July 13, 2020

Letters to My Niece: Towards a New Back-to-the-land Movement

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 first of five, ending with an essay and a poem.

Dear Lillie,

When you said that you and Maddie were thinking of leaving the city in a year or two, my heart leapt for joy, just as it does whenever Alex and Kristen say the same thing. The back-to-the-city movement that overtook your generation of mostly suburban, educated folks was a complete surprise to me when it manifested. I did not see it coming.

As you weigh your options, please keep them as open and wide as possible. I intend, with your permission, to write you some letters to help you see the value in joining a nascent back-to-the-land movement that has lately brought an influx of young people to Maine. I hope and assume that other parts of the country are experiencing the same quiet revolution, if that’s not too strong a word.

You can easily research the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s and ’70s. It was unquestionably the reason I moved to Maine in 1975, even though I had to disguise this move from my father by going to grad school at the University of Maine. Helen and Scott Nearing wrote a series of books, most notably Living the Good Life, which caused an unknown number of mostly young people to move to states like Maine where land was cheap, with the goal of living a life of enlightened self-sufficiency. The Nearings’ books presented a blueprint for an independent lifestyle based on the concept that one should only work half of each day for “bread,” leaving the other half free for personal enrichment.

I never actually read the books when they were current. My sister summarized the Nearings’ message for me, and that was enough. I was hooked. It was back to the land for me. Incidentally, when I finally got around to reading Living the Good Life, I found it both inspiring and, at the same time, rather tiresome and academic. Scott Nearing was a passionate believer in the use of index cards. He felt that they offered the only means of organizing one’s thoughts and experiences so as to learn by them. Did I mention that before dropping out of mainstream life he had been a professor at Columbia? Ever the academic, he.

At any rate, I was easily convinced to attempt to go back to the land mainly because of my mother’s earth-centered influence. She was raised on a farm, and though she became an educated college professor herself, there was a part of her that was always out of doors, always in the soil or very close to it. I should mention that my father was a passionate vegetable gardener himself, yet his earthiness was subordinate to his love of science and academia.

Thus, being a dutiful child I was forced to divide my loyalties between a career as a lesser plant pathologist at the University of Maine and charting a course back to the land. This unhappy conflict of interests finally collapsed after eight years when I lost my position as a researcher and was forced to become self-employed as a horticulturist.

Little did I realize as our little business, called Everlasting Farm, evolved that it was a monumental detour on my journey. Greenhouses sprouted like clover on our small plot, generating lots of cash and an equal amount of hard work that would prove an irresistible distraction from achieving that idyllic life described by the Nearings. Goethe said, “What man wishes for in youth, he achieves in middle age.” There is something of a sad little curse embedded in that aphorism. Substitute retirement for middle age and you’ve got my life’s timeline just about right.

Now, I don’t mean to say that one must be young to go back to the land. No, the beautiful thing about the land is that it is always there, beckoning, always fresh and ready to receive our first tentative assaults upon the soil, and always ready to reward our efforts as gardeners and farmers in direct proportion to the effort and wisdom we bring to the endeavor.

I had a friend who said she loved plants because they always tried their hardest to grow and bear flowers or fruit. They never lost heart. I think the same can be said of animals and of the living soil. Every square foot of soil if left alone will grow as much plant, animal, and microbial life as it possibly can. The Earth’s motto seems to be “grow it to the max,” rather than, “eh, close enough.”

The point here is both subtle and deep. The land is a living entity, thriving because it is powered by that infinite energy source, the sun. In human terms, the soil is like a bank account that constantly renews itself. If we learn how to manage our plot of land sustainably and thriftily, we tap into a truly inexhaustible resource. Inexhaustible because it is alive and contains the wisdom of evolutionary time in the DNA of the myriad of organisms that colonize and improve it.

Am I making myself clear? Let me put it another way. One of my favorite things when traveling by car is to stop at random places for a “woods tinkle.” Until I do this, I have no idea of the land that I am passing through. It’s just a tableau whizzing by the windshield. But once I have tinkled clandestinely on some spot of “unimproved” ground, I feel that I have gotten to know at least the basic gist of where I am. And I can honestly say that in all the years of doing this, I have never encountered a piece of land that wasn’t vigorously growing towards its fullest potential of productivity. Nature never tires of improving Herself.

So there you have it. Reason Number One for going back to the land. It’s the “winning team.” Tireless, inexhaustible and capable of almost infinite self-improvement. I cannot think of any man-made enterprise that can make such claims. Indeed, we are witnessing unprecedented dislocation and suffering brought on by the collapse of many human enterprises, notably manufacturing.

Somewhere in the clutter of every Extension Service office there is a sign that reads, “Man – despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication, and his many accomplishments – owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”

How’s that for a leveling comment? Not much there one could argue with, is there? It’s too bad the statement comes across as something of a “downer.” I’d rephrase it to say, “Rejoice in the top six inches of soil and in every raindrop, and make a plan to improve the profile to ten inches of topsoil, while conserving moisture with mulch and drip irrigation.” Join the team and make it better.



Next: Letters to My Niece: Soil is What Truly Sustains Us