everyone else’s business and you’re “new” if your family has been there less than 200 years. I hate the cliquishness of small towns and the conservatism of most small town mentalities. I hate the enforced sameness.

    While I love camping, I can come home from the wild. I can have a hot shower and go for good Thai. I can pop in at the local chai shop and expect to see people I know, of all kinds of spiritual persuasions. I can get my computer fixed easily, I don’t have to wait two weeks for a part for my car if it breaks down, and most of all I don’t have to worry about growing, hunting, raising, or trapping all my own food.

    When I grew up, we were pretty poor. We ate a lot of potatoes because that’s what we had, and when they started going off in the cold cellar in the middle of February, we had to eat them anyway because that’s what we had. I still won’t touch potatoes to this day if I can avoid it. I didn’t mind eating most of the animals we trapped — I liked beaver a lot better than beef; but there were limits on what we had and what was available locally at the grocery store when we could afford that.

    I may be a recluse, but I’m a social recluse. I love having my space and my privacy, but I need having people around to talk to when I’m in the mood to see them. Living on a commune is not my idea of a good time because a lot of otherwise great people are unreliable in ways that I require reliability of roommates and co-dwellers.

    It all boils down to choice. Going “back to the land”, to me, means having no choices.

    • marytek says:

      I think many of us from time to time yearn for a bit of space that only the country can give us, in comparison to city-life. Hearing the crickets, the birds chirping, having the satisfaction of a job well done (milk cows/goats), ploughing whatnot.

      For me I couldn’t live in the country. My career does require me to be in the city – Financial Reporting is not something you can do remotely as a telecommuter. As well I am not prepared to travel oodles of time to get to my hospital when I have an emergency (and I’ve had a lot lately spending on average once a week in the ER)… a regional hospital isn’t good enough, there’s only 1 doctor in all of Ontario who specialises in my birth defect … only one. The chirpy birds and singing crickets can wait, access to a state of the art hospital with one of the foremost surgical authorities in reconstructive surgery in the world is what I value most right now.

      • erynn999 says:

        Absolutely — medical issues are one huge reason to remain in/near a city. I get all my medical care at the Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle. Veterans who live in Alaska have to come down to Seattle for some of their medical treatment. It’s not available everywhere, and if you can’t afford medical care on the civilian economy, the VA may be a vet’s only choice. It’s certainly mine. I’m lucky I “only” have to drive 20-ish miles to get to it.

  2. snowcalla says:

    You may be interested in this blog entry by the gentleman who created Stone City.

    http://dionysusdevotee.livejournal.com/238086.html

    I think you may find it very interesting and it is what I am keenly interested in and a view I can support. It isn’t about being bitter and removing yourself from society – it’s about making your home a better place to live and then teaching/showing/helping others do the same for themselves if they so choose. (Although I don’t worry as much about food riots and such)

    Here is his closing paragraph: So, yes, move to the country if that is what you like. Learn sustainable agriculture, harvest rainwater, live simply. But understand that no utopia can exist surrounded by a sea of suffering, nor should it. And yes, prepare, prepare for food riots. But prepare by both protection and prevention. Life is impermanant, all realities change, this reality requires we prepare for the alleviation of suffering, both ours and others, for they are one in the same. Prepare in a way not that is paranoid and fearful, xenophobic and pessimistic. Prepare in a way that prevents. Prepare in a way that builds confidence and security, that improves the lives of yourself and the world around you.

    As for me – my primary motivation is economics. I have no urge to farm and won’t. But I can buy property and build a home for cash soon and run it on alternative energy. That means I won’t have a house payment or utility payment – and THAT means I can exit the wage-slave life. Imagine what your life could be like if you didn’t have rent/house payment.

  3. jdhobbes says:

    I’m very torn with the idea of city life vs country life. My work calls me to be in the city, I like living in the city (is NDG mid-burbs?), but I also like having some open space nearby. This comes from being raised in the burbs of Quebec city where our backyard was adjacent to a few acres of land owned by Hydro-Quebec. I was close to the city and all its amenities, but I felt like I lived in the country.

    The other problem I have is that I’m not too handy with building stuff. I can barely put a shelf on the wall without setting the drapes on fire. I worry I wouldn’t be able to handle the complications of living in a space that I owned.

    That being said, my current dream houses are as follows:

    DomeHome: http://www.domespace.com/fr/accueil

    Strawbale homes: http://www.strawbale.com/

    I think if I could build these homes in the city, I would, but I fear that they would break a few zoning laws (especially the dome homes).

    • jdhobbes says:

      What I forgot to say was, because of what I do for a living and the necessity of being close to the city, I’m not sure I would trade country living for 2 hours of commuting in highway traffic every. single. working. day.

      • Does what you do *really* require you to be in the city every day?

        We have the technology for most writers to live out in the country – provided the Corp is run by forward-thinking people.

        t!

        • jdhobbes says:

          Maybe not everyday, but being on-site makes my job easier. Working remotely has its own challenges and is not always the perfect solution, although some people do make it work for them quite well.

          I just view my home as a place where I relax. I think if I were to work remotely, I would psychologically need a separate place to work (even if it were another building on my land).

          But also, as a freelancer, you NEED to network with people in your industry to maintain relationships and keep the opportunities open and forth-coming. Hence, more trips into the city.

      • Does what you do *really* require you to be in the city every day?

        We have the technology for most writers to live out in the country – provided the Corp is run by forward-thinking people.

        t!

    • > The other problem I have is that I’m not too handy with building stuff. I can barely put a shelf on the wall without setting the drapes on fire.

      The first time, sure. The second time, a bruised thumbnail. The third time, a wobbly shelf. But the fourth time…

      > I worry I wouldn’t be able to handle the complications of living in a space that I owned.

      But isn’t it worth learning? And how else would you learn?

      t!

  4. > But a lot of the people I’ve met who dream of building eco-sustainable houses in the countryside are people I wouldn’t want to live with: people motivated by resentment, begrudgery, even hatred, of modernity.

    Define “a lot” in this context:

    – too many?
    – 50% +1 ?
    – the minority, but the ones who stick in your mind?

    And the others – what are *their* motives?

    t!

    • admin says:

      A lot, certainly more than half. But it’s the attitude of resentment of modernity, taken on its own merits, that concerns me here, not the fraction of the total people I meet who happen to hold that attitude. After all, I’m not counting them.

      🙂

      • Heh. So in that case, define “modernity,” and the resentment of it, in this context.

        Thanks.

        t!

        • Anonymous says:

          no one should have to write a dozen pages of definitions for a simple blog post, T. It’s fairly obvious what Brendan means here. Let’s address his question instead of wasting time with preliminaries.

          Trisha Foley.

          • admin says:

            Thanks Trisha.

            Taras is asking a fairly straightforward thing: it’s good philosophical practice to have one’s definitions laid out clearly.

            Still, here in my blog, I can assume some common knowledge with the readers, and don’t feel much need to bore almost everyone to death with the “preliminaries”. In my books, of course, my standards are much higher. 🙂

      • I’m not opposed to what one might call modernity.

        But goddamn it I have trouble being polite to people who assume I have a cell phone and then act like I have three heads when I tell them I don’t – especially since I am right and they are not. So my response in such a situation might be taken to indicate I am opposed to all gadgets, particularly if in my heat the word choice is not as precise as it should be.

        1. It is possible this anti-modernity is just common sense about risks of technology, but badly-presetned.

        2. That being said, there are some (but I can’t bring myself to believe it is more than half, whatever your experiences) who see some of the problems and throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve met a few; they embarrass me.

        t!

  5. kriosalysia says:

    If you have ever had a dream for an ecologically low-impact, mostly-self-sustaining rural community

    I definitely fit this description; I have visited and been inspired by eco-villages, am in a profession (landscape architecture) that can assist with designing such a community, and thought seriously at one point about finding like-minded people and actually forming one. The circumstances of my life intervened in such a way that I will probably never do this now, but I have found other ways to achieve similar goals while living in a small city.

    What motivated this dream for me was seeing that there really are much more sustainable ways of designing buildings and communities than what you typically find in most places. The idea is that if more people lived this way, the less cumulative impact human communities would have on the environment as a whole. For the communities I looked at, this seemed to be the primary motivation. Socially, some people find the close-knit community life to be much more fulfilling than living in a suburb where one doesn’t talk (much) to one’s neighbors, but for others it causes strife.

    I have more to say on this and will write again after work. In the meantime, perhaps you’d enjoy this. 😉

  6. Anonymous says:

    You CAN build a strawbale house in the city, they can meet building codes and easier than you might think. In fact Saskatoon has a eco-village right downtown, on riverfront property. You can even get tax breaks from the Canadian Government for building or renovating green now.

    Wake up and smell the green city folks!

    I’ve done the back to the land lifestyle and I have also lived the city life. I want something in-between that isn’t the suburbs please.

    Now, this can be done. Its not that hard to find 3 to 15 acres of land within a 45 minute drive of Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton … even Seattle …

    Why not replace the suburbs with small acreages, eco-villages, hobby farms and small working farms & Orchards?

    Give me 10 acres with a nice cob house with the option of being as off-grid as I want to be. A couple of horses, a couple of dogs, a big veggie garden & a few fruit trees … and a 40 minute commute to work.

    Imagine leaving your strawbale apartment building in the city and riding the subway to the farmer’s market in the middle of the eco district on the outskirts of the city …

    *dreams*

    ~ The Girlfriend

  7. ai731 says:

    Now, this can be done. Its not that hard to find 3 to 15 acres of land within a 45 minute drive of Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton … even Seattle …

    Why not replace the suburbs with small acreages, eco-villages, hobby farms and small working farms & Orchards?

    Give me 10 acres with a nice cob house with the option of being as off-grid as I want to be. A couple of horses, a couple of dogs, a big veggie garden & a few fruit trees … and a 40 minute commute to work.

    Except for the cob house, and substituting chickens for horses, you are pretty much describing my home. And if you live where we do (on 6 acres, 45 minutes outside of Ottawa) you don’t even need to drive the commute, there’s a bus.

  8. > Well, I understand that a lot of modern life is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.

    Also unsustainable in terms of long-term viability of the human species and individual health.

    > And like most of you, I want to see a more ecologically conscious, artistically flourishing, economically prosperous and socially just world too. But I’m not sure if going “back to the land” is the way to make that world happen.

    Entirely? No. Not possible, either.

    > So, let me put the question. If you have ever had a dream for an ecologically low-impact, mostly-self-sustaining rural community, of if you know anyone who has such a dream, what motivates it?

    Cities make people miserable. This in turn makes them act against the better angels of their nature. Then the poison spreads. That’s a big one. Smaller towns have better People.

    Other things: Better air quality, knowing my neighbours, absence of fear and paranoia (known in cities as “crime statistics,” or, more accurately, “sensationalist journalism”), real food on my plate, understanding and appreciation for where that food comes from (I got called “barbaric” yesterday for slaughtering my own chickens, by someone who then ate a battery chicken for supper – she must think “food” chickens grow on styrofoam under cellophane!), no noise pollution, more sunshine (less tall buildings)… I know I’m missing a few.

    Technology has been co-opted by some, abused by others, adopted by the majority, such that now city dwellers think that ignorance and laziness are their just rewards. Rewards for what, I don’t know, because it’s not like anybody’s asking themselves the question. “Modern living” means, among many similar cycles, choosing not to learn how to cook, microwaving and ingesting non-food products, and then using pharmacology and surgery to fix the resulting health problems. We’re spinning our wheels.

    > Why is such a place appealing?

    Let me offer 2 analogies, from my own experience. I had a broken tooth for many years, learned to chew certain foods on the other side of my mouth, and experienced agonising pain in the dying nerve endings for one several-day period every four weeks or so. When the tooth was gone, the pain was gone, and it was liberating. Second, when I dropped ten pounds, I found that I was able to sleep better, and climb the stairs more easily, etc.

    The point is that people in the city are living with pain, a pain they can remove. Depression levels, mid-life crises, myriad escapes from reality – examples abound. We’re going the wrong way, and on some level we know it.

    My wife and I have been living in the country for over a year. Every time we see our friends from the city these days, we get told how great we look. That’s the inner light shining brighter.

    > What do you think its problems are likely to be?

    If you try to create a commune, you still need someone making money, because otherwise the government will shut you down for not paying your annual property taxes – whether you use the roads or not. Bluntly, the biggest problem is most other North Americans, their ignorance, fear, and reliance on the status quo.

    > Would such a place turn the wheels of history backward, or usher it ahead?

    Re-direct it. Technology is currently being used to make us less responsible and less capable. Technology directed in the right direction makes our lives easier, without making us weaker. It has low environmental impact (no such thing as zero impact), and fits into the natural world.

    > Could such a life truly serve as a better alternative to modernity? Why, or why not?

    Technology is here to stay. Scientific research is a positive. Money and governments have demonstrably failed, but people are too attached to them to think about what might come next.

    Currently, a life off the grid is barely possible. The best my generation can hope for is to start the ball rolling, get noticed, and inspire an exponential increase in the next generation.

    Lead by example. Get people thinking.

    t!

  9. kriosalysia says:

    Hi again,
    Just want to let you know that I have not forgotten about this question, but I haven’t had enough time at one sitting to get back to you with a well-thought out answer yet.

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