“Back to the land”, a mantra and movement often associated with the counterculture and intentional community trends of the 1960s and 70s, is a concept with its roots in the early 20th century and owes much of its vitality to two influential books and their respective authors: Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing and Flight from the City by Ralph Borsodi.
Both Ralph Borsodi and Scott Nearing were prolific writers, each publishing dozens of books and pamphlets on a wide range of topics. The writings of Ralph Borsodi can be found in the collections of Hazel Henderson, George Benello, Richard Bliss, E. F. Schumacher, the MANAS Journal, and the library’s general collection. Books by the Nearings appear in the collections of the TRANET journal, Martha Shaw, Richard Bliss, the MANAS journal, Hazel Henderson, E. F. Schumacher, and the library’s general collection.
Though the titles suggest a sense of bucolic escapism, the philosophies of Borsodi and the Nearings extended beyond personal lifestyle. For both of them homesteading was a means of extracting themselves from the social and economic milieu of capitalism and using the homestead as a building block for a more just alternative. Their example of living out their values provided the spark that later kindled the fire of social change rooted in radical self-sufficiency.
While the Borsodis began with a simpler notion of escaping the insecurity and lack of freedom of urban life and gradually built a more radical understanding of homesteading as their experiment went on, the Nearings came to homesteading because of their pre-existing political values. As such, their return to the land was a planned, ethical choice to allow them to unite their beliefs with their way of living.
We were against the accumulation of profit and unearned income by non-producers, and we wanted to make our living with our own hands, yet with time and leisure for avocational pursuits. We wanted to replace regimentation and coercion with respect for life. Instead of exploitation, we wanted to use economy. Simplicity should take the place of multiplicity, complexity and confusion. Instead of the hectic mad rush of busyness we intended a quiet pace, with time to wonder, ponder and observe. We hoped to replace worry, fear and hate with serenity, purpose and at-one-ness.
Akin to the spirit of anarchism and decentralism, the Nearings and the Borsodis sought to build a just alternative to exploitative systems to as great an extent possible within the existing order. Their striving toward economic self-sufficiency was the core of a broader vision of integrating livelihood with ethics of social equality and sustainability, a mindset summed up in the Nearings’ seven goals regarding livelihood:
First, regulating the sources of livelihood in such a manner that all able-bodied adults will render a service in exchange for income, thus eliminating the social division which develop when a part of the community lives on the unearned income while the remainder exchanges labor power for its livelihood. Second, avoid gross and glaring inequalities in livelihood status. Third, budget and plan the community economy. Fourth, keep community books, and open the accounts to public inspection. Fifth, pay as you go, either in labor or materials, thus avoiding inflation. Sixth, practice economy, conserving resources, producing and consuming as little as necessary rather than as much as possible. Seventh, provide a wide range of social services based upon specialization and cooperation.
Together these two books stand as more than handbooks for how to live self-sufficiently on the land; they provide two lasting testaments to the viability of alternatives outside the bounds of capitalism and consumerism.