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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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).