In Pockets of Resistance: The Back-To-The-Land Movement Matures

by Christopher Plant

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

Deep in the coastal rainforest, seven or eight hundred miles north of Vancouver, B.C., the tenderly cared-for log cabin with cedar shake roof still stands on a little bluff over-looking the Tseax River. Surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful snow- capped mountains, the care that has clearly gone into the place reflects the fact that, for someone, this has been a miniature paradise. Eagles wheel above the tall spruce and cottonwood trees, and the protected backwaters still provide a secret refuge for the moose, finding safety from hunters there through the long winter months. The tiny Pelton wheel, though, that provided generous, but by no means-trouble-free electric power from the creek, is now stopped. And the rustic, cedar-bough gate of the old goat-pen creaks on its wooden hinges as it swings carelessly in the occasional gust of wind.

This old homestead—typical of many in B.C.— is suffering right now. Built originally by English pioneers in the early years of the century, it was sold in 1968 by the one remaining white settler to a young, enthusiastic couple—part of a group of four or five—during the “new wave” of back-to-the-landers. The newcomers, fleeing America and the Vietnam draft, poured their best years of love and devotion into the place, and for a long time subsisted almost entirely on what they grew.

But, after ten years, and with two small children, the isolation—70 miles on a rough logging road to the nearest town—was too much. Their hopes of building a lasting community of friends did not materialize for one reason or another and, with bitter irony, paradise became a prison. The growing children deserved something better, and long-buried personal aspirations gnawed at their sense of identity. With the war long over, the couple took heart, braced themselves, and left—back to the east coast of the U.S. After three or more years, and two further attempts by people to make it there, their place was finally sold to an unknown buyer. Within weeks of the sale, the majestic 100 acres of rainforest was clear-cut, destined for the multinational market in 2 x 4s. A dream had ended.

*

Far away, where the coast mountains meet the interior plateau, and where the sun is hot and the air dry from having dropped its heavy load of rainfall, a narrow valley, tucked between the mountains, is vibrant with human hope and energy. Here, the 20 or so young families of this region’s “new wave” have been luckier. True, a spirited attempt at living in a large commune withered on the vine. But the larger community has survived initial hardships and, importantly, the people have stayed in place, fired with the conscious intention of reinhabiting the land and forming a close-knit village-type of community to sustain themselves and future generations through time.

They meet and celebrate often, work together frequently, support one another whenever possible, and are active in a host of self- initiated organizations ranging from a food co-op to an ecological society and the Green Party of B.C. Hands planted firmly in the soil, they grow bountiful amounts of organic food and manage to support themselves one way or another by practicing either the skills they have learned here, like fine carpentry or vegetable- growing, or the trades they came with from the “old” world: as mechanics, electricians, nurses or publishers. Plans for the future, for the younger generation (none of whom attend regular school) to carry on when it is their time, include market gardening, an organic tree nursery for silviculture, and fish-farming. Inspired by the need to develop radically new ways of being in the world—a new culture of caring for one another and one’s local place, and a new politics that empowers communities to make local decisions about local resources—this group has lost little of the idealism that fired the imaginations of those seeking to forge an alternative model for the future in the backwoods of B.C. This dream lives on…

*

You’re equally likely to encounter either one of these scenarios today. For, in a world where wilderness is fast diminishing, western Canada is still very much a wild place, open to opportunities for building “new worlds” that simply don’t exist in Europe, say, or most parts of North America, for that matter. But, as economic times have gotten tougher and mainstream politics more right-wing, the dominant trend has been away from the back- to-the-land dream, for it’s harder now to make it on next to nothing.

Yet the movement matures, all the same, and with some reassuring threads of continuity. The warm Gulf Islands of the west coast, although more populated than before by people with money, remain a haven for artists of all kinds and a wonderland of home-grown architecture. In the Cariboo, a group once fired by Marx and Mao expand the number of their communally-run farms; slowly attract ever more adherents to their spartan way of life from the ranks of small town down-and-out street people; and maintain, unequivocally, that their aim is still, as ever, “to bring about an agrarian revolution in this country.”

Others pass both ways: in and out of the dream. Tired of farming rocks up north, a friend quits “the
good life” for the city, to become an environmental lawyer, highly valued by those who remain. Travelling the other way, an engineering student bids a safe but boring career farewell, finds a country niche and, eventually, becomes an expert on alternate energy systems. And, in the Kootenay mountain range, the Slocan Valley—once a hippie mecca, now much depopulated because of the economic depression there—has given birth to a new batch of foresters and ecologists. In their ef­forts to stop clear-cutting and to protect fragile watersheds, they wage a steady uphill battle to influence provincial forest policy.

With government and industry set to squeeze the last remaining resource dollar from these lands, it has been the struggles to preserve the last remaining wilderness in B.C. that has united current back-to-the-landers with their city contemporaries. Meares Island, South Moresby, the Stein River Valley—these and many other threatened areas have become household words, as the Mega-­machine pursues its deadly business. Opposition to this madness has sparked a renaissance within the broad alternative movement, fuelled by increasingly tangible threats to local ecosystems. Groups who left the rat-race to “get away from it all” find themselves, instead, “on the front lines,” at the very frontier, quite prepared to sit in front of bulldozers, or spike trees, if necessary, to stop the desecration.

As a measure of this renaissance, countless single issue groups have formed, from north to south and east to west, struggling to save a watershed, prevent another dam, or stop a toxic waste dump from being built. More significant, perhaps, are the tentative steps toward uniting such diverse groups around a common view. Bioregionalism holds out this promise.

*

Rooted in the politics of place, the bioregional view expressly values natural, biological regions as well as the diverse cultures which they spawn. A decentralist, localist perspective, bioregionalism appeals strongly to all those who reject the tendency to ever-increased centralization, in both city and country. Whether it’s restoring and greening city neighborhoods, or “reinhabiting” damaged rural lands and making them flourish once again, bioregionalism promotes the notion of sustainability of nature and culture over time. As such, it has attracted back-to-the-landers old and new, and provides common ground for the many other diverse strands of the alternatives movement: the feminist, green, cooperative and peace movements, for example.

Gatherings such as the Hat Creek Survival Gathering, now in its ninth year—originally begun to stop a coal-fired electricity-generating mega-project at Hat Creek, but continued long after the battle was won—are taking on the character of bioregional congresses. The hope is that, like their counterparts in the U.S., these congresses may eventually become the alternative decision-making bodies for different bioregions: models for an enlightened future where regions self-organize to live sustainably within their carrying capacities over the long term.

Reminiscent of the enthusiasm of by-gone years, tempered now with a streak of “older” realism, the bioregional movement dares still to call forth planet-healing ideals that were so much a part of the original back-to-the-land impulse. The wheel turns full circle. Now, however, the movement has experience on its side, a fact that is reflected in its much more clearly defined philosophy and direction, as well as in its consensus process and general tolerance of those who move in similar directions but on different paths.

*

As wave succeeds wave, the movement for a land-based alternative to modern industrial society in western Canada seems not to die, rather just to change its form from time to time. Although for some the dream of backwoods life has fizzled out, going “back-to-the-land” still is a viable alternative in British Columbia. Strengthened by the additional energy of bioregionalism, the movement continues to offer health and hope for a more ecological future as it matures. “Alive and well,” said one poet a couple of years ago about the movement, “in pockets of resistance, still struggling we are…”

(First published Kanada: Ein Express Reisehandbuch, Ed. Maria Feltes and Thomas Feltes. Germany: Mundo Verlag, 1989.)

Christopher “Kip” Plant (1950-2015) and his wife Judith founded The New Catalyst newspaper and New Society Publishers, with Christopher serving as chief editor and then editor emeritus until his retirement in 2013. In the 1970s, he organized the first Nuclear Free and Independent South Pacific Conference and fought for the independence of the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. He also served as editor at The Institute for Pacific Studies.

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