April 30, 2017

Letters to My Niece: Soil is What Truly Sustains Us

Editor’s Note: Michael Zuck wrote several letters to his niece Lillie shortly before he died on March 7, 2015. His wife Gail shared them with Garden Maine. This is the second of five, ending with an essay and a poem. (Read the previous letter here.)

Dear Lil,

So what do we mean when we say going back-to-the-land? I suppose it’s a matter of both attitude and degree.

The attitude shift is the fundamental change I’m recommending. One needs to begin thinking of the soil as our most basic resource. Find good soil, open it up to cultivation, obtain good seeds, seedlings or starter plants, and voilà. You may now feed yourself, independent of the corporate system that has thus far dictated the terms of your life.

One adopts this attitude for a variety of reasons not least of which is that it amounts to the most powerful and direct form of civil disobedience we can all exercise. The freedom to feed ourselves by growing our own plants and animals is truly our elemental birth right. Yet most of us cede this right over to corporate concerns without even considering it.

But enough politics. The satisfaction of civil disobedience is short-lived and not all that satisfying. Returning to the land is a virtue in and of itself, and virtue, it is often said, is its own reward.

The question of degree is the other potentially troublesome aspect of going back to the land. You can easily scare yourself back to the supermarket and the day job by imagining a much too radical lifestyle shift. Picture yourself living in a drafty shack, starving on raw vegetables, picking bugs out of your hair, and the whole idea of living close to the land collapses in the imagination.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The most obvious and least disruptive course is to start by planting a modest home garden. Learn from each year’s experiences. Keep a journal. Expand your garden a little each year as you gain confidence. Build on your successes. Then at some future point, if you want to quit your day job and use the land as your source of both nutrition and income, you will have a better chance for success and a reduced risk of inconvenience and dislocation.

This cautious road map does require that you have long-term access to some decent soil. Whether you buy, rent or borrow the question arises: how much do you need?

During the ’60s and ’70s movement, most of us naïve back-to-the-landers believed we needed a homestead that measured in the tens or even hundreds of acres. Here in Maine those sorts of properties were plentiful and cheap. I almost persuaded my father to buy a 120-acre farm with an 1820s Cape Cod house, two barns, beautiful fields and woods, a pond, and stream, all for $45,000. He chickened out when he realized that I wanted to live on that farm more than I wanted to finish graduate school.

In terms of arable land for the would-be back-to-the-lander of today, I say keep it as modest as possible, so that there is more land available for more folks to get back to. A quarter acre of carefully gardened ground will bury you in food, with plenty left over to sell.

An acre is a square 209 feet on each side. In other words, it’s a lot of soil to tend to. The more acres you cultivate, the more you will have to commit to machinery and fossil fuels to manage them, which takes you down an inherently unsustainable road.

A quarter of an acre is a little over a hundred feet on a side. In some areas even this modest plot may be prohibitively expensive. Move on. You probably wouldn’t be comfortable living close to the soil in an overpriced neighborhood anyway.

The more important consideration is the soil itself. Buying land without putting a spade in the earth is as crazy as marrying someone without knowing his/her true character. You can always improve on the soil you buy, but there are limits to how much you can accomplish. And if you start with reasonably good friable loam, you will thank yourself as time goes by. Gail and I started our gardening life together in Winterport on the banks of the mighty Penobscot River. Marine clay is just about the toughest soil to garden I know. We never did succeed in making any sort of long-lasting change in the ease with which that clay was tillable.

I believe one may successfully go back to the land in any community that affords access to the soil. My top choice for making a new start in life would be some place reasonably accessible to civilization and where there is a corps of like-minded people. Ask any Amishman, and he will tell you just how important his reliance on his neighbors is. Labor sharing, knowledge sharing, materials sharing, these are all so helpful in working the land.

Here in Maine we have the second oldest organic organization in the US, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, (MOFGA). Founded by the first wave of back-to-the-landers, it has grown into a venerable institution with its own research and demonstration farm and year-round educational activities, which eclipse those of the almost defunct Cooperative Extension Service. In addition, MOFGA puts on a three-day event each September called the Common Ground Fair – A Celebration of Rural Living. Tens of thousands attend and are inspired by the exhibits and activities. It’s a really big and fun event, which significantly boosts the size and vigor of Maine’s back-to-the-land community.

So where do you find the courage to make the basic change in attitude and lifestyle of a back-to-the-lander? I can’t answer that. For me it came so naturally that it may have been there all along.

I can, however, suggest what may be the most compelling (of many) rationales for making the shift. 400 ppm atmospheric CO2! The level was pegged at 290 ppm when I first learned of it. Back in the 1960s, it was hoped and assumed by forward thinkers that the oceans would absorb all the CO2 we were spewing into the air. Evidently: NOT.

Our society’s ostrich-like response to the looming prospect of climate change amounts to a historic failure to imagine the unimaginable. Human nature triumphs over enlightened self-interest yet again. The overwhelming response to the dire predictions of climatologists appears to be a global migration to the cities. Safety in numbers seems to be the dominant hope and driving force for the vast majority.

The back-to-the-landers’ response is entirely different because of their basic belief and understanding that the soil is what truly sustains us. Forget the cities, look for higher ground and learn to cope with growing crops under changing climactic conditions. This is how the back-to-the-lander thinks.

Love,

Mick

Next: Letters to My Niece: ‘Be the Change’