A Yuppie Heads 'Back to the Land'

When Doug Fine decided to move cross-country from his native New York to an arid rural outpost 20-plus miles from the nearest town, he brought along "four big goals" for the coming year, which were:


  1. Use a lot less oil.

  2. Power my life by renewable energy.

  3. Eat as locally as possible.

  4. Don't starve, electrocute myself, get eaten by the local mountain lions, get shot by my U.N.-fearing neighbors or otherwise die in a way that would cause embarrassment.


That's one behemoth of an ambitious plan for a man who admits right up front: "I like my Netflix, wireless email and booming subwoofers" and who can't imagine living without toast, ice cream or toilet paper. How, then, on earth to achieve it?

On the first page of his book about that year, Farewell My Subaru (Villard, 2008), Fine -- a journalist who has written for Wired, Salon and other venues -- recounts a scene in which his inexpertly parked Subaru Legacy slid backward down a grade and barely missed crashing into an outbuilding. This incident occurred "a few days after I moved into the sprawling, crumbling, 41-acre New Mexico spread" where Fine had come to live. "Moved into" is a coy way of putting it. Presently, he mentions that he owns the place, that he bought this vast tract of land to go green on.

And while it's exciting in a fairytale way, this notion of legally owning your surroundings as far as the eye can see and transforming them into a solarized organic Xanadu, it lends the undertaking a certain "well ... but" dimension. Well, we all aspire to sustainability, but how many of us could actually afford to buy 41 acres? Well, property in rural New Mexico is less expensive than in much of the United States, but how many of us could afford taking a year or more off work just to see whether we could hack it? Well, getting off the grid is great, but who among us has the bodily stamina to manage, while living solo, animal husbandry and organic gardening and the aerobic, acrophobic, bloodletting workouts (think: windmills, wrenches, tanks, pipes, panels and pumps) required to transition a ranch from electrical to solar power?

Fine bought solar panels "to power my new, fabulously expensive solar-powered well pump. The pump came from Denmark, where they don't employ slave labor and where they don't retail at Wal-Mart. Poor people in Chad don't own this pump. The boutique device was ... buried a hundred forty feet below the ground" -- at further expense, presumably. These expenses just pile up. In order to get "serious about kicking unleaded once and for all" -- quite an aspiration when the nearest town, and thus the nearest supply outpost, lies across "spine-rattling New Mexico dirt roads" and requires fording an actual river -- Fine had to ditch the Subaru and buy a four-wheel-drive diesel Monster Truck. Purchased secondhand, the Ford F-250 -- it dwarfs Hummers on the freeway -- was still "quite a bit over Blue Book." Replacing its standard fuel system with a biodiesel fuel system that allowed it to run on food grease salvaged from restaurants cost another crate of ducats: The website for Albuquerque Alternative Energies, where Fine had his conversion done, lists the charge as $4,000 plus installation.

Add the price of building materials, fencing, animals, feed ... and the whole project, to borrow Fine's own adjective, starts to sound a bit boutique. Which isn't to say that it isn't still admirable in principle.

After a suburban childhood and young adulthood spent backpacking around Third World war zones as a reporter, Fine yearned to know "whether it was possible, whether I was firmly on the way to independent, local, oil-reduced surivival or doomed to the fate of those, like most of my family and friends still, who believe that the current McGlobal Economy is eternal" -- i.e., that "unlike any society that came before, we'll figure out a way to keep this Super Bowl-watching, espresso-drinking, GPS-guided-car-driving party going no matter what the ice caps, a couple of Jihadists … and some nasty microbes in the Hot Zone have to say. It's the societal equivalent of not thinking about dying."

And he went west with a workable plan. An expensive plan, sure, but credit the guy for at least calculating this in advance. Because it was a long-term plan, its initial hassle and high cost were pretty much mandatory to ensure less hassle, lower cost and less hypocrisy in perpetuity. Fine admits knowing from the outset "that even if I wanted to, I couldn't completely cut out petroleum and Chinese slave factory products … in the first year or two." The reasons for this were partly technical, partly emotional: In the latter case, he likes ice cream a whole lot. But he planned for that, too, buying female goats via Craigslist almost immediately after arriving at the ranch.

Nature threw him for a few loops: the longest drought since the Ice Age, a crop-killing heatwave, a car-floating flood. Coyotes made a buffet of his hens. A goat got deathly ill. Such scenes certify Fine's membership in that age-old coterie of author-adventurers who turned real-life quests into literature: from Richard Halliburton's The Royal Road to Romance to Alexandra David-Neel's Magic and Mystery in Tibet and beyond. Fine's quest, as he explained to one New Agey neighbor, was "to show that a regular American can still live like a regular American, only on far fewer fossil fuels." In the telling, we get sapphire skies, big fat rattlesnakes, and "women with names like Darla." For an adventure narrative to wholly win our hearts, so -- pretty much -- does its narrator. A certain repetitiveness in Fine's jokes -- a fence droops "like Bush's approval ratings"; a snake is the scariest spectacle "outside of a Bush press conference" -- tends to beat on the brain. So, too, do his mispellings and other mistakes, which editors should have caught: the Virgin of "Guadeloupe," not "Guadalupe," for instance, and "comprised of food" instead of "composed."

That Fine's quest was ecologically noble certifies this book as a 21st century consumer product. Prediction: We'll probably be seeing lots more of these sagas over the next few years. A new version of the rural hippie commune dwellers who in the late '60s and early '70s were called "back-to-the-landers" has arisen, growing organic produce again, mucking out their own henhouses again -- but now they do it outfitted with Bluetooths, while researching animal viruses online. Yesteryear's back-to-the-landers were counterculturalists, dropping out of the mainstream. Today's version, as exemplified by the Netflix-loving Fine, desire not to leave the mainstream but lead it.

So this book functions only secondarily as an adventure saga. Primarily it's a blueprint for changing the bigger picture, concluding with some concrete ways to achieve this. "First," Fine urges, "vote for sustainable candidates. In other words, make carbon reduction among your top voting priorities." As a "card-carrying Independent" who mistrusts the two-party system and believes that "carbon-reduction is patriotic," Fine wants to ensure "that the corrupt idiots who are causing the bulk of the world's environmental problems get booted." So: "Really ask the candidates: What do you plan to do to make the U.S. (or our city, or school district) carbon-neutral?"

Second, eat locally. "Our food choices account for 30 percent of our carbon emissions." Maybe you buy your groceries at the supermarket across the street, but "the average tomato," Fine intones, "travels fifteen hundred miles from the field to the table."

"Third, drive on something other than fossil fuels, to help create a viable market for biofuels." Sure, it costs a bundle. But Fine reports that his Albuquerque biofuel mechanic "says it takes about four to six months to pay off a veg-oil conversion in lower fuel costs."

"Fourth, fight sprawl in your community." Watch developers like desert hawks. "We know we'll have a handle on sprawl when new-home sales are no longer reported as a major sector of the American economy."

Fine ideas, but again they raise slightly uncomfortable issues. Eating locally is yummy enough in Florida and California and on one's own ranch. It's a taller order for those millions living in metropolises and/or in winter-blizzard country. And running large numbers of vehicles on salvaged restaurant grease depends on a much, much larger number of human beings consuming vast quantities of unhealthy fried food. As for sprawl, should we buy huge rural spreads for our private ownership -- hey, it beats more malls and suburban housing tracts -- or work to have such spreads transformed into public regional parks and farmland we can share?

But credit Fine with honest self-effacement. During the flood, he wondered: "What the hell was I doing here, trying to raise goats and pretending I chewed tobacco? I felt like Bily Crystal parodying a cowboy lifestyle." Eyeing his reflection in the river, "all I saw in the water was a scared freak in a straw hat and wet flannel shirt flecked with alfalfa hay feed. I could barely keep two head of livestock alive for two weeks."

Ultimately -- spoiler alert! -- he succeeds. The ranch goes solar. The truck runs on food grease. The livestock and the organic garden provide such an abundance of eggs, milk and produce that Fine sells and barters the excess.

And he's still there.

"For a latchkey kid nurtured on Gilligan and Quarter Pounders, it's a sign that truly anything is possible. Like an Exxon executive biking to work," he muses. "And it only took me 36 years."

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