21 Must-Read Books About Sustainable, Back-to-the-Land Living
The World Is Too Much with Us
I first came across William Wordsworth's poem World Is Too Much With Us almost a half century ago and have never forgotten it. After reading this wonderful poem, however, I promptly set about the “getting and spending” as most of us do. Several years ago, about mid-way through this half century, I began to take stock of my life and decide how I would like to live the remainder of it. This is when I began reading books about people who chose to live a different life. I often read these books as an escape from my sometimes-hectic urban life. I liked to read about those who decided to "chuck it all" and live a simpler life. I thought, and still think, it took courage to make this decision. Over the years I have read books written about or by those who have tried to live more sustained and simple lives in many parts of the world.
I still have a rather large collection of these books. Here are some of my favorites:
THE GOOD LIFE by Helen and Scott Nearing
Helen and Scott Nearing, back-to-the-land gurus, abandoned the city in 1932 for a rural life based on hard work, self-reliance, good health, and a minimum of cash, first in Vermont and later in Maine. In this book, and later in Continuing the Good Life, the Nearings provide a guide to their theory and practice of rural homesteading. This was one of he first books I read about this type of living and still one of my favorites.
During their lifetimes the Nearings wrote and lectured about their lives and had a large following. Many people became followers and sometimes joined them at their farm to help with the labor and learn from the Nearings.
Scott Nearing died in 1983 at the age of 100. He continued to work on his farm until shortly before his death and then died a purposeful death by stopping eating. Helen writes of his death and her life afterward in her later book Loving and Leaving the Good Life. Helen Nearing died in 1995 when the truck she was driving hit a tree. She was 91 years old.
The Good Life Center, a non-profit education center whose purpose is to perpetuate the goals, philosophies, and lifestyles of the Nearings, is now located in their home in Maine.
TWO ACRE EDEN and THE CONTRARY FARMER by Gene Logsdon
At the beginning of THE CONTRARY FARMER, Logsdon quotes the wonderful poem The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer by Wendell Berry. This in itself is enough to recommend this book that is about much more than just farming. It is about a kind of independence and freedom that comes from living more sustainably and simply.
In this book and TWO ACRE EDEN Logsdon gives advice about gardening and homesteading, about how to get the most out of whatever bit of land you have. They are wonderful how-to books, but they are more than this. In addition to being very informative they are fun and inspiring to read.
Gene Logsdon still lives and farms in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. He has written many books beside the two listed here.
FIVE ACRES AND INDEPENDENCE
by Maurice G. Kains
This classic back-to-the land book, originally published in 1935, is packed with solid, timeless information. It was revised in 1940 and published again in 1973 in paperback. Written by a renowned horticulturist, it has been used for generations by those who have longed for or attempted a more independent, sustainable lifestyle. It includes explanations of organic farming with advice on which crops to grow for profit and reliable advice on other topics, including irrigation, livestock, crops, greenhouses, and fertilizers.
Kains recommends beginning a sustainable farming venture by planting a tomato crop the first year. Buy a package or two of tomato seeds; start them early in the year and transplant the seedlings when all chance of frost is past. That way you will have a marketable crop the first year. And during that first year, you can plant and establish more permanent crops (like blueberries) that will produce income for many seasons to come.
I especially liked this book because at the time I had found it I had purchased five acres of my own and planned to retire there. My five acres were hilly and rocky, however, so probably not suitable for the type of sustainable farming to support oneself. Since I already had my retirement income established, my goal was to learn to use, not abuse, the the little plot of land that I settled on and to grow and locally harvest some of the products I consumed.
THE LONG SHADOWED FOREST, THE GIFT OF THE DEAR, A PLACE IN THE WOODS, and THE YEARS OF THE FOREST by Helen Hoover
In 1954, Helen Hoover and her husband Adrian decided to leave their hectic life in Chicago and move to a primitive log cabin in a remote area of northern Minnesota. Helen Hoover had been a successful research metallurgist and her husband a promotional art director before they decided they wanted to live a more peaceful life closer to nature.
When a cabin became available, they jumped at the chance to purchase it, then set to work trying to make a living. The Hoovers were not farmers, so they did not make their living from the land. Since they had left their careers in Chicago, they had to find some way to make a living. Mr. Hoover began selling note cards featuring his detailed, realistic nature illustrations. Mrs. Hoover later began writing about their life in the wilderness. Her first book, though, was not published until 1963, nine years after they began their adventure.
The Hoovers’ living experience was not about sustainable living because they purchased all of their food, but more about living simply and close to nature.
WOODSWOMAN and BEYOND BLACK BEAR LAKE by Anne LaBastille
Anne LaBastille, inspired by Henry David Thoreau's Walden, purchased land on the edge of a mountain lake in the Adirondacks, and built a log cabin there in 1965. In Woodswoman (1976), her first book, she documents the building of her log cabin with the help of two local carpenters. In the remainder of this book she writes of her adventures in living in this cabin in the wilderness without modern conveniences like electricity, running water, or phone. She also writes of her explorations of the wilderness of the Adirondacks.
Years later, with the advent of curious fans who had read her book, land developers, and pollution, she decided to retreat farther into the wilderness and build a tiny cabin fashioned after Thoreau's Walden. Her second book, Beyond Black Bear Lake (1987), chronicles this adventure.
Two later books, Woodswoman III (1997) and Woodswoman IIII (2003), are a continuation of her memoir of her life in the Adirondacks. In these last two books, she writes of the increasing difficulty of living full-time in the wilderness because of her increasing career commitments. She has a doctorate degree in wildlife ecology from Cornell University and had a multifaceted career consisting of writing, teaching, and conservation work.
Her cabin in the woods later became only a seasonal retreat, and now because of health problems she is sadly unable to live there.
WILDERNESS WIFE and AT HOME IN THE WOODS by Bradford and Vena Angier
Thoreau also inspired Bradford and Vena Angier. In 1947 they were living in Boston, Massachusetts. Bradford Angier had worked as a magazine editor and Vena Angier had been a ballerina. After reading Thoreau, they decided to move to Hudson's Hope, a small town in British Columbia, Canada, to live sustainably. They found an old prospectors cabin that they repaired then set about learning how to hunt and gather food from the wild.
Brad Angier began writing about their experiences and his wife Vena hand illustrated his books. He became an expert on wilderness living and authored more than 35 books.
HARD TIMES IN PARADISE by David and Micki Colfax
In the 1960s David Colfax was a college professor and his wife Micki was teaching high school English. Both were very active in political causes, organizing rent strikes, protesting the Vietnam War, and working for civil rights. Because of their political activity they began receiving threats. The next year David, who had been voted by students the school's most outstanding professor, was denied tenure. He moved on to another university where he was again denied tenure. Believing these snubs to be a result of his political activities, he charged the school with violation of academic freedom and received a $24,000 settlement.
Not wanting their family to ever be hurt again because of their political activism, they took this $24,000 settlement and bought 47 acres in Northern California and began living a self-sustaining life in this remote area. They had no experience with homesteading and had to learn the skills necessary to survive as they went along—skills like building their own road in to the property because they could not afford a bulldozer and designing and building their own home. They lived without electricity, a phone, or a steady income.
They also decided to home school their children when they found the local schools inadequate. They were so successful at this that three of their four children later graduated with honors from Harvard University.
WHITE GOATS AND BLACK BEES by Donald Grant
Donald Grant and his wife Mary, two successful New York journalists, decided to make a dramatic life change when in their late 50's. They purchased a cottage on a few acres in Southwest Ireland and became subsistence farmers, raising goats, bees, ducks, and rabbits, and growing much of their food. Since he was a writer, Donald decided to write about their experiences in this delightful book, first published in 1974, in which he describes their daily drama of harvesting crops and dealing with the locals. At first their cottage lacked water or any other amenity. It took two years of renovating and commuting before they finally settled in to their life in this remote section of Ireland.
CACHE LAKE COUNTY, LIFE IN THE NORTH WOODS by John J. Rowlands
First published in 1947, this book is a classic for any nature lover or camping enthusiast. It is a vivid account of Rowland's life in the North Woods of Canada. Chronicling each season, it a tale of contentment and simple living.
Rowland learned a tremendous amount from an Indian Chief who lived across Cache Lake. He includes much of this lore in the book with detailed instructions and drawings on how to make things you'd need to live simply in the wilderness.
This book is a great book for young readers who are interested in the outdoors or who would like to get a glimpse of life long ago out in the woods.
WIND IN THE ASH TREE by Jeanine McMullen
A native of Australia, Jeanine McMullen moved to England to go to school and ended up working for the BBC. In 1971 she bought a small farm in one of Wales's most beautiful and secret valleys. In this book, she describes her apprenticeship on this tiny farm guarded by a giant ash tree. She is a funny, gifted writer.
Jeanine McMullen also had a very popular BBC radio program called “My Small Country Living” and published a book by the same name. I have not yet read that book.
My Small Country Living
It is not necessary to live in the wilderness or “chuck it all” to enjoy these books. All of us, regardless of where we live, can live a simpler and more sustainable life, distilling our lives to include only what is really important. This is what these books can teach us. They are stories of courage and independence, but they are also great reads.
After reading these books for years, I found my own place in the country not far from where I grew up. I took early retirement to build a home there with my husband who joined me in the process. We love the quiet country living and closeness to nature that we have here. We are not as self-sufficient as many of the people I read about in these books, but we do cut our own firewood, harvest the black walnuts, and pick the blackberries that grow so abundantly. We grow some of our food, but we are also fortunate to live very near some Mennonite farmers who provide us with fresh vegetables all during the growing season.
The most rewarding thing about living here has been my increased awareness of my natural surroundings. To be able to identify the call of a bird or the bark of a tree gives me great satisfaction. Even more satisfying is passing along these skills to four little granddaughters who visit here regularly. They all live in very urban areas, so I've taught each of them how to recognize the call of birds, and I've taught them all the words to John Prine's wonderful song Blow up Your TV, also known as Spanish Pipe Dream. (In deference to their parents, I left out the verse about the topless waitress)
The oldest of these granddaughters told me recently she thought she might like to live here when she grew up and become a farmer.
"Oh, great!" I said, "May I come live with you?"
"Sure", she told me sweetly, "if you're not dead."
So if I'm not dead, I may be living here for a long time.