Have I made it clear enough? The United States seemed to be spinning out of control in the early Seventies, with endless violence, escalating confrontations and increased police surveillance. In the military, as the war dragged on, even the army began to disintegrate. Frank Browning and Banning Garrett published an article in Ramparts Magazine called The New Opium Wars implicating the CIA and top South Vietnam officials in drug trafficking. It provoked the San Francisco Mime Troop to write and produce a play called The Dragon Ladies Revenge, which still captures the madness of those years. The opium the West had used to conquer China in the 19th Century was coming back to the West in our opium addicted Vietnam veterans.
By 1970 at least two million Americans had tried LSD and within a few years 750,000 to a million people had moved to rural communes while millions more tried to survive on independent farms. On the whole the back-to-the-land movement consisted of educated, young, white, middle class men and women.
To them, the growing underground economy seemed to offer an alternative to the mainstream corporate culture. Rural communes would feed urban ones. Skills could be swapped. Small co-operative grocery stores opened. Between 1969 and 1979 as many as ten thousand new food co-ops sprang up across the country. They followed in a tradition that dated all the way back to 1844, when a group of striking weavers in England organized a cooperative store to supply themselves with basic goods.
By now, the counter-culture had its own dress code, its own vocabulary, its own media. An underground wire service, Liberation News Service reached one million readers who supported six hundred New Left and GI underground newspapers. Remember, this was a time before the Internet. The counter-culture communicated in print, face to face or on the very few radio stations interested in what they had to say.
The Whole Earth catalogue started publishing in 1968 and was the most important publication for potential dropouts. Founder Stewart Brand explained in an article entitled “We Are as Gods.” “At a time when the New Left was calling for grass-roots political (i.e., referred) power, Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grassroots direct power—tools and skills. At a time when New Age hippies were deploring the intellectual world of arid abstractions, Whole Earth pushed science, intellectual endeavor, and new technology as well as old.”
Brand and his friends recognized that a growing group of young biologists, designers, engineers, sociologists, organic farmers, and social experimenters wanted to make civilization “sustainable.” The idea that we need to protect this small and fragile planet, led to the iconic image of earth from outer space featured on the first Whole Earth Catalogue cover.
The catalogue contained an astounding collection of ideas, book reviews, how-to manuals and tools: The I Ching, Carlos Castaneda’s The Way of Yaqui Knowledge, books on yoga, self-hypnosis, creative glass blowing, how to build your own computer, ship out on a freighter, find a hot springs, make your own light weight camping equipment, build an outhouse, use the direct energy of the sun or practice the survival skills of Paiute Indians. There were lots of survival books, catching the spirit of the times. There were all kinds of tools from Heathkit electronics to an engineering compass recommended with a dynamite blasters manual, to hack saws, pipe wrenches, knives, buckskin, cut beads and Melrose Yarns (whatever they are)..
I read everything I could get my hands on about back to the land movements. They had a long history in the American experience. I admired Thoreau for his devotion to simplicity, his resistance to authority and his love of nature. I read about the communal Brook Farm, which lasted only a few years. Most important to me was Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, which chronicles the Nearings’ move to an old farm in Vermont to live a self-sufficient and simple life apart from the mainstream.
In the Introduction, the Nearings write that they dropped out in the mid Thirties when America was “gripped by depression and unemployment, falling prey to fascism, and on the verge of another world-wide military free-for-all … The society from which we moved had rejected in practice and principle our pacifism, our vegetarianism and our collectivism. So thorough was this rejection that, holding such views, we could not teach in the schools, write in then press or speak over the radio, and were thus denied our part in public education. Under these circumstances, where could outcasts from a dying social order live frugally and decently, and at the same time have sufficient leisure and energy to assist in the speedy liquidation of the disintegrating society and to help replace it with a more workable social system.”
The Nearings built a stone house, maintained a large vegetable garden and generated some income from a small maple syrup enterprise. They said they survived on about a half day of work with the rest of their time available for reading, socializing and playing music. They planned well, worked hard, and took care of their tools. But I could plan well, work hard and take care of my tools!
Francis Moore Lappé’s 1971 Diet for a Small Planet was another inspiration, connecting food choices like vegetarianism and organics to the political and ecological values the counterculture was trying to put into place.
Richard Langar’s Grow It!, John Seymour’s Self-Sufficiency on 5 Acres (it turned out Seymour himself farmed 40), and magazines like Countryside, Organic Living and Mother Earth News portrayed a small, neat house with a well stocked larder filled with smoked bacon and ham hanging from the rafters, canned peaches and cherries, applesauce and pickles, pears and sauerkraut, jams and jellies, set out on neat shelves in a cool, underground cellar. There would be bins of apples, carrots, turnips, potatoes and beets stored in moist, clean sand and tins of dried beans and peas. We’d even make our own beer, wine, cheese and soap!