We Are As Gods

Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America


By Kate Daloz

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At the dawn of the 1970s, waves of hopeful idealists abandoned the city and headed for the country, convinced that a better life awaited. They were full of dreams, mostly lacking in practical skills, and soon utterly out of money. But they knew paradise when they saw it.

When Loraine, Craig, Pancake, Hershe, and a dozen of their friends came into possession of 116 acres in Vermont, they had big plans: to grow their own food, build their own shelter, and create an enlightened community. They had little idea that at the same moment, all over the country, a million other young people were making the same move — back to the land.

We Are As Gods follows the Myrtle Hill commune as its members enjoy a euphoric Free Love summer. Nearby, a fledgling organic farm sets to work with horses, and a couple — the author’s parents — attempts to build a geodesic dome. Yet Myrtle Hill’s summer ends in panic as they rush to build shelter while they struggle to reconcile their ideals with the somber realities of physical hardship and shifting priorities — especially when one member goes dangerously rogue.

Kate Daloz has written a meticulously researched testament to the dreams of a generation disillusioned by their parents’ lifestyles, scarred by the Vietnam War, and yearning for rural peace. Shaping everything from our eating habits to the Internet, the 1970s Back-to-the-Land movement is one of the most influential yet least understood periods in recent history. We Are As Gods sheds light on one generation’s determination to change their own lives and, in the process, to change the world.



The summer before Loraine left the city, the weather was humid and sticky. But what Loraine remembered decades later was not the heat, but the mood. A restless energy ran through Cambridge that year, the same prickly, electric tension that builds before a thunderstorm—everyone walking around a little wild-eyed, waiting for the flash and the crack and the sudden wind before the deluge.

For more than a year, the bad news had been relentless. First King was shot and then a few weeks later Robert Kennedy too. Every day you woke up expecting to hear who was next. All over the country frustration and anger exploded into riots, downtowns erupting into flame. In Chicago, police beat protesters with billy clubs and the news showed crowds of people running through the streets choking on tear gas.

Loraine and her two-year-old daughter were living in a rented bedroom in a friend’s second-floor walk-up. The apartment was not on a particularly busy street, but Loraine never got used to the drone of traffic or the smell of exhaust. At night, ambulances wailed by, red light ricocheting off windows.

Loraine had a job in a cafe near Harvard Square; she’d found a woman down the street who agreed to watch her daughter while she was at work. In the evenings, after Amelia was tucked in bed, Loraine’s roommate sometimes stayed in so that Loraine could go out to the coffeehouses and hear music: Judy Collins, Van Morrison, Joan Baez.

Loraine was a musician too. She had taught herself ukulele in high school, enough to pick out the songs she was constantly writing in her head. Sometimes she built up the courage to sing them for friends, looking down at her hands, a curtain of wavy brown hair half hiding her face. When she glanced up, her huge, blue eyes were wide behind her thick glasses.

In Boston, she met a guy who was on his way to India to learn the sitar and was giving up all his worldly belongings. He agreed to sell her his guitar for $50. The Martin was scarred but beautiful and fit her perfectly. It was her first and only guitar, her most prized possession for the rest of her life. She would have loved to perform at the coffeehouse open mic nights but she was far too shy.

The Hare Krishnas were offering free meals you could share even if you didn’t feel like joining in the chanting—macrobiotic curries with brown rice and strange, salty sea vegetables. Loraine had never tasted curry before but the blonde women stirring the big pots in their long pastel saris were patient with her questions. One day at the cafe, the girl who made the soup called in sick and Loraine offered to do it even though she had no cooking experience. Her mother had hated kitchen work but felt strongly that it was the mother’s duty alone to prepare the family’s meals. She had never let Loraine graduate past opening cans of asparagus or scooping dollops of mayonnaise onto iceberg lettuce. Loraine had learned to satisfy her curiosity by checking cookbooks out of the library to read for pleasure. The soup she invented at the cafe was delicious. Just like that, she became a cook.

In Harvard Square there were fewer guys burning their draft cards now, but the protests were getting bigger. Loraine joined in sometimes but she preferred when the chanting crowds ebbed to reveal pools of young people sitting on the asphalt, listening to a guitarist or nodding along as a young man shouted, his fist in the air. Her favorite was a Peruvian band who played folk music in between political lectures. Once she was listening to them play and some children started dancing nearby. When Loraine joined them, swishing her long skirt and shaking her hair, their mother grabbed their hands and pulled them away.

Loraine didn’t have a television but you didn’t need one to find out what was happening with the war. Everyone was talking about it. Somehow the images crept in and stayed: news anchors in helmets in front of burning thatch houses, soldiers pointing guns at women and children and all those flag-draped coffins lined up, rows and rows of them. An unstoppable torrent of death and destruction, all for no reason. She couldn’t wrap her head around it, but she couldn’t look away.

Her brother was over there, she wasn’t sure exactly where. He had wanted to drop out of college without risking the draft but he’d made the dire miscalculation of joining the state Reserves just before they were called up. Rather than run to Canada, he ducked his head and shipped out. Loraine couldn’t tell how safe he was. Her previous apartment had been near a rifle range and she’d read her brother’s letters to a backdrop of gunfire. She felt like she was with him. She couldn’t stop imagining the smell of blood, the shells whistling over her head and mortars exploding around her, shaking her bones with their deafening booms. She was constantly exhausted.

In this new apartment, the incessant sound of passing cars jangled her nerves in a different way. She longed for peace and quiet.

One night, she and her roommate had a dinner party and served fresh fish. A few days later, Loraine heard a strange noise in the kitchen and looked into the can where they’d thrown the fish bones to see it crawling with maggots. It was disgusting, but what disturbed her more was her next thought: what was she supposed to do with this mess? At home she would have gone out back and dug a hole and buried it, but here—her mind flashed to the sidewalk outside and the streets and more streets, everything for miles around covered in concrete. Where could you even go to put your hands in the earth?

This thought bothered her more for her daughter than for herself. On her days off, she took Amelia all over the city, looking for parks with grass clean enough for the child to play.

Loraine hated that Amelia had to spend this whole, hot summer indoors. A few times the toddler had broken away from her on the sidewalk and charged toward the street, terrifying her. All those cars and busses roaring by, spewing all that black smoke, which was just going to rise up into the air to join the clouds and rain back down as poison. It was like the song said, “Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.” For a few weeks that summer, all anyone could talk about was the river in Cleveland that had caught on fire.

A few weeks later, though, the talk in the cafe had switched to a different topic: the big concert in upstate New York where everyone had spent three euphoric, rain-soaked days dancing. Loraine would have loved to have gone, but she had no way to get there and no one to help her with Amelia, and besides, she wasn’t feeling well.

She knew she needed rest, but it was more than that—she needed to get someplace where she could breathe a little better, where her daughter could run barefoot without stepping in dog shit and broken glass and where she wasn’t waiting all the time for a catastrophe she couldn’t even name. Later when she heard Joni Mitchell sing about Woodstock, the lyrics, written that same summer, could have been channeled straight from Loraine’s own mind: “I’m going to camp out on the land/I’m going to try an’ get my soul free . . . We’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.”

For Loraine, her next move felt obvious. One day, she left.

She was not alone. “There’s a definite panic on the hip scene in Cambridge,” wrote student radical Raymond Mungo that year, “people going to uncommonly arduous lengths (debt, sacrifice, the prospect of cold toes and brown rice forever) to get away while there’s still time.” And it wasn’t just Cambridge. All over the nation at the dawn of the 1970s, young people were suddenly feeling an urge to get away, to leave the city behind for a new way of life in the country.

Some, like Mungo, filled an elderly New England farmhouse with a tangle of comrades. Others sought out mountain-side hermitages in New Mexico or remote single-family Edens in Tennessee. Hilltop Maoists traversed their fields with horse-drawn plows. Graduate students who had never before held a hammer overhauled tobacco barns and flipped through the Whole Earth Catalog by the light of kerosene lamps. Vietnam vets hand-mixed adobe bricks. Born-and-bred Brooklynites felled cedar in Oregon. Former debutants milked goats in Humboldt County and weeded strawberry beds with their babies strapped to their backs. Famous musicians forked organic compost into upstate gardens. College professors committed themselves to winter commutes that required swapping high heels for cross-country skis. Computer programmers turned the last page of Scott and Helen Nearing’s Living the Good Life and packed their families into the car the next day.

Most had no farming or carpentry experience, but no matter. To go back to the land, it seemed, all that was necessary was an ardent belief that life in Middle America was corrupt and hollow, that consumer goods were burdensome and unnecessary, that protest was better lived than shouted, and that the best response to a broken culture was to simply reinvent it from scratch.

What felt to each like a deeply personal, unique response to the pressures and opportunities of their own lives, was in fact being made almost simultaneously by thousands of other young people all across the country at the same moment for almost the same reasons.

They were acting, in part, on a characteristically American assumption that if things get bad where we are—too hectic, too dangerous, too messy—we can simply decamp to a new frontier and start again, that all we need to begin a new venture or even create a new society is a new piece of land. But while there have always been individuals, families, or groups who walked away from city life with high hopes, no other moment in American history has seen anything like the shift that happened as the 1960s turned into the 1970s.

In the shadow of the Vietnam War and amidst widespread social upheaval, this ever-present American urge to reinvent ourselves in the wilderness spiked into its largest, most influential and most radical manifestation ever. That decade, as many as a million young Americans uprooted themselves, almost en masse, abandoning their urban and suburban backgrounds in favor of a life in the countryside.

They were almost all white, well-educated, and from middle-class or wealthy backgrounds. This was not a coincidence. For many, the choice to live a life of radical austerity and anachronism was certainly a rebellion against the comfort and prosperity of their Eisenhower-era childhoods, but that same background of comfort also offered a security and safety net that made such radical choices possible. For some, trust funds and allowances actually financed their rural experiments; for most others, family support was more implied than actual—if things really went wrong on the farm, they knew, their parents could bail them out or take them in. But even those who had cut ties with their families altogether were still the recipients of a particular, inherited confidence. Writing in 1968, sociologist Kenneth Keniston noted that the undergraduates he studied were concerned about finding “exciting, honorable and effective ways of using their intelligence,” but that in over a decade of interviews, he had not met a single one who was worried about finding work. White parents who had exited the Depression into the middle class had raised their children to take affluence and freedom from want for granted, and to expect that a college education entitled you to a good job, whenever you might choose to pursue it. “The feeling—to be very Superkids!” Tom Wolfe wrote in 1968, “feeling immune, beyond calamity. One’s parents remembered the sloughing common order, War & Depression—but Superkids knew only the emotional surge of the great payoff.”

But parents who’d lived through the Depression and the Holocaust hadn’t shed their own anxieties, and they didn’t fully succeed in hiding them from their children. Postwar kids listened to adults assure them that the world was now perfectly safe, but they saw evidence to the contrary everywhere—in their father’s penny-pinching and their mother’s overstuffed pantry, in photographs of Dachau and of Hiroshima. Parents and teachers who insisted to children that ducking under desks would save them from a nuclear attack succeeded only in pushing the children’s fear deeper—not only were they not safe, many concluded, the adults wouldn’t even admit it. They’d have to save themselves.

“Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living,” wrote the authors of the Port Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto that helped kick off a decade of student activism. Young people’s Cold War fears were temporarily assuaged by the Atomic Test Ban Treaty of 1963—only to be replaced immediately by another horrifying specter. “The Bomb had receded to the status of an abstract threat,” writes historian and former student activist, Todd Gitlin, “but the Vietnam war was actual, nothing potential or abstract about it; napalm was scorching actual flesh, bombs were tearing apart actual bodies, and there, right there, were the traces, smeared across the tube and the daily paper—every day you had to go out of your way to duck them.”

The sudden, spontaneous back-to-the-land movement emerged from the collision between this crushing, apocalyptic fear and the generational confidence that convinced its young people they were still entitled to the world as they wanted it. As Keniston put it, “Never before have so many who had so much been so deeply disenchanted with their inheritance.” To a privileged generation exhausted by shouting NO to every aspect of the American society they were raised to inherit, rural life represented a way to say yes.

Especially early on, the decision to begin a new life in the country felt urgent, lifesaving. “When I left the city I felt that one year among green trees and breathable air was all I asked out of life—that if I was going to die soon at least I would grow one flower first,” wrote Elaine Sundancer of her 1969 decision to leave San Francisco for a commune in Oregon.

“The move to the country is a doomsday decision,” declared journalist Mark Kramer. “It almost always starts out as a retreat, after other alternatives become too unpalatable.” Reflecting on his own 1969 move “from city politics to rural subsistence farming,” he noted, “It turns out that a farm with friends is a very pleasant street corner to hang out on while waiting for the bomb to fall.”

As the decade wore on, back-to-the-landers—both those who chose to live communally and those who did not—were driven by more personal sources of urgency. Some quit good jobs, convinced that no paycheck was worth even a single morning of struggling into neckties or pantyhose. Some yearned for quietude after exhausting years of sit-ins, marches, and the numbing shock of mourning leader after slain leader. Some hoped to sow the seeds of a new society, one whose ideals they and their friends could start living out immediately. Others just wanted a life that would replace TV dinners with organically grown tomatoes, radio jingles with early-morning songbirds, and suburban “boxes made of ticky-tacky” with quirkily unique living spaces they’d build themselves. Whatever their individual reasons, together, their numbers were immense. The 1970s remain the only moment in the nation’s history when more people moved to rural areas than into the cities, briefly reversing two hundred years of steady urbanization.

But despite the huge numbers, the decision to go back to the land felt so personal that many had no idea others were doing the same. “Only afterward was it called a movement,” wrote Robert Houriet, one of the period’s keenest observers. “At the outset, it was the gut reaction of a generation.”

While it’s hard to identify an exact starting time for a spontaneous, mass “gut reaction,” the clearest candidate is the autumn of 1967.

Over the preceding months, one hundred thousand young people had converged on the San Francisco neighborhood of Haight Ashbury. “The Summer of Love” had been invented and publicized by Haight Ashbury’s business council (the Haight Independent Proprietors), over the vocal protests of the Diggers, street activists who were already struggling to feed, house, and treat the thousands of runaway teenagers who had been pouring into the city for months. In a broadside titled “Uncle Tim$ Children,” activist Chester Anderson wrote, “The HIP Merchants—the cats who have sold our loverly little psychedelic community to the mass media, to the world, to you—. . . don’t see hunger, hip brutality, rape, gangbangs, gonorrhea, syphillis [sic], theft, hunger, filth.” As Digger and actor Peter Coyote remembered the moment, “a number of older hands realized that the area was poised to become unlivable due to the accelerated influx of new residents. . . . It was obvious that we could not craft an autonomous life on top of the asphalt, and many people planned moves to the country.”

That same autumn, the psychedelic newspaper the San Francisco Oracle put out its most widely read issue ever. In it was an interview with Timothy Leary in which he explained, in part, what he had meant a few months earlier by his exhortation for young people to “drop out.” “The main message,” he said, “is to get out of the city and go to the land.”

Those leaving San Francisco tended to head north up the California coast or inland to the Southwest, but the trend soon followed to East Coast cities as well. Richard Fairfield, who had started observing and documenting American utopian movements several years earlier, noticed a “mass upsurge of nation-wide interest in rural living in the hippie subculture” in the months following the Summer of Love.

And in fact, a country commune boom was already under way. By one contemporary count, there were twelve rural communes in 1967; just a few years later the numbers had skyrocketed to the thousands—as many as ten thousand by some estimates.

The height of the commune boom was brief but it had a tremendous lasting impact—not, as many assume, simply on American spirituality or communal organizations alone (though both of those are true), but more profoundly: on kicking off the biggest, most widespread urban-to-rural shift in American history. “Not since the fall of Babylon have so many city dwellers wanted to ‘return’ to the country without ever having been there in the first place,” wrote one observer in 1972.

Publications like the Whole Earth Catalog, invented by or developed to support early rural communes’ efforts at self-sufficient living, and organized structures like co-ops and organic food networks soon became vital resources for the waves of other, noncommunal but still radically self-sufficient back-to-the-landers that continued throughout the decade. In 1970, Schocken Books, capitalizing on the counterculture’s sudden interest in instruction manuals for subsistence living, reissued a previously little-read volume with a new foreword by Paul Goodman. Scott and Helen Nearing’s Living the Good Life immediately sold fifty thousand copies and became a classic, inspiring thousands of eager young people to try their own hand at single-family homesteading.

By the mid-’70s, the commune period had ended but the back-to-the-land movement was still in full swing: radical social experiments in group living had been replaced by individual families’ radical experiments in self-sufficiency—including my family’s.


It didn’t take Loraine long to find others who shared the idea beginning to percolate in her own mind.

In Plainfield, Vermont, a young Goddard College professor had opened her farmhouse to an interested group who wanted to come there to live and work. The professor, Anita Landa, had been inspired by the theories of Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman, the same thinkers who had influenced the Berkeley Free Speech Movement several years earlier. In the oppressive, stifling culture of postwar capitalist America, Marcuse wrote, people had been taught to “find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” Landa’s group would escape that oppression by living and working cooperatively, with as few modern amenities as possible. In practice, this meant that a score of people, including small children, were crowded into Landa’s modest farmhouse or camping nearby while they busily renovated a barn into living quarters.

When Loraine arrived, she offered her newfound expertise in the kitchen, preparing big communal dinners. She bunked up with some others and Amelia slept in the children’s room.

Once the urgent barn renovation project was complete, the group turned their attention to the next set of priorities—and immediately ran into trouble deciding what these should be. Only a few months in, serious fissures had formed in their unity. The farmhouse, some felt, while pleasingly simple, was still basically bourgeois—it had conventional plumbing and electricity, for example, which were wasteful and meant eternal dependence on a precarious, corrupted system. And more important, while it was all well and good to share living space, to really do away with oppressive capitalist structures, the property itself should be owned in full by the collective. When some of the group put this demand to Landa, she balked and they splintered.

Among those who felt most strongly that the setup with Landa wasn’t working was Craig. Craig, his wife, and their small daughter had come East from California for Woodstock and arrived at Landa’s shortly after. Craig was movie-star handsome, with a warm, winning smile. He sometimes wore his long, brown hair in two thick braids to keep it out of the way while he worked.

Part of Craig’s frustration was in knowing that the results of his months of construction work on the barn—which had been, everyone agreed, an amazing feat of design, speed, and cooperation—did not in any tangible, legal way belong to him. Landa was incredibly generous and no one actually feared that she would change her mind and kick everyone out, but that was partly the point: for Craig, trusting his future to someone else’s continuing generosity was exactly what rankled. For him, the need was clear: the people doing the work and sharing the space should themselves own the fruits of their labor. If Landa couldn’t concede to this, he would move on.

Fletcher Oakes agreed. He and his wife, Nancy, were slightly older than many of the others—meaning late instead of early twenties. Neither of them particularly telegraphed their radical politics or commitment to counterculture living through their looks. Nancy had the sweet smile, shoulder-length curls, and big, round glasses of a midwestern kindergarten teacher. Fletcher wore long sideburns but kept his wispy hair clipped short. His buttoned-up plaid shirts and nebbishy, thick-framed glasses made him a dead ringer for Woody Allen, except for his thick Chicago accent.

Fletcher, Nancy, and their two sons had recently come from Colorado, where they’d lived at the pioneering artists’ commune Drop City. They’d arrived there at the tail end of a building boom that had dotted the austere desert landscape with ten bright-painted geodesic-inspired domes. Fletcher was a photographer and filmmaker, and Nancy was a painter. They both admired the way Drop City’s artists had prioritized simple, bare-bones living and construction projects in order to free themselves to make art. At Landa’s, the autumn’s barn renovation had been too rushed to leave time for anything but building, but Fletcher was looking for a community in which life was simplified enough to leave time for creative pursuits.

Nancy, if anything, was even more enthusiastic about the possibility of a new beginning. She had never quite felt at home in Landa’s farmhouse, a discomfort she ascribed to not having much say over the systems that were already in place. She had loved being part of Drop City’s dome building and admired the innovative experiments so easily undertaken there. The thought irked her, as she washed the dishes in the farmhouse’s conventional kitchen, of all that waste water vanishing hardly used into the septic system. Given a chance to develop systems from scratch, surely, she felt, they’d be able to come up with better ideas.

Loraine loved the idea of a little group striking out on its own to start anew. She needed no convincing that freedom and an absence of established rules would lead to a rush of innovation: she was finding this true every day in the kitchen. Having shed her mother’s shoulds and should nots, she invented and discovered new things all the time by seeking out her own resources and trusting her own instincts. Why wouldn’t the same approach work on the scale of a whole community?

Craig, Fletcher, and Nancy were happy to have her with them. Loraine thought of herself as shy and timid, but the others recognized her as one of the group’s most vital leaders. She managed to combine a “universe will provide” faith with a no-nonsense Yankee work ethic in a way everyone found immensely reassuring. She was also the group’s only native Vermonter—the only one, in fact, who’d lived in northern New England for more than a few months.

As it happened, Loraine hailed from a very old and esteemed Vermont family—her great-grandfather had returned from the Civil War a decorated hero and had become the state’s fortieth governor.

She grew up in Rutland, Vermont’s third-largest city, in a big, white house framed by two huge willows that draped their long tendrils across the lawn. Loraine spent hours swinging on the branches, trusting her weight to the trees.


On Sale
Apr 26, 2016
Page Count
384 pages

Kate Daloz

About the Author

Kate Daloz received her MFA from Columbia University, where she also taught undergraduate writing and served as assistant director of the Writing Center. She teaches in the writing center at Baruch College and works as a freelance writing consultant. Daloz grew up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, in the geodesic dome her parents built after coming home from the Peace Corps.

She was also a research assistant for Ron Chernow (Washington: A Life) and Stacy Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life), as well as Brenda Wineapple (White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickenson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson) and is a founding member of Neuwrite: Columbia Scientists and Writers. Her work has appeared in the American Scholar among other publications. Kate Daloz lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children.

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