I first noticed the man with the goats. I’d been working on an ecological restoration in East Palo Alto, along the San Francisco Bay’s salt marshes. EPA, for short, is across the 101 from wealthier Palo Alto and Stanford University, and is still known as a dangerous and gang-run town. Yet as I walked to and from the restoration site, I discovered that the city’s housing lots were surprisingly long – up to an acre in size. Many, I learned, had their own wells for pumping water. And quite a few resembled farms: rows of vegetables, fruit trees, and animals – including goats.
Thanks to Stanford historian Michael Kahan, I learned that East Palo Alto was home to a back-to-the-land movement nearly a century ago.
Today, I park our truck and meet volunteers on a street called Runnymede.
That’s what, back in 1916, an activist named his vision for a utopian, small-scale agricultural community in what is now East Palo Alto. Runnymede. Where the Magna Carta was signed in England.
Those large residential lots that I’d been noticing? He sold them to white, middle-class Americans fleeing the gritty urbanization and mechanization of labor then sweeping the country. He trained them to raise chickens and be self-sufficient. “One Acre and Independence,” was the motto.
I won’t recant the whole history here. Check out, for instance, Alan Michelson and Katherine Solomson’s chapter, “Remnants of a Failed Utopia: Reconstructing Runnymede’s Agricultural Past.” Or this article in the Palo Alto Weekly.
The Bay Area is an epicenter of urban gardening, bee-keeping, backward chickens, etc. But this isn’t new. I had thought that back-to-the-land was a 1960s phenomenon – with a resurgence in today’s digital-weary era.
Yet in reading about East Palo Alto’s past, I’ve learned that my great-great-grandfather could have been a college-educated, city-born, sauerkraut-fermenting hipster. For there was at the turn of the 20th century, in the words of Michelson and Solomson,
a growing back-to-the-land movement that gained momentum even as increasing numbers of people were leaving farms and small towns for the city.
It became known as the Little Landers’ Movement, “whose colonies dotted the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly in California.”
What drives these turns toward “nature”? How are these back-to-the-land movements driven by particular concepts of nature?
As I’ve written about here at The Socratic Trailhead, there’s been recent discussion about the meaning of nature and wilderness in the 21st century – the so-called “Great Wilderness Debate.” What will back-to-the-land look like in the year 2050?