Back to the Landers?

by Bruce Patterson, July 15, 2009

“Men may as well be imprisoned as excluded from the means of earning their bread.”

— John Stewart Mill

Our esteemed editor has written in these august pages that he has never considered himself to be a Back-to-the-Lander. A native San Franciscan, Bruce came to Anderson Valley to escape The City he loved that was getting consumed by the car-crazed meglopolis. Dave Smith, the noted environmental activist and the owner of Mulligan Books in Ukiah, once told me how his mother reacted when he told her that he was going back to the land. “The land?” His mother huffed. “You can keep the land.” And that was an entirely understandable sentiment seeing how the worst thing about rural poverty was having to bust your ass in order to maintain it. I’m a second generation American, half Irish and half Slovak, and ever since I was a little boy I’ve known that I was only two generations removed from centuries of slavery and peonage. And even if my ancestors hadn’t’ve been forced to contend with bloodsucking Feudal landlords, Church-State totalitarianism and rapacious imperial armies, still taking a living straight from the dirt was never easy. Outside of the walled formal gardens of the rulers, whatever “pastoral paradises” that have ever existed on this earth were peopled by tribes of hunter-gatherers, cultivators and herdsmen.

I’ve never felt like I left the land and so I had none to return to. A Southern California boy who grew up during the camping craze of the 1950s and ‘60s, by the time I was 12 years old I’d already tasted some of the splendors of the American West and I was hungry for more. I went to work full-time when I turned 16 in 1965 and in the 42 years since then the closest I’ve ever come to working indoors was when, right after I quit high school, I worked in a regional warehouse in the City of Commerce. But even then I spent most of my time outside on the docks. If I wasn’t loading trucks then I was off-loading boxcars. During my three years in the army infantry I spent all of my days, and a good number of my nights, outdoors. So when, in the spring of 1973, I went to live on a “collective” organic farm lying in the alfalfa-strewn and cotton-linty bellybutton of the San Joaquin Valley, I was already used to having dirty fingernails.

Still I wasn’t prepared for the physicality of farm labor. For instance, advised and partly financed by an Armenian crop broker, we grew 27 acres of organic onions. As all of us newbie farmers were to find out during the six months between planting and harvesting, that was a lot of goddamned onions. Since we weren’t using herbicides or chemical fertilizers (back then there were plenty of nearby dairy farms and turkey ranches), we figured our onions would bring us top dollar and they did. If you factored in the time we spent swinging hoes while scalping the weeds out of our furrows and off our beds as being worth 50 cents per people hour, you could even say we turned a profit.

Our rows of onions were a quarter of a mile long and, given all of the irrigating we were doing (our pump gave us 6,000 gallons per minute of free Sierra melt water — our electricity bill was the killer), along with our onions we also produced a veritable bumper crop of weeds. Once our calluses had blisters on them and we’d hoed our way to the end of one row, already weeds were popping up back where we’d started. Eventually concluding that we may as well lay down in our furrows to try’n suffocate the weeds for all of the good we were doing, we said to hell with our hoes. Come harvest we’d plow up our onions like they were potatoes. Plowing up our crop wasn’t the best way to produce Fancy Pick gourmet onions, but it beat us dying of heat stroke or growing ourselves hunchbacks.

Of all of the “hippie” urban refugees that went “back to the land” in Mendocino County during the ‘60s and ‘70s, not many were fool enough to try, much less stick with, agricultural labor. It wasn’t like their plans for “self-realization” included putting some poor Oakie out of a job. Those out to live off the fat of the land by collecting food stamps and welfare found themselves about as welcome in these parts as redheaded, cross-eyed orphans. Deciding that working in an office, store or factory might not be so bad after all, like frogs on a sand dune, virtually all of the Back-to-the-Landers went back to where they belonged. Others, realizing it wasn’t about “me” so much as “here,” put down stakes. If they arrived without skills that were marketable in the countryside, then they learned a skill, or plenty of them, and they made themselves useful. As the culture and terrain grew on them, they grew into the culture and terrain. Rural Mendocino became home.

The physicality of farm labor that repelled most folks attracted me. Burning calories while producing something I could sink my teeth into or trip over was good for my soul. When I landed in Healdsburg during the winter of ’74 and I got a job pruning dry land, head trained, 60-year-old grape vines decorating rolling green hills, I knew I’d made it into the aristocracy of farm labor. This here wouldn’t be like bucking hay or manhandling irrigation pipes. Being in the company of creeks and birds, in the shadow of mountains, touched by the first rays of daylight, feathered by a breeze curling out of the still air, smelling the dirt, grass and trees was also good for my soul. But it wasn’t until I happened upon Anderson Valley and I got my first logging job on land that would soon become the subdivision known as Rancho Navarro that I found my calling. The mountains had always called me the way the coast or the city calls others, and mountains don’t get much more rugged and chaotic than they do around here. Big tree, steep ground logging was about as wild and wooly an occupation as a boy could find, and I’d always loved danger and adventure about as much as I disliked rules and regulations, procedures and protocols, chains of command, ranks, cliques and pecking orders.

But that was a different age. Now Anderson Valley is no place for young men. The closing and dismantling of the Philo lumber mill nailed shut the coffin holding what was left of the homegrown way of life. While the news struck the majority of the new breed of Back-to-the-Landers like water off a duck, and more than a few of them thought good riddance, it was like a dagger in the heart to folks like me. To the long-dead old-timers I logged with back in the 70’s and 80s, the idea that the last lumber mill in Anderson Valley would be erased — not just from the landscape but from memory — seemed about as preposterous as stripes on a mountain lion. The Company Men refused to believe that the Wall Street bankers would invest so much money around here just rape and run. Or, even if they did, the Company Men were convinced, given the regenerative powers and fantastic growth rates of redwoods and Doug fir, in a blink of time the forest would recover and the jobs would return. Even the Boomers — the tall trees drew adventurers from all over the world — who were a generally cynical bunch, felt it well-nigh impossible that any society could be crazy enough to take the world’s richest soft wood forest out of production. That’d be like coming out west, finding a velvet pouch full of gold nuggets and tossing it in favor of shouldering a burlap sack of coal. The old-timers were wrong, of course. The Company Men were too trusting and the cynics weren’t cynical enough.

The calendar and my worn down body tell me that I’m an old-timer now. But I never intended to wind up a two-legged relic in a zoo where nobody’s got the nerve to peek into the cages. I’m still working part time running chainsaw, knocking down trees, pissing on bull thistles and, after calling it a day, washing off in the creek. I like working alone about as far off the pavement as I can get and yet always my routines have felt a part of a communal ritual — a part of a heritage as elemental as life itself. So long as you are helping to produce food, clothing or shelter for people, how can you go wrong? But now while sitting on a rock and soaking my feet in the creek I feel sad and lonesome and — yes — surly. What are the hills without hillbillies? What are the mountains without mountain people? What are the woods without woodsmen or ranches without ranchers? What happens to a people who lose their organic connection to the land and seasons, to wind and fire? Do they prosper? Or do they shrivel like grapes left in the sun?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *