“Awareness of the past is an important element in the love of place,” writes Yi-Fu Tuan, in his 1994 book Topophilia. Tuan writes that an appreciation of nature springs from wealth, privilege, and the antithetical values of cities. He argues that literature about land (and, subsequently, about going back to the land) is largely sentimental; "little," he writes, "is known about farmer’s [sic] attitudes towards nature..." Tuan finds historical instances of the desire of the civilized to escape civilization in the Hellenistic, Roman, Augustan, and Romantic eras, and, from one of the earliest recorded myths, the Epic of Gilgamesh.
There was again a fair degree of interest in moving to rural land after World War II. In 1947 Betty MacDonald published what became a popular book, The Egg and I, telling her story of marrying and then moving to a small farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. This story was the basis of a successful comedy film starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray.
The Canadian writer Farley Mowat says that many returned veterans after World War II sought a meaningful life far from the ignobility of modern warfare, regarding his own experience as typical of the pattern. In Canada, those who sought a life completely outside of the cities, suburbs, and towns frequently moved into semi-wilderness environs.
But what made the later phenomenon of the ‘60s and ‘70s especially significant was that the rural-relocation trend was sizable enough that it was identified in the American demographic statistics.
Roots of this movement can perhaps be traced to the 1954 publication of Helen and Scott Nearing's book, Living the Good Life. The book chronicled the Nearings' move to an older house in a rural area of Vermont and their simple, self-sufficient lifestyle. In their initial move, the Nearings were driven by the circumstances of the Great Depression and influenced by earlier writers, particularly Henry David Thoreau. Their book was published six years after A Sand County Almanac, by the ecologist and environmental activist Aldo Leopold, was published, in 1948. Influences aside, the Nearings had planned and worked hard, developing their homestead and life according to a twelve-point plan they had drafted.
By the late '60s, many people had recognized that, living their city or suburban lives, they completely lacked any familiarity with such basics of life as food sources (for instance, what a potato plant looks like, or the act of milking a cow) — and they felt out of touch with nature, in general. While the back-to-the-land movement was not strictly part of the counterculture of the 1960s, the two movements had some overlap in participation.
Many people were attracted to getting more in touch with the basics just mentioned, but the movement was also fueled by the "negatives" of modern life: rampant consumerism, the failings of government and society, including the Vietnam War, and a perceived general urban deterioration, including a growing public concern about air and water pollution. Events such as the Watergate scandal and the 1973 energy crisis contributed to these views. Some people rejected the struggle or boredom of "moving up the company ladder." Paralleling the desire for reconnection with nature was a desire to reconnect with physical work.
There was also a segment within the movement who already had a familiarity with rural life and farming, who already had skills, and who wanted land of their own on which they could demonstrate that organic farming could be made practical and economically successful.
Besides the Nearings and other authors writing later along similar lines, another influence from the world of American publishing was the unprecedented, vigorous, and intelligent Whole Earth Catalogs. Stewart Brand and a circle of friends and family began the effort in 1968, because Brand believed that there was a groundswell of biologists, designers, engineers, sociologists, organic farmers, and social experimenters who wished to transform civilization along lines that might be called "sustainable." Brand and cohorts created a catalog of "tools" - defined broadly to include useful books, design aids, maps, gardening implements, carpentry and masonry tools, metalworking equipment, and a great deal more.
Another important publication was The Mother Earth News, a periodical (originally on newsprint) that was founded a couple years after the Catalog. Ultimately gaining a large circulation, the magazine was focused on how-to articles, personal stories of successful and budding homesteaders, interviews with key thinkers, and the like. The magazine stated its philosophy was based on returning to people a greater measure of control of their own lives.
Many of the North American back-to-the-landers of the 1960s and 1970s made use of the Mother Earth News, the Whole Earth Catalogs and derivative publications. But as time went on, the movement itself drew more people into it, more or less independently of impetus from the publishing world.
Most of the back-to-the-landers wanted greater contact with nature, and sought to become self-employed workers in a cottage industry. Many wished to build their own house, and produce a good deal of their own food. Solar energy was sometimes used for either heat or electricity, and wood fuel was popular. Most back-to-the-landers wanted to know their neighbors, and expected to be cooperatively part of neighborhood or community projects and processes.
Helen and Scott Nearing, in their life and their books, had embraced organic horticulture and had pursued a healthy diet and general lifestyle. To these interests, the back-to-the-land publications which had sprung up around 1970 added a promotion of new (or at least recently refined) methods of utilizing or generating energy on a modern homestead, such as solar, wind, and small-hydro electricity generation. Worldwide, there had been a very lengthy utilization of wind energy in villages and rural regions, and in fact many farms in North America had employed windmills to drive well pumps for household and irrigation water. In the 1970s, though, electricity-generating wind turbines (which had been developed to an extent in previous decades) were reaching new levels of efficiency. As well, passive solar principles were becoming more widely recognized for their efficacy in space heating (e.g., of houses or outbuildings), and photovoltaic equipment for generating electricity was emerging and was seen to be an exciting new realm.
With regard to community processes, a common practice was the incorporation of barter, a form of trade where goods or services from one individual or household are exchanged for a certain amount of other goods or services from another individual or household, and in which no money is involved in the transaction. The idea was that barter (along with occasional friendly neighborly assistance) helped to reduce the need for cash income.
Those who succeeded were realistic about their financial needs. Many had flexible occupations - like writing and other creative work, or a trade - that they could engage in from their home. Others had steady, if less glamorous, jobs in a nearby town. Those who succeeded were people who could readily acquire skills in gardening or crop farming, the construction and maintenance of buildings, machinery maintenance, water-system development and maintenance, and the like. Also, they had chosen a homestead that was comfortable and practical.
There is no well-defined event that can be used to mark the end of the era. A factor that came into play was the increased cost of rural land parcels; at the start of the back-to-the-land trend, previously low demand for rural properties in many areas meant that they fetched low prices in the real estate market, but this changed after some years of increased buyer interest. Also, rising urban prosperity, and a sense that the earlier social problems were solved led to reduced interest in rural lifestyles among urbanites in the 1980s.
Interestingly, a good deal of research that could be of value to modern-day homesteaders was carried on into the 1980s and after. Agricultural colleges and departments within universities, as well as independent teams of designers, engineers, agronomists, and technologists researched and devised many refinements and new approaches to food production, on-site energy production, waste management, home design, and other dimensions of living well and reasonably self-sufficiently on the land. For instance, a group of engineering graduates from Stanford University published a thick compendium of findings and advice in the early '80s.
As it stands, people still purchase rural properties that come onto the real-estate market, and in many areas of North America these purchases are not limited to those by corporate farms. And clearly, there is migration in both directions: to the cities, and to the rural areas. In the 1990s, the term "urban refugees" began to gain currency in relation to back-to-the-landers. A Web search on the term "back to the land" brings up very many hits that indicate a still-strong interest in non-urban living.
Organic horticulture and organic agriculture were integral aspects of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. But it is in more-recent years that the American market for organically grown foods has really expanded. Growing markets obviously tend to create business opportunities. According to information presented in Deborah Koons Garcia's film The Future of Food, American consumers spent $1 billion on organically grown food in 1994, and $13 billion in 2003.
Regarding another possible strong trend in the future, it is possible that social or economic conditions, coupled with the new technical capabilities, will result in waves of emigration from the cities and immigration to the rural regions. The worldwide ecovillage movement, while not yet of a scale to be called a "wave," has both urban and rural components that aim at building sustainable village cultures. This global network, along with systematic approaches to ecologically more sensitive design, such as permaculture, have evolved out of the back-to-the-land movement. There are those who see these phenomena as interlinked parts of an agrarian revolution that only began with the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s & '70s.