Bruce Patterson: Back-to-the-Landers?

4 Mules Blog
Anderson Valley

Bruce Anderson, the esteemed editor and publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser—about the best little weekly in the West—once told me that he has never considered himself a Back-to-the-Lander. A child of the Great Depression born and raised in San Francisco, Bruce “went country” to escape The City he loved that was getting devoured by the car-crazed megalopolis spreading in all directions like a steel, smoke and concrete rash.

Dave Smith, the noted environmental activist and the owner of Mulligan Books in Ukiah, once told me how his farm stock mother reacted when he told her that he was washing his hands of the wheeled rat race and going back to the land.

“The land?” His mother huffed indignantly, “You can keep the land.”

And that was reasonable enough seeing how, traditionally speaking, the worst thing about rural poverty was being forced from cradle-to-grave to bust your ass in order to maintain it. I’m a second generation American, half Irish and half Slovak, and while growing up I wasn’t ever allowed to forget that I was only two measly generations removed from centuries of hunger, filth, disease, heartbreak, slavery and peonage. The Statue of Liberty was built with folks like my grandparents and me in mind, and stepping ashore in New World was supposed to mean leaving behind the ancient, senile and soiled aristocracy of the moneybag.

Even if my ancestors hadn’t’ve been forced to contend with bloodsucking Feudal landlords, Church-State totalitarianism, brigands and rapacious imperial armies, still tilling another’s land was seldom easy and never profitable, living hand-to-mouth being their version of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Outside of the walled Formal Gardens of the bejeweled Philosopher Kings and their peacock-colored minions, whatever “pastoral paradises” that have ever existed on this wondrous earth were peopled by prosperous tribes of hunter-gatherers, fishermen, cultivators and herdsmen. For over 1,500 years Feudal Europe had been a giant slave labor camp lorded over by pompous and superstitious fools, and wars of plunder, pogroms, inquisitions, food riots, lynchings and witch hunts were major forms of mass entertainment.

Myself, I feel like I’ve never left the land. A Southern California boy who grew up during the camping craze of the 1950s and ‘60s, by the time I was 12 years old already I’d experienced some of nature’s splendors. I’d been to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake and plenty of other places in between and beyond. As I wrote in my new book, I’ve always seen the natural world as an art museum, with rooms leading to rooms and more rooms. When I was a boy and on TV the nightly news began with, “From the desert to the sea, to all of Southern California, a good evening,” I knew what the fellah was talking about.

My first born, aged 7

When I turned 16 in 1965, I quit high school, went to work full-time and, in the 42 years since then, the closest I’ve ever come to working indoors was when, right after 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 most all my days, and a good number of nights, outdoors. So when, in the spring of 1973, I went to live on a “collective” organic farm lying in the bellybutton of California’s Great San Joaquin Valley, I was already used to having a sore back and dirty fingernails.

Still I wasn’t prepared for the physicality of farm labor. My baptism of fire was when, advised and partly financed by an Armenian crop broker with grand plans, the bunch of us grew 27 acres of organic onions—whites, reds and yellows. As all of us newbie/would-be farmers were to be constantly reminded during the next six months, 27 acres were a lot of goddamned onions. We figured come harvest our organic crop would bring us top dollar and it did, by golly. If you factored in all 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 Sierra melt water) along with our onions we produced a veritable bumper crop of weeds. We’re talking annual weeds, perennial weeds, clump weeds, flat weeds, burry weeds, sticky weeds and them we could make neither heads nor tails of. And once our calluses had blisters on them and we’d scalped our way to the end of one row of onions, already weeds were popping back up where we’d started. Eventually concluding that we may as well lay our bodies down in our furrows to try’n suffocate the weeds for all of the good we were doing we were doing with our hoes, we threw them down and activated Plan B. Come harvest we’d plow through our forest of weeds to get down at our onions, we unanimously resolved. Plowing up our crop wasn’t the best way to produce Fancy Pick #1 gourmet organic onions, but it a sure beat us dying of heat stroke or growing ourselves hunchbacks.

Of all of the “hippy” suburban refugees that went “back to the land” in Mendocino County during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and there were thousands of them, not many had the ambition to try, much less stick with, agricultural labor. It wasn’t like their plans for “self-realization” included putting some poor, broke down Okie or peach-faced Mexican teenager 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; those out to achieve the Good Life by bootlegging marijuana found themselves in jail. Deciding that working in an office, store or factory might not be so bad after all, like frogs on a sand dune, most 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 a variety of them, and they made themselves useful. As the culture and terrain grew on them, they grew into the culture and terrain. When one day they picked up a handful of dirt and saw the spirit-bones of the ancestors, they knew they were back.

The physicality of farm labor that repelled most of the Back-to-the-Landers attracted me. Burning calories while producing something I could sink my teeth into was good for my raggedy warrior’s soul. When, the way one thing leads to another, I landed in Sonoma County during the winter of ’73 and got a job pruning dry land, head-trained, 60-year-old grapevines decorating rolling green hills, I knew I’d stumbled into the aristocracy of farm labor. This here wouldn’t be like bucking hay or manhandling irrigation pipes, I instantly realized.

Being in the company of creeks and singing birds, in the shadow of mountains, touched by the first rays of sunlight, feathered by a breeze curling out of the still air, smelling the wet dirt, grass and trees was also good for my soul. While I’ve never in my life had a luxurious office, home or automobile, always my front yard has been exquisite and ever-changing.

It wasn’t until I happened into this coastal valley and got my first job logging the redwoods that I found my calling. The mountains had always drawn me the way the coast or city centers draws 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 young, shiftless man could find, and I’d always loved independence, danger and adventure about as much as I disliked rules and regulations, procedures and protocols, ranks, chains of command, privileges and pecking orders.

Now the calendar and my own worn down and beat up body tell me I’m old and I’m pleased enough with that. We’ve all got plenty of time to be dead. But I never intended to wind up a two-legged relic in a high definition 3-D virtual zoo where none of the ticket holders peek into the cages. I’m still working part, part time running chainsaw, knocking down weed trees, pissing on bull thistles and, after my body calls it a day, washing the sweat and sawdust off in a creek. I like working alone about as far off the pavement as I can get and yet, at least until these past few years, my solitary routines have always felt a part of a communal ritual—a part of a human heritage as elemental as wild nature itself. So long as a person is helping to produce food, clothing, winter heat or shelter for people, how can he or she go wrong?

But now, while sitting on a rock and soaking my sore after-work feet in the creek, I sometimes feel sad and lonesome and even a little silly. What good are the hills without hillbillies? What good are mountains without mountain people? What are the woods without woodsmen or ranches without ranchers? What happens when people lose their organic connection to the land and seasons, to past and future, to wind, water and fire? Do they prosper and live happily ever after no matter where they are? Or do they shrivel like grapes left in the sun?
A version of this first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser last spring.