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April 1998
Back to the Land

The Satya Interview with Rebecca Kneale Gould


Rebecca Kneale Gould has researched the lives of homesteaders, many of whom in the 1960s followed the Back to the Land movement pioneered by Scott and Helen Nearing. Among her interests is the role of foodÑthe practice of right eating in the daily lives of homesteading. Satya talked to her about what she discovered.

Q: Why did the people you spoke to become homesteaders?

A: What most people said was: "I want to live close to nature. I want to reduce consumption to a minimum. I want to be self-sufficient--to the extent that anybody can be really self-sufficient."

Q: Was this a religious impulse?

A: Few of them would identify with the word "religious" as it is commonly understood. Most would dissent from traditional religions. But what I argued in my dissertation is that the fully ritualized practices of building your own home, of gardening, of eating and creating space in certain ways, is a way of living a highly intentional, symbolic and ritual life. This includes a turn to nature as a source of meaning and authority. Homesteading, in this sense, is a kind of extra-ecclesial, nature-oriented, religious practice.

Q: What was the background of the people you studied?

A: A lot of them were "60s hippies." But the interesting thing was that they actually turned homesteading into a permanent way of life that worked for them. For a lot of people who went back to the land in the 1960s, it was a temporary experimentÑthe pursuit of a mystical experience in nature or a rejection of the government, or some combination of quite a lot of complex impulses. Many of those people (especially the communal ones) didn't last. But the homesteaders I studied were still practicing relative self-sufficiency and living lives close to nature, but they were doing it in a more sophisticated and complex way.

Q: What about the issue of food for the homesteaders?

A: Homesteading really is fundamentally about food. The center of one's life and livelihood is the growing and raising of food. The practices differed with different people. Some were strict vegetarians, some ate only what came out of the backyard, others lived like ranchers raising their own meat. This awareness of food was also strong among Christian homesteaders. Although they ultimately articulated what they were doing in a Christian context, there was this notion of gratitude, of acknowledging where food really comes from and that food isn't a commodity to be bought at a grocery store, but is a life force that involves very careful practices. Although they use different terms, at times both Christian and non-Christian homesteaders seem to share this posture of gratitude and this resistance to the dominant norms of the consumer culture.

Look at someone like Wendell Berry, who is in some ways a Christian homesteader and in some ways not. (He uses a lot of Buddhist language and interpretation in talking about what homesteading means.) Berry is someone who really feels an incarnational experience of the divine, through his involvement in the growing and raising of food, and the caring for the animals. His somewhat Christian, somewhat Buddhist-inflected religious eating practices come out of this notion of the inter-connectedness of the world, of being aware of what you're doing as a farmer, and then when you come to the table, eating parts of the family that you have nurtured. For Berry, the act of eating homegrown food is a naturalized version of communion.

Q: Did people go back to the land to reinforce their prior feelings, or were their feelings changed by the land?

A: I think both. Homesteading really is a kind of conversion, and that's another way in which to see it as a religious practice. Most of the people I talked to came from largely middle-class, highly educated backgrounds. So they had the leisure to make a choice to live in voluntary poverty. There was a waking-up process that life in a consumer culture was not a valuable life, and most of these people at some point wanted to be producer-consumers, not just consumer-consumers. There's a rejection of the old and a dramatic remaking of the self.

But, within the context of that practice, more and more change does occur over time, including a commitment to a certain set of values. One of the important things I saw is that a lot of people who went back to the land in the 1960s, did it in a very strict, rigorous way, not unlike the way people convert to a new religion or experience a rebirth. When they first went back, they were very anti-technology, almost universally vegetarian, and very connected to Helen and Scott Nearing as a model. However, over time, these practices of rigor mellowed. This didn't happen so much with Helen and Scott--they remained fairly rigorous, although Helen mellowed in her older age after Scott died and was not quite as rigorous in some of the practices as they were when they were together.

But the contemporary folks that I talked to would say things like: "I didn't use any power tools when I first went back to the land. But then I started thinking about tools differently, and once I changed my awareness, I didn't have to be as rigorous in my practices." That's a generalization, but that often happened with vegetarianism also. Quite a few people I interviewed weren't vegetarian, and kind of rejected the Nearing style of rigid vegetarianism. One person made an interesting point: "Well, vegetarianism is a kind of way of seeking truth and light, an almost forceful decision to reject other kinds of food. But once I start eating intentionally, it doesn't matter whether it's vegetable food or meat." This is very much the Berry argument too. "If I'm raising my own meat, and caring for it, and feeding it organic food, and having a position of gratitude for where the food comes from, then meat-eating can also be a positive, ethical act."

Q: The question, of course, is how the animal becomes an "it."

A: Berry says that if you raise the calf intentionally and then the calf becomes the steak, memory is involved in the eating of the steak. You think about all the practices that you've done to keep the cow as part of the family. When I related this material at a conference, I could tell the strict vegetarians had a problem with that. It raises profound ethical questions. But for those who eat meat among the homesteaders I know, some really were vegetarians before, but felt that through their practices they gained a kind of awareness and they didn't want to be as rigid, as strict, or as rulebound as they were before or as they felt people like the Nearings were.

Q: The rulebound quality of their life was inhibiting their progress.

A: I think some would say that. And some would say: "I did this discipline. I learned from this discipline. And now that I've learned what I've learned, I don't need to do that anymore. I take the awareness that I've learned from that, and extend it outwards." Of course, it's important not to be overly interpretative. Some people said: "Oh well, I've had three kids. I was homeschooling, and it became really complicated to try and be vegetarian. Mostly we're vegetarian, but sometimes we're not." I would say that people experimented with vegetarianism to perceive what it would teach them, and see what they learned from living that way. Some people remained vegetarian, and other people said: "I've learned what I need to learn."

Q: What about those who stayed vegetarian?

A: Among this particular group, I think it was a real commitment to non-harm. They would say: "I just cannot harm this living being." But then the same ethical problem cropped up again: what is a living being? Helen Nearing herself said: "You know, when I eat a radish, I apologize to the radish." She extended this notion of harm to the living vegetable beings, and yet she ate those. She said: "It pains me to eat them, and yet I eat them." The people who remained vegetarian tried to eat as low on the food chain as possible. They were also critiquing the culture of consumption, and both aspects of the argument against factory farming: first that it causes so much pain and slaughter, but also that it has to do with eco-justice and how much grain it takes to feed a cow.

Rebecca Kneale Gould received her Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is currently a visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University and is at work on a book tentatively titled At Home in Nature: The Meanings of Modern Homesteading.

The Nearing household is currently under the stewardship of the Good Life Center. For information abut the G.L.C. please contact Anne Traslow at the Trust for Public Land (617-367-6200).

Becky Gould would like to acknowledge the support of the Good Life Center, the Charlotte Newcombe Foundation and the Lilly Foundation in the various phases of her work and to thank Helen Nearing and her many friends, neighbors, and fellow homesteaders for sharing their stories with her.

Further reading on the Nearings: R.K. Gould article on homesteading in David D. Hall, Life & Religion in America; (Princeton University Press); John Saltmarsh, Scott Nearing: An Intellectual Biography (Temple University Press); and Ellen LaComte, On Light Alone and Free Radical (Loose Leaf Press, RD 1, Box 624, Stockton Springs, ME 04981).


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