Rebecca Kneale Gould. At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. x + 350 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-24142-8.
Reviewed by Dale E. Potts (Department of History, University of Maine)
Published on H-Environment (August, 2006)
Homestead and Ecological Communion
Rebecca Kneale Gould's work, At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America, examines homesteading texts from the late nineteenth century to the present. These texts demonstrate expressions of spirituality found in a practical life in communion with nature. Situated in historical context, Gould illustrates how individual writer/homesteaders pursued more meaningful lives beyond commercial culture, and like so many since the nineteenth century, attempted lifestyle changes "in the midst of a technological and consumption-oriented American culture they found to be spiritually and ethically wanting" (p. xvii). This pursuit, in many instances, combined spiritual searching with practical homesteading skills and knowledge.
Methodologically, the work combines contemporary ethnographic study of individual homesteaders, in chapters 1 through 3, with the intellectual and cultural history of homesteading presented in chapters 4 through 6. In the initial three chapters, Gould utilizes taped and field note interviews with more than 30 homesteaders, many in Maine and greater New England (p. 238). In the last three chapters, Gould adopts a literary and historical approach, examining some 60 homesteading texts, primarily first-person narratives, from 1880 to the present. Gould also engages in content analysis of homesteading magazines such as Mother Earth News, Back Home Magazine, Countryside, and Green Revolution. The end result of these efforts is a comprehensive study that combines elements of religion, ecology, and history to illustrate the nexus of spirituality and practicality on the homestead.
Gould provides a unique perspective on homesteading in New England and beyond. At times as an observer and other times as a participant, Gould's experience and research present clear insight into the lives of both published and non-published homesteaders. In Maine, her research brought her in contact with Helen Nearing who, along with her husband Scott Nearing, provided a homesteading example for generations during the twentieth century. Gould was also the first to live at Forest Farm, the second homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing. Her connection to the Nearing legacy continued after Helen's death in 1995 when Gould assisted in the creation of the non-profit organization, The Good Life Center (p. xvii-xviii).
The practice of homesteading, as the author illustrates, raises questions regarding individual relationships with nature, spirituality, and the larger society. These ethical and ecological questions seek to understand the basic human relationship to the natural world, the real priorities of life, and how one should face ecological and cultural concerns, especially in the late twentieth century (p. xix). Throughout the text, Gould asks how the practice of homesteading spiritually regenerated individuals who chose to move outside of a consumer-oriented society--one that grew out of the industrialization of the American landscape in the nineteenth century--in order to remove themselves, to varying degrees, from the deleterious effects of industry. In a general sense, Gould asks how getting close to nature often involves regenerating the self in spite of nature. Many turned to nature to engage in self-sustaining activities such as growing food, cutting wood, or creating crafts while using nature largely as a backdrop to those activities.
Gould also asks in what sense nature is being pressed into service for cultural reform movement(s) (p. 8). Some individuals in the late twentieth century pressed for cultural reform that sought to utilize nature in a model different from the dominant society. However, utilization remained the constant. Despite these contradictions, the author stresses that many homesteading texts reiterated a strong commitment to living in tune with the natural world. Despite the historical differences between these eras, in homesteading Gould finds a continuity of spiritual experience that draws on this connection to nature.
This spiritual pursuit is bound to a practicality of purpose on homesteads and is often reiterated in homesteading texts. For example, the author describes individual quests for spirituality in nature as the pursuit of "a spiritual life outside formal religions [practicing] a way of living that is in step with the natural world rather than against it" (p. xx). For over a century, homesteaders reacted against organized religion they found unfulfilling. Living lives closer to nature, these writers described the physical aspects of their homesteads and wrote about them in spiritually enlivening terms. In these texts, Gould sought "to see what they tell us of the symbolic (and literal) construction of spiritual and ethical living in modern American culture" (p. 6).
The study also situates these texts in historical context, considering the push factors that led individuals, such as Myrtle Mae and Ralph Borsodi and Helen and Scott Nearing, to leave the industrialized East in pursuit of at least partial self-sufficiency. Myrtle Mae and Ralph Borsodi, for instance, who left corporate life in New York City, believed they could provide the comforts of life on their own while maintaining at least some connection to consumer society. Helen and Scott Nearing, by comparison, felt the need to live with a more rigorous connection to the land. These examples show both the opportunities and the limitations inherent in living a life of home production. Both perspectives provided examples for generations of like-minded individuals.
Gould judiciously cites a number of ethnographic sources in her work situating the study of cultural groups within western society. These include James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (1988). The study also utilizes ethnographic monographs as models, including Gananath Obeyesekere's Medusa's Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience (1984). For discussion of spirituality outside organized religion a number of monographs inform the text, including: James Spickard, J. Shawn Landres, and Meredith McGuir's Personal Knowledge and Beyond: Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion (2002), Catherine Albanese's Nature Religion in America (1990), and Robert C. Fuller's Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (2002).
Gould's work also draws on Environmental Studies, situating homesteading within the context of contemporary ecological thought. Secondary texts range from Brian Donahue's Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forest in a New England Town (1999) to Jeffrey Jacob's New Pioneers: The Back-to-the-Land Movement and the Search for a Sustainable Future (1997). These sources provide background for discussing the dichotomy between dominant cultural expectations and the experiences of individual homesteading. The work also utilizes more traditional Environmental History texts, such as Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind (1972) and Vera Norwood's Made from this Earth: American Women and Nature (1993), to arrive at an understanding of the ecological thought inherent in different historical eras.
Primary sources consist of 60 homesteading texts written by women and men. As the author states, these texts became "'testaments' to a new way of living--as conversion narratives of a kind" (p. 3). They describe the spiritual aspects and deeply held beliefs that emerge within the daily practice of living a life closer to nature (p. 3). Textual analysis begins with Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854) as an initial foray into the realm of homesteading, followed by John Burroughs' late-nineteenth-century nature journals from his New York farmstead, Slabsides. These early texts illustrate the crucial point that homesteading did not begin with the counter culture movement of the 1960s, but, in fact, has a long-standing history in American culture. Likewise, the twin ideals of spirituality and practicality have remained steadfast aspects of homesteading.
Early-twentieth-century sources include Ralph Borsodi's The Flight from the City (1933), Louis Bromfield's, Malabar Farm (1948), as well as M.G. Kains's classic work Five Acres and Independence (1935). Sources during and after World War II include Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life (1954), Louise Dickinson Rich's We Took to the Woods (1942), Aldo Leopold's classic, Sand County Almanac (1949), as well as Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977). These middle sources show the range of homesteader experiences as well as the similarity of their spiritual pursuits.
More contemporary works include Helen Nearing's Loving and Leaving the Good Life (1993), Judith Moffett's Homesteading Year: Back to the Land in Suburbia (1995), and William Coperthwaite's A Handmade Life (2003). These later works offer a contemporary assessment of homesteading and its spiritual aspects, rounding out the study. Through study of these texts, Gould demonstrates that despite different historical circumstances, homesteaders have pursued their lifestyles in very similar ways, namely in pursuit of a spiritual bond with the natural world.
The work concludes that an ambivalent attitude toward nature, a dominant theme in American environmental history, encompasses this dichotomy between spirituality and practicality in homesteading (p. 10). Since the nineteenth century, homesteaders attempted to resist dominant cultural norms, but, ironically, often reproduced them (p. 9). This relates most clearly to the limits of nature appreciation where nature is viewed as a backdrop to individual homesteader's lives. Practicality and spirituality can coexist together, as Gould illustrates, but they can also be at odds, as evidenced by a variety of homesteading experiences. For instance, John Burroughs espoused homesteading existence in the late nineteenth century, but largely as a "representative man" for the middle class (p. 109). He viewed nature as an alternative to traditional religion, but did not renounce the latter entirely. Such an act would have alienated many even in an era of declining faith in organized religion (p. 113).
In the early twentieth century, Helen and Scott Nearing moved beyond the staid agrarianism of Burroughs, questioning the structures of capitalism in an era of big business (p. 140). Scott Nearing's initial ideas regarding homesteading reflected early-twentieth-century notions of the Social Gospel. After his dismissal from academia over his opposition to World War I, Scott shifted his ideology to Socialism in the interwar period. By the second half of the twentieth century, Helen and Scott had adopted a personal, practical application of homesteading that retreated from community-based reform, emphasizing lives lived by example (p. 172). This last point of view espoused a life of practical and practiced labor in nature on their homesteading farms in New Hampshire and Maine (p. 77). By the post-counter culture era, other homesteaders distanced themselves from the Nearing's regimented and independent lifestyle by living in "jovial defiance" of it, through aestheticisms of pleasure, namely saunas and other community-based activities (p. 92).
In the final chapter, Gould illustrates how gender issues apparent in the early twentieth century reemerged in the 1970s, as counter-cultural communes wrestled with issues of gendered divisions of labor. In the 1970s, men largely wrote communal homesteading texts. Their positions regarding the role of women tended to fall back on traditional, male-dominated societal expectations. This point of view did not go without criticism, however. From former farmwomen to intellectual elites, many questioned why back to the farm meant back to the kitchen for women. Communal homesteading produced varied experiences for women as some encountered reinforced gender divisions of labor, while others found and worked to create more equitable divisions (p. 205). A major goal of the work, as Gould writes, is to help correct the absence of scholarly work on homesteading and small farm agriculture. The work ably addresses the ecological and spiritual concerns involved with homesteading. Further exploration could include differences and similarities between homesteaders as defined in the text and traditional small-farm agriculture. There are parallels to be drawn between these two modes of living on the land, including spirituality. Gould alludes to these connections, especially how both groups often labored to create goods to sustain themselves and how homesteading and small-farm agriculture both involved a degree of "spiritual materialism" where the products of labor were important (p. 29).
Gould's work shows how homesteaders drew on a nexus of spirituality and practicality (p. 33). This confluence is likened to a conversion process and, as the author states, "like many kinds of conversion, the choice to homestead may be expressed as an absolute necessity, a profound experience of rebirth, or a pursuit of a long-anticipated personal path" (p. 105). This path of spirituality develops through communion with nature in life-affirming practices. Homesteaders drew on the spiritual and practical aspects of homesteading finding a place in nature as they found knowledge of themselves (p. 8).
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Dale E. Potts. Review of Gould, Rebecca Kneale, At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America.
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