Who remembers the Back to the Earth Movement — the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tired of the Vietnam war, protest, and trying to change the system, the mantra became drop out, go back to the earth. Last week in the Lower Makefield library, a book caught my eye, “A Farm Dies Once a Year.” I am always pleased when a title or cover design pulls me in and then lives up to expectation (sometimes you can judge a book by its cover). This memoir is an example. The author, Arlo Crawford, grew up on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania — near McConnelsburg, southwest of Pittsburgh. His parents were hippies, back to the earth types. Growing up, Arlo experienced organic vegetables, escaping the system, left wing political views and the sweet smell of m marijuana.
Arlo’s memoir resonates with me on several levels. During the early 1970s, Diane and I lived with John and Barbara Paglione in New Hope. Our garden wasn’t commercial but we grew and canned quite a bit for the winter. We thought we were back to the earth. One of our iconic trips was a visit to the socialist, back to the earth gurus Helen and Scott Nearing in Maine. A great trip. Even took my father who got along fantastically with 90 year old Scott. In our first summer together, John and I traveled the back roads of Bucks County looking for work — on farms. In the Pineville Post Office we met Doris Daniels who said her husband hired seasonal help. The next day we began several years of summer work on Bucks County farms. We worked for both Paul and Ed Daniels — milk cows and chickens. Another story.
I was also drawn to Arlo’s connection to the current organic, local, foodie movement. His parents farm, “New Morning Farm” (named after a Dylan album) now has a website. The farm sells most of its product in Farmers’s Markets in Washington D.C. And the farm is featured in Mario Batala’s book, ” America — farm to table.” Amazing how these things dove tail. I will try to check out the market next time we visit Washington.
The strongest theme in Arlo’s memoir is the return home. Tom Wolf, wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again.” But yes you can. Arlo left the farm for college and work, eventually settled in New York City, worked in an art museum. But there was a pull; a pull to his parents farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. The memoir begins with his return to the farm for a summer season. As the days pass, Arlo gets into the rhythm of the farm. His father, a committed, some may say fanatic farmer, responds to the ups and downs of farming. A disease wipes out a tomatoe crop; but the DC market continue to bring in dollars. Arlo builds a small camping platform, a cabin on the farm and his Boston girlfriend skeptical at first, gradually adapts to life on the farm.
Arlo’s memoir also evoked memories of the TV show, “The Waltons” — a favorite of ours in the early 1970s. Walton Mountain wasn’t a farm — they ran a saw mill. But the feeling, rural norms, and experiences of family life in the 1930s were honored by the 1960s back to the earth types. We may have romanticized the depression from our comfortable lives, but the tough, stick it out, individualism, family, lend a helping hand beliefs were seen as inspiration. I remember when John and I looked for a farm job, we drove around the county in an old VW bug, imagining the 1930s. Right guys!
About five years ago I began to return to some of the back to the earth practices and values that defined our lives in New Hope in the early 1970s. I began to bake bread weekly. My garden plot expanded with tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, swiss chard, eggplants, cucumbers, sometimes cabbage, bok choi, radishes. I froze some tomatoes and pickled green. Apple butter, fresh pumpkin, jams, sour kraut, pickled peppers . . . the preserving of summer bounty expanded. This year I had about 300 pounds of tomatoes — many heritage. Freezing turned to canning. Sunflowers reached 10 feet. The lettuce, eggplant, peppers, and a variety of greens matched the plenty of the tomatoe harvest. Last month I even planted a fall garden and in today’s mail was a cover for freezing weather. It has been an exceptional garden year.
Arlo didn’t stay on “New Morning Farm.” He now lives in San Francisco, writes and sells vegetables. But his summer sojourn rekindled attitudes and values he had learned growing up. He did go home again.
In a similar way since I retired in June, I have been returning home. Not just to Bristol (where I grew up) which I did visit last week, but to all manor of places, experiences and people from the past. And it’s more than nostalgia, it’s tapping into roots, feelings and experiences that define who I am. And maybe who I will become. The explore will continue.