What Happened to the Back-to-the-Landers?

Installation view of the 'Positions and Situations' Vol. 3 release at Oakland's Royal NoneSuch Gallery in 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

When Alex Arzt started writing letters to the past, she was a bit adrift in time and space herself.

It was 2014, and Arzt was halfway through an MFA program. “I am a 26-year-old graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University working on a project about the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s,” her letters started. She addressed her missives to people who had once placed classified ads in alternative, instructional magazines geared toward rural life, magazines like Mother Earth News, Country Women, Alternatives Newsletter and The Modern Utopian. She asked her recipients where those ads led them in the intervening years.

“I myself am seeking something similar—a home in the woods, so to speak,” Arzt wrote. “Were you able to find what you were looking for?”

Over the next three years, as she finished grad school and traveled to residencies across the U.S., Arzt sent out 800 of these letters, tracking down names and addresses through online databases. She got nearly 200 responses from people who placed ads between 1968 and 1976—men and women who were looking for affordable land, like-minded communards and, in one case, “fellow dome nuts.”

These collected correspondences are now gathered in a three-volume Risograph-printed set titled The Positions and Situations Project: Back-to-the-Land Letters (after the name of the classifieds section in Mother Earth News). The entire project adds up to more than 600 pages of ads, letters (many handwritten, some embellished with photos) and interviews Arzt conducted with participants she visited in person.

All three volumes of 'The Positions and Situations Project: Back-to-the-Land Letters.' (Courtesy of the artist)

What emerges in this remarkable juxtaposition between past dreams and present circumstances is a story of a generation that wasn’t interested in settling for the status quo. In their attempts to escape consumerism, pollution, the Vietnam War and an untrustworthy American political system, these (mostly white, middle-class) 20-somethings learned how to farm, raise animals and build their own homes.

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The 100-word ads in Mother Earth News in particular paint compelling pictures of the writers and the futures they hope for. And even in the countercultural back-to-the-land movement, there were fads. “[The ads] gave me a pretty interesting picture of what was going on that year, or what was trendy,” Arzt says, “whether it was sailboat communes or open marriages or all the things that people were trying.”

For most of her project participants, their time living in cooperative rural environments was short. But to Arzt, all experiences were valid, and telling. “There are a lot of happy stories in here but there are also some dark stories too, which I think is an important part of that time,” she says.

Included in Positions and Situations are tales of fractured group dynamics, mental illness, violence, and—in one case—the murder of a family, possibly connected to an ad they placed in Mother Earth News. One woman relayed her experience of falling in with the cult Children of God (COG) and struggling to readjust to outside life. “Coming back home was a kind of culture shock in some ways, and there no one who could help me deal with it,” she wrote to Arzt.

A spread from 'Positions and Situations' Vol. 2. (Courtesy of the artist)

But in many cases, Arzt’s correspondences yielded encouragement, pleasant memories of youthful exploits and invitations to visit the letter-writers’ homes. One offered very specific, hard-won advice: “Don’t build a house without any plans or blueprint.” A significant number of her participants had completely forgotten about the ads they placed. Some received no responses to their classifieds except for Arzt’s letter—nearly 50 years later.

This wasn’t the case with Cathy Anderjack’s ad, placed in a 1975 issue of Mother Earth News when she was 23; it garnered over 70 written responses. Anderjack, Arzt says, is one of the most meaningful connections she made through the project, in part because putting her desire for a different life into print changed the course of Anderjack’s life. “Seeking position on a farm (preferably sheep-type or with potential for sheep raising),” Anderjack’s ad reads. “Am honest and simple in my desire to live in harmony with nature.”

“I was really interested in the people who weren’t that typical, heteronormative typeset that fit in better to dominant society,” Arzt says, “but those people were harder to find. I was interested in single women who were kind of traveling around, because that’s what I was doing.”

“I did find some of them!” she adds. Anderjack was one.

As a result of her ad, Anderjack ended up leaving social work in Atlantic City to live in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she worked on farms, raised sheep and eventually built her own home, in which she still lives.

Alex Arzt in her Headlands Center for the Arts studio, her Risograph printer behind her. (Andria Lo)

And did Arzt find her own home in the woods? Not exactly. She now lives in Oakland, but her studio is at the relatively remote Headlands Center for the Arts, up the road from the former Nike missile site and overlooking Rodeo Lagoon and Beach. Her current projects include inviting people in for Risograph printing workshops. Next year, she’ll give a Place Talk at the Prelinger Library on a type of wild cabbage found around the nearby Point Bonita lighthouse. And she’s also working on a collaborative field guide for Salmon Creek Farm in Albion, California, where artist Fritz Haeg is reviving the former commune as an artist colony.

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She has also, like many of the people she corresponded with for Positions and Situations, grown her own community—albeit an urban, multi-city one. Along with artists Annie Albagli and Gabbi Ncube, she is one of the founders of Whiz World, a publication, collaborative network and “evolving art machine.” Participants adopt a “Whiz” persona (e.g. Queen Whiz, Ghost Whiz, Wize Whiz) for projects that manifest as zines, readings, gatherings and performances.

Arzt says the back-to-the-land movement will always hold her interest. “I think there’s still a lot to unpack from that time that we haven't quite done a good job at yet. We’re still working through what it meant,” she says.

And she sees a similar tendency in her contemporaries. She points to POC land projects like Soul Fire Farm and the media savvy efforts of Greenhorns as exciting examples of something she’s not quite ready to call a movement.

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But she’s optimistic: “I think people are thinking more critically and deeply about what it means to live rurally.”

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