BACK TO THE LAND:
The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America.
By Dona Brown.
Univ. of Wisconsin Press. 290 pp. $24.95
Locavores, urban farms, backyard chickens. The periodic urge to embrace bucolic self-sufficiency—or at least to dream of doing so—is upon us once more. Is it an outburst of environmental anxiety triggered by the much-bemoaned End of Nature? Maybe. But Dona Brown’s Back to the Land is a useful corrective to the idea that the country living movement is strictly an effort to get right with Mother Earth. Tracing the history of the back-to-the-land movement across the 20th century, Brown argues that the waxing and waning impulse to return to rural life tracks economic anxiety more than ecological awareness.
Back-to-the-land movements are often assumed to have taken root with Henry David Thoreau or ideas about nature embodied in Romanticism, but Brown launches her story later, in the early 20th century, when financial instability amplified a growing unease with urbanization. She argues convincingly that proponents of the movement wanted farms of their own as guarantees of financial security—particularly in the face of retirement—rather than as idyllic rural retreats. Not that their motives lacked any kind of ideology, but that too was economic: First-wave back-to-the-landers were intent on becoming self-sufficient producers
instead of parasitic consumers. In fact, anti-consumerism is one theme linking the historical iterations of the country life movement.
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Ginger Strand is the author of Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies (2008). Her book about highway murderers, Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Highway , will be published in March.more from this author >>
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