Opinion: In search of greener pastures: pandemic spurs millennial movement back to the land
Fiona McGlynn Lives in northern British Columbia
2020 was the year we obsessively refreshed rental and real estate listings as cottage prices skyrocketed, wondering if we could afford a piece of sanctuary. Something in our collective consciousness has shifted and we are heading for the hills – though the closest we can get is a potted basil plant on a high rise windowsill.
The past year has been a year of untold losses. We have been deprived of our jobs, our health and the people we love most. Under city closures, high-rise buildings have become the bars of our prison cells, with disease plaguing our densely populated confines. Naturally, our minds turned to escape. Some have filled their Pinterest boards with rural inspiration chalet core images, while a few even packed their bags and left.
We are not the first to seek a return to nature, simplicity and self-sufficiency in times of social upheaval. North America has a rich history of homecoming movements. In the 1840s, the transcendentalists of Thoreau and Emerson fled rapidly industrializing New England to seek their “original relationship with the universe” in places like Walden Pond. When the economy collapsed in the 1930s, decentralizations initiated several social experiments in homesteading. Among the pioneers of the Great Depression era were Scott and Helen Nearing, who began to settle in Vermont and inspired generations with their book, Living the good life: how to live simply and healthily in a troubled world.
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However, the sheer scale of the 1970s homecoming movement made it unlike anything America had seen before. No less than a million young people have left the cities and suburbs to settle in the countryside. It was the first decade in 150 years in American history where the population of rural areas has grown faster than that of urban centers.
Composed mostly of white, well-educated, middle-class and wealthy baby boomers, this radical counter-culture arose out of a gloomy and apocalyptic atmosphere in the 1960s, the culmination of the Vietnam War, urban riots, assassinations. and an increased awareness of air and water pollution. Some escaped the drudgery of office work, others sought tranquility and grew their own tomatoes. So they went in search of a better world.
The rebels built log cabins in the Yukon, New Yorkers joined the townships of Vermont, the Coloradans lived in geodesic domes made from scrap metal. With little to no experience, they built farms and family properties, usually without the convenience of indoor plumbing, electricity, or gas machinery. Their goal: self-sufficiency, simplicity of life and to exist outside the capitalist economy.
Fast forward 50 and Baby Boomer Kids perform a similar script. Millennials have revived a multitude of earthly and ascetic movements: farm-to-table, minimalism, zero waste and more. Symbols of self-sufficiency have become ingrained in our cultural identity – including the cabin, the ax, and the mason jar (a container so ubiquitous that it now holds everything from toothbrushes to wedding centerpieces).
Then, in 2020, those cultural jolts turned into a seismic roar. Pandemic gardening has taken hold. Our pursuit of a calming activity and a sense of food security led American seed giant W. Atlee Burpee & Co. to sell more seeds in March 2020, than in any other month of its 144-year history. Spring was also marked by panic poultry purchases, New York Times Contributor note that baby chickens had become almost impossible to find.
As the miserable year wore on, real estate prices in cottage country skyrocketed while demand for condos plummeted. A registration number of Canadians left Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, led by younger cohorts. Most of the increase in exits – 82% – was among people under 45. While many of these people moved to suburbs and mid-sized towns, some also settled in smaller towns and rural areas. More spacious areas such as Prince Edward County in Ontario and the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia have seen an influx of interest in real estate, making it more difficult for local residents to find affordable housing. But for new residents, reinventing their way of life is nothing that a generation of digital nomads, mini-house advocates and van dwellers cannot comprehend.
It’s no surprise that some millennials are turning to greener pastures, but our reasons for leaving are personal. For some, working online, away from big city offices, has made home ownership within the realm of possibility. We can grow potatoes, get out of our homes, live closer to our parents, and watch our children play in the dirt.
Only a small minority of returning landers of the 1970s realized the vision of self-sufficiency. Those who did have succeeded in doing so with trust funds or money earned in society at large. Scott and Helen Nearing achieved the “good life” in part through a substantial inheritance – a decidedly unnecessary omission from their book.
Back-to-the-landers have found that “chopping wood, hauling water” takes on an oppressive tone in the relentless pursuit of self-sufficiency. Growing enough food required a lifetime of accumulated skill and knowledge, and even then success was not guaranteed. In the end, sentimentality and idealism were unbearable in the mud of poverty and hardship. (That’s not to say their heritage is irrelevant. Hippies have given us cooperatives, better organic farming practices, and staples like sprouts, tofu, yogurt, brown rice, and bread. whole grain.)
People who move to the countryside today are less naive about the realities of rural life. Thanks to the Internet, it is possible to make a living in a cabin in the woods and learn how to milk a goat on YouTube. While our temperate movement may be less ideologically intransigent, it promises to be more enduring.
“It was only after that it was called a movement,” wrote Robert Houriet, journalist and keen observer of the return to the landers of the 1970s. “Initially, it was the knee-jerk reaction of a generation.”
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