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Back-to-the-Land Makes a Comeback

June 23, 2020 by

Community, tradition, craft, faith, and beauty start in the hearts of individuals and families and flourish when those people work together to build a city that, if it could speak, would say “This is a place for inhabiting. For living. For loving. For working. For worshipping. For feeling awe. For drinking and eating together. For taking care of each other. For enduring.”

These words could have been written more than a century ago by Ruskin or Gill or Koch, or some other Arts and Crafts movement romantic. These words are charged with idealism. Nobody thinks like this anymore, do they? Nobody is foolish enough to strive for such lofty ideals, are they? Today, people are happy if they have a roof over their head; there’s no time anymore for beauty and awe, is there?

art Windmill - Eric Ravilious, 1934

Actually, there is. In fact, history has shown that times of uncertainty are the most fertile soil for sprouting seeds of idealism. The quotation above is not a century old, it was written just a few weeks a go by Sam Gravell, a young man (about my own age) who travels Europe with his guitar and sometimes writes his thoughts along the way. And Sam is not the only one imagining a society of “community, tradition, craft, faith, and beauty.” There is a growing longing for such things, especially among the young.

Already before COVID-19, there were noticeable back-to-the land stirrings here and there. There was a dissatisfaction with capitalism and technology. There was talk of the Luddites making a comeback. There was an increased respect for the simple, traditional life and those who live it, such as the Amish. Books like The Shepherd’s LifeCræftThe Village Effect, and Consolations of the Forest have elucidated such ideas and subsequently flown off shelves. But the current crisis has lit a fire under all of this.

Cities are struggling today and, in the course of that struggle they are telling a long-standing lie: that they are filled with energy and hope. They aren’t. They are filled with death and hopelessness and they are dying.

Alan Asnen wrote those words in a short, prescient essay last December. How much truer is this now, with rioting, curfews, mask-wearing, surveillance? Cities are becoming very unpleasant places to live. Peter Franklin has written that the age of the skyscraper may be over for good. I hope he’s right. “Suddenly, the herding of knowledge workers into centrally-located, open-plan office blocks doesn’t seem such a good idea” he writes. “The same goes for high-rise apartment blocks – a stunning view is only partial compensation when you’re locked-down in your glass bubble.”

falling man Artwork by the author

Franklin’s thinking echoes that of Eberhard Arnold, who wrote in 1932:

The modern city is nothing but an artificial compression of people in modern cave dwellings, and if modern man looks down upon his forerunners, the modern caveman in the city is in a very much lower position than the cave dweller. What are these cities good for? We must get rid of them, and there must be a living example to show us the way to a life in which we can once again enjoy genuine love in genuine comradeship and mutual help, and enjoy the creation into which we are born. And there should be a garden for every family, even if only one square meter, but that garden should be there.

So, it seems that history is repeating itself. A new generation seeking community, tradition, craft, faith, and beauty might be coming soon to a rural settlement near you. Admittedly, this movement is still at the formative stage, still dominated by city-dwellers criticizing cities, idealists bashing social media on social media, Twitter feeds filled with thatched cottages and Wendell Berry quotes . . . yes, there’s a certain contradiction to it, to the annoyance of some. But there can be no revolution without a theory of revolution, and the virtual world almost always spills over into the real one.

tomatoes Photo credit: Danny Burrows

There are signs that it is already spilling over. How many families have planted a vegetable garden this year – “even if only one square meter” – for the first time ever? Many, judging by the worldwide shortage of seeds. The number of eco-villages is growing rapidly, according to the people who keep track of these things. One could be forgiven for thinking that cities are not where the action is anymore. “Let’s daydream a little” writes Sylvain Tesson, in Consolations of the Forest:

We might imagine for our Western societies small groups of people who are eager to peel off from the parade of progress. Tired of overpopulated cities where governance implies the promulgation of ever more abundant rules, hating the administrative hydra, outraged by the intrusion of new technologies into every aspect of daily life, anticipating the spread of social and ethnic chaos fostered by the growth of mega-regions, these groups decide to abandon urban zones and return to the woods. They would re-create villages in forest glades among towering trees. They would invent a new life. This impetus would be related to the hippie movement, but draw strength from different motives. The hippies fled an order that oppressed them. The neo-foresters will flee a disorder that demoralizes them. As for the woods, they are ready to welcome pilgrims, being used to the eternal return.

This is a beautiful daydream. May it come true!

We at the Bruderhof hope we may always keep our doors open for such pilgrims. Friends, another life is possible!

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Donal McKernan

Donal McKernan lives with his wife Cornelia and two children at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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