Thursday, July 21, 2011

It Looked Different Then - Part III

The first edition of Mother Earth News declared it was willing to stand up to anyone, specifically mentioning the Catholic Church (birth control, maybe? hierarchy?), in order to usher in the new world that needed to happen. It featured not just one, but two communes. There wasn’t much about do-it-yourself at that point, just a lot of grousing about how there were chemicals in the food, and people didn’t respect the environment, and various Big Industries – oil was there, of course, but so were power companies and electronic entertainment – were destroying us, and the world needed to change. The MEN focus, in fact, for the first few years was on the need for change, with back-to-the-land living seen as the way to accomplish this.

The Simple Life seemed to be the key, and this seemed to be the main brand on the market.

A funny thing happened on the way to cultural evolution. Once people started actually trying to live out there, singly, in families, in groups, they found it was difficult. It was fine to sing John Denver songs that romanticised working hard, but it was another thing altogether to actually do it. You needed food, like, every day.

Yet these were earnest, young, healthy, idealistic people (not a lot of walkers and wheelchairs out in commune living – flaw in universality of vision, there), so many of them adapted. They did work hard. They built, they gardened, they got dirty. In doing so, they found that the people who had the knowledge they needed often weren’t hippies like themselves. Even among the other escapees, there were people who seemed rather…opposite. Survivalists who wanted to be off the power grid not for the good of the planet, but so no one could find them. Jesus people – usually pretty far offshoots from Second Presbyterian, but still - who wanted their children out of the public schools not because they were training grounds for the military-industrial complex, but because they were secular. Folks who weren’t so much living light on the land as far away from other people because something about their lifestyle was illegal or unpopular. Meet the neighbors.

Mother Earth News readers had a hard time coming to terms with this. Whenever an article mentioned in passing that the homesteader they were interviewing hunted, or used non-organic methods however sparingly, or had tractors or other vehicles with large internal-combustion engines somewhere in the photos, the letters to the editor would come in, True Believers denouncing the heretics and trying to shame the magazine back to its roots.

But magazines have to make money, and thus have to provide a service for enough readers to keep the presses running. Alongside all the DIY wind-turbines and geodome houses came articles about slaughtering animals and legitimate compromises with available technology. The variety of home businesses folks might try, to generate a little cash money, expanded beyond farm stands and mail-order bracelets. Solar generation articles edged away from the ingenious low-tech to tracking advances in the high-tech stuff and speculating when it would become available.

The conflict was too much for the original editors, who throughout the 70’s would still post essays that our human-centered outlook left out all those plants and animals. Whining for Eden occurred repeatedly, the idea being that it was just so possible, so right in front of us, if only human beings would just stop being so selfish and let it happen. And what a darn shame that everything was still so centered on money when it didn’t have to be. They tried valiantly to keep the original Moonflower focus. The Wiki entry had a better quote than any I remembered, from 1975:
For at least 20 years now, I've been getting an increasingly uncomfortable suspicion that all the major nations of the world — capitalist and communist — suffer from the narrow delusion that only people, and people alone, have any rights on this planet. Further, that human wants, needs, and desires — seemingly the more capricious the better — should be instantly gratified. And further still, that this can always be done in a strictly economic frame of reference.
"In short, I think that we live in an unbelievably marvelous Garden of Eden. Surrounded by miraculous life forms almost without number. Kept alive by a mysteriously interwoven, self-replenishing support system that, with all our scientific 'breakthroughs,' we still do not understand.
"And yet, as favored as we are by all this real wealth, we somehow perversely prefer to spend almost all waking hours interpreting the sum total of this reality in terms of the narrow and distorted, strictly human-centered concept of money
I’m thinking the portion of his readership battling plant diseases, as sympathetic to the general ideas as they might be, were starting to skip the Plowboy interviews for articles that they could use. The suburbans who dreamed of going back to the land may have read those rants more.

Euell Gibbons and Christopher Nyerges. Am I just being cruel, here?

I would like to tell you these excesses caused my eyes to finally open, and see that the Christian versions of this owed more to 60’s culture than to the New Testament, but that is only partly true. I knew that remaking culture, and especially human nature, was going to be a lot harder than enthusiasts thought, and to stay away from dippy people who thought you could make any impossible idea true just by putting “Jesus” into the sentence somewhere. But I still thought, deep down, that this was where we were supposed to be headed. Maybe the Apocalypse would force us into it. Maybe it was a hundred years off. Maybe only 5% of Christians were ever going to get it. But I still believed it.
I retain some of that belief even now, but that’s not what this series is about. It’s about how it looked then. Societal change was not going to come from politics, but from people returning to the Simple Life. How that life was defined might not include growing carrots or living in an underground home, but somehow that was the best way to obey Jesus. People in cities could be Christians of course, but it showed that they just didn’t get it. They hadn’t read the times and seasons correctly.
Noel Paul Stookey had a song John Henry Bosworth (wish I had a video) that captures it well. It meant a lot to me in 1976, but by 1979 something seemed not right about it. Of course, that may have been Stookey himself.


Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

I still have all my Euell Gibbons wild food books. But I don't think I've looked up the recipe for cooking cattail heads in a while.

Sam L. said...

It was Stookey hisownself.