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The following essay by Alan MacEachern uses quotations from the series of interviews conducted by Ryan O'Connor. A pdf of the complete essay is available for download.

1. The Thing to Do at the Time

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The 1970s back-to-the-land movement was unusual as far as movements go, because it involved actual movement. People from across North America relocated to out of the way rural places to grow their own food and live more simply, a sort of rubber boot rebooting. Though they shared many of the same influences, they made individual choices and decided as individuals or families what small pockets of the continent would become their new home.

Prince Edward Island was one of the popular destinations for back-to-the-landers, thanks to its beautiful summers, arable soil, and cheap, cheap land. A sizable number of back-to-the-landers — in the hundreds at least — moved to PEI, taking over farms that had fallen into disuse or building homes in forests that had never been cleared. They settled into a society that had, in many ways, never left the land, that was itself trying to join modernity but still seemed closer to the 19th century than the 21st. The back-to-the-landers, in establishing themselves on PEI, simultaneously validated the celebrated Island way of life and brought new ideas as to what that way of life could be.

They came from all over, with unique histories and an individual blend of motivations leading them to PEI. Before moving to Milo and living in a tent, David Sobers was a philosophy professor at the University of Vermont. It was, he remembers, "a very comfortable existence, but it wasn’t satisfying. ...We lived in a beautiful home out in the suburbs, just outside of Burlington ... and every weekend, the whole weekend you'd hear lawnmowers going. And I thought, ’Gee, this is absurd.’" Joyce and Mark Arnold were teachers in Montreal, sick of the city life and just discovering that they could be more self-sufficient. "Actually," Mark states, "the real thing that happened to me is I was driving a Volkswagen Beetle and I bought a book ... on how to tune up your Volkswagen Beetle. I bought the parts ... and tuned up my car. I had never done something like that before. And that led to us buying a farm in rural PEI...." JoDee Samuelson, the conservative daughter of an Alberta minister, became a hippie, and in 1971 saw PEI as a good place to sell beaded jewelry to tourists. Cef Pobjoy joined a campaign against a proposed airport in Pickering, Ontario. A group of protesters there moved into farmhouses that had been expropriated and were now sitting empty. "That was the first taste of land," he recalls. "We were living on farmland by accident." Wendy Ader-Jones had never even heard of a back-to-the-land movement. She and her husband just took off from Connecticut in their Volkswagen van with plans to buy property in Oregon. But their travels kept turning them north and east. "Someone in the Antigonish, Nova Scotia area said to us ’You really ought to see Prince Edward Island before you leave the Maritimes.’ So we did. We took the ferry on September 30, ’72, and two weeks later we were proud owners of a 125-acre farm."

But as individual as these stories are, they share some commonalities. That’s hardly a surprise. The back-to-the-landers were a distinct enough subculture that they tended to look alike: with their long hair and the way they dressed, they recognized one another on the streets of Charlottetown. Those who came to Prince Edward Island in the early-to-mid 1970s were typically baby boomers, born just after the end of the Second World War and still quite young. Most were middle- or upper-middle class. Almost all were on the political left, many were activists, some focused their activism on the Vietnam War, and a very few were outright draft dodgers. They were reading many of the same things, like the Whole Earth Catalog, Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life, EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Rodale Press magazines, and Harrowsmith. Above all, they shared a sense that there should be more to life than what modern urban and suburban existence was offering. They wanted a smaller, more real world. They wanted to be closer — to nature, to their food, to their work, to their families. This was to be an escape, but it would not be escapist: they would work harder and pay more attention to how they eked out an existence than they would have otherwise.

Peter Richards recalls,

I was living in Toronto, ... and I don’t know, the lakes were polluted and the air smelled bad and it just wasn’t fun anymore. I grew up in St Catherines, which is beside Lake Ontario, and we used to go when I was a child, go and swim in the lake. Now you had to go and read the signs which said ’Do not enter these waters.’ ... It just didn’t feel good. And then I visited some friends, in Quebec, and they lived in the country and they swam in lakes and I thought, ’This is the life. I have to get out of the city.’ ... A couple years after that I came to PEI and I found a similar sort of thing going on here where people were trying to become self-sufficient, or at least learn how to ... grow things in their gardens and build houses and renovate old farmhouses. All of that was possible. Houses were inexpensive, old farmhouses were falling down, you could buy them for next to nothing, fix them up. And land was very cheap, and so it just really suited being young and poor and wanting to have your own ’thing’. Renting an apartment in a city was just, you know, the worst possible choice compared to what you could do here.

Or, as Steve Knechtel says, laughing, "It just seemed like the thing to do at the time!"