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At Home in Nature

At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America

Rebecca Kneale Gould
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 380
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  • Book Info
    At Home in Nature
    Book Description:

    Motivated variously by the desire to reject consumerism, to live closer to the earth, to embrace voluntary simplicity, or to discover a more spiritual path, homesteaders have made the radical decision to go "back to the land," rejecting modern culture and amenities to live self-sufficiently and in harmony with nature. Drawing from vivid firsthand accounts as well as from rich historical material, this gracefully written study of homesteading in America from the late nineteenth century to the present examines the lives and beliefs of those who have ascribed to the homesteading philosophy, placing their experiences within the broader context of the changing meanings of nature and religion in modern American culture. Rebecca Kneale Gould investigates the lives of famous figures such as Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, Ralph Borsodi, Wendell Berry, and Helen and Scott Nearing, and she presents penetrating interviews with many contemporary homesteaders. She also considers homesteading as a form of dissent from consumer culture, as a departure from traditional religious life, and as a practice of environmental ethics.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93786-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xxii)
    (pp. xxiii-xxviii)
    (pp. xxix-xxx)
    (pp. 1-10)

    To say this is a book about American religion is—to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson—to tell the truth but “tell it slant.” It is a book about choices and negotiating the circumference of choice. It is a book about people who have chosen to be self-conscious about their lives and to shape life with less attention to economic livelihood and more attention to living itself. The problem of living, of course, is ultimately wrapped up in the problem of meaning, the question of how to render one’s life experiences meaningful and meaning filled. For some, this is...

    (pp. 11-37)

    I sit at the kitchen table of a home located about fifteen miles from the Nearing homestead.¹ I am surrounded by projects in motion. Children’s artwork is scattered at one end of the table. Dried herbs and flowers spill out from the kitchen into the dining room. Books are stacked in piles on and near shelves. One volume of a children’s encyclopedia, a staple of home schooling, lies open near the kitchen counter. Few walls separate one room from another in the first floor of the refurbished nineteenth-century house and, seemingly, few divisions among housework, homework, artwork, and play. Robin...

    (pp. 38-62)

    When I first asked Helen Nearing what thinker had most influenced her life, she instantly replied, “Thoreau.” Subsequent conversations turned up a rotating repertory of writers and activists who were touchstones for her: Scott Nearing, of course, whose notebooks Helen frequently reread; Krishnamurti, her first great romantic and spiritual companion; Olive Schreiner, an early feminist writer whose books were often at Helen’s bedside; and, Pearl Buck, a fellow Vermont intellectual and writer who had encouraged the Nearings in their first publishing venture. But Thoreau’s work was the most consistent foundation.¹

    As I have already shown, homesteading conversion narratives often model...

    (pp. 63-101)

    When Thoreau set up one-room housekeeping on July 4, 1845, he was engaged in two kinds of activity: the practical work of establishing a rustic home in the woods and the symbolic work of expressing his personal declaration of independence from the “mass of men” whose culture he wished to reject. His goals and the means by which he achieved them were both symbolic and utilitarian.

    Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden has been a touchstone throughout this exploration of homesteading, yet so far Thoreau has not been brought into the center of the discussion as an “official” homesteader himself. Why? Even...

  11. INTERLUDE: INTERPRETING AMBIVALENCE: Homesteading as Spiritual and Cultural Work
    (pp. 102-107)

    When Woody Allen commented on the “twoness” of his relationship with nature, his quip was intended to sum up the attitude one would expect from an angst-ridden, lifelong New Yorker. But a move to the country does not guarantee that this twoness will go away. Such twoness belongs to the human condition. We long to break down the boundaries of artifice and culture that separate us from nature, and, alternately, we celebrate the consciousness and creativity that enable us to erect these boundaries in the first place.

    In the exploration of modern homesteading conducted so far, we have visited gardens,...

  12. 4 THE REENCHANTMENT OF THE FARM: John Burroughs Goes Back to the Land
    (pp. 108-138)

    By the close of the year 1872, John Burroughs had begun to establish himself as both literary critic and nature writer. Although Burroughs had self-published his first book,Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person(1867), he was warmly invited by publisher Oscar Houghton to send material for a new volume. Burroughs’s occasional essays, appearing in such magazines as Putnam’s, theNew York Leader,and theAtlantic Monthly,were becoming increasingly popular, and Houghton, a personal fan of Burroughs’s work, anticipated a growing readership for such pieces.Wake-Robinemerged in 1871 as a gathering of nature essays old and...

    (pp. 139-170)

    At the age of twenty-two, Scott Nearing built his first house and planted his first organic garden. In the growing single-tax community known as Arden, Nearing bought one of the last remaining plots abutting the common green, hand built a wood and stone home that he called Forest Lodge, and reclaimed a poor section of land with compost and manure.¹ Soon he would become well known in Arden and beyond for his ability to create fine stone structures and to grow some of the best pole lima beans in the vicinity. Looking back on the ten years he spent residing...

  14. 6 AMBIVALENT LEGACIES I: The Dynamics of Engagement and Retreat
    (pp. 171-200)

    The explorations of chapters 4 and 5 have served to put the work of homesteading—as presented in the first three chapters—into historical perspective. Burroughs’s and the Nearings’ homesteading efforts (which taken together span a period well over a century) reveal to us the persistence of homesteading as a cultural gesture or performance, by which I mean not that homesteading is “merely” a gesture or “only” a performance but that the practice of homesteading is one way in which a certain group of people have acted on and in the culture in which they find themselves. Experiencing the world,...

  15. 7 AMBIVALENT LEGACIES II: Gender, Class, Nature, and Religion
    (pp. 201-236)

    It is the ironic nature of religious practice, practice often infused with profound emotional commitment and the sense that one is engaged with the “really real,” that ambivalence persists amid these very depths of commitment. For instance: A young man grows up as an evangelical Christian; his life has been transformed by the personal grace of Christ’s presence. He is also gay and must contend with his home church’s interpretations of the gospel, which condemn who he is and his life with his partner. Yet he refuses to reject the religious experience of Christ’s salvation, which has shaped his understanding...

    (pp. 237-242)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 243-308)
    (pp. 309-326)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 327-350)