Back to the Land is Back in Vogue, and It Could Make You Happier


From Homeward Bound by Emily Matchar. Copyright © 2013 by Emily Matchar. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The idea of going back to basics is nothing new. And the hippies of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t invent the concept, either. It’s much, much older than that.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond to “live deliberately” back in 1845, and Helen and Scott Nearing promoted “the good life” from their rustic New England farmhouse in the 1930s, influencing a generation of idealistic young Americans to take up woodworking and gardening. The back-to- the-land movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s had young people poring over the Whole Earth Catalog and flocking to rural communes, hoping to build a simpler, better world away from the constraints of what they saw as a sick mainstream society. Perhaps it was the drugs, perhaps it was the overly idealistic nature of some of these communes (“free love” tended to create commune-destroying jealousy; poverty was rampant), perhaps it was just the natural cycle of things, but the movement didn’t last long and had pretty much petered out by the end of the 1970s.

“As the 1979 energy crisis waned in the following years, so too would the accompanying desire to live more simply,” writes Melissa Coleman, the daughter of 1970s homesteaders, in her memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands. “By the 1980s oil glut, jobs and opportunities would become so plentiful in the cities that few could resist the pull to return.”

The past few decades have been solidly urban, consumerist, and technology oriented, and the idea of “back to nature” seemed passé and laughable to many, a patchouli-scented relic of a foolishly naive era. But then, starting around the early 2000s, fears about food safety and climate change began to drive a new interest in DIY food cultivation. The recession, with its subsequent reevaluation of the American Dream, helped all these trends begin to gel into something larger.

Hayes calls it radical homemaking. Others call it “simple living,” “intentional living,” “sustainable living,” “slow living,” “voluntary simplicity,” or “downshifting,” all terms that have entered or reentered the lexicon in the past few years. But “homesteading” seems to have emerged as the modern term of choice for this new kind of self-sufficient, home- focused, frugal, slowed-down lifestyle.

It’s difficult to say exactly when the word “homesteading” started to be thrown around in its current form. By looking at Google Trends, you can see that the word was practically never used in searches before 2007, but it really took off in 2008, the year the recession started and the Institute of Urban Homesteading was founded in Oakland. Around this time, a parade of neo-homesteading books began to pour into bookstores, from Abigail Gehring’s Homesteading: A Back to Basics Guideto: Growing Your Own Food, Canning, Keeping Chickens, Generating Your Own Energy, Crafting, Herbal Medicine, and More (2009) to Carleen Madigan’s The Backyard Homestead: Produce All the Food You Need on Just a Quarter Acre! (2009) and dozens more—my local Barnes & Noble has an entire shelf dedicated to these books (and their resultant memoirs), nearly all published between 2009 and the present. In 2010 a Pasadena family trademarked the term “urban homesteading” and began to send cease- and-desist letters to bloggers, setting off a firestorm in the now-robust homesteading community. Around that time, major media outlets like the New York Times began to pick up on the phenomenon: “‘Urban homesteaders’ are farming in San Francisco,” reported the paper in April 2010. “I went back to the land to feed my family,” proclaimed a Brooklyn writer-slash-urban-homesteader in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. The movement, it seemed, had arrived.

In my town, it is completely normal to keep chickens in your backyard. I frequently see a pair of goats wandering up the road near my old apartment, just around the corner from the Harris Teeter supermarket and the CVS pharmacy. If you’re not familiar with downtown Chapel Hill, this is not the kind of place where you expect to see goats while you’re walking home with your groceries. Drunk UNC students stumbling around holding giant red Solo cups, yes. Goats, not so much. But this is our new normal. Since 2008, we’ve even had an “urban farm tour,” where you can wander around your neighbors’ backyards inspecting their coops and doing workshops on composting and honey harvesting.

Tim Kasser, a psychologist at Knox College, studies this kind of “downshifting.” According to his studies, about a quarter of Americans have at some point voluntarily simplified their lives by taking a pay cut or cutting home spending, while perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the population practices hard-core types of voluntary simplicity such as homesteading. And it’s not just us. A study in Australia showed that nearly a quarter of Aussies have “downshifted,” defined as “those people who make a voluntary, long-term lifestyle change that involves accepting significantly less income and consuming less.” According to one study, over a quarter of British adults ages thirty to fifty-nine have voluntarily moved to lower- paid jobs to spend more time with their families. The author of this study says these people are part of an entirely new social class who “consciously reject consumerism and material aspirations.”

“This isn’t a fringe thing anymore,” simple-living guru Wanda Urbanska told O, the Oprah Magazine. “There is a shift going on. When I first started talking about this in 1992, I was seen as a wacko zealot. Now simple living is fashionable.”

The movement is not only fashionable. According to research by Kasser and others, it may in fact produce happier people. According to psychology research, voluntary simplifiers earned $15,000 less than their fellow citizens (about $26,000 compared to $41,000) but were found to be “significantly happier.” The same study showed that more than a quarter of Americans had already taken voluntary income cuts in favor of lifestyle.

“Not only were the voluntary simplifiers living in a more eco- sustainable way than mainstream Americans,” Kasser tells me. “The voluntary simplifiers were happier than the mainstream population."

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