Covid-19 has left many of us planting, baking and appreciating nature, just as periods of upheaval inspired our ancestors to look towards simpler ways of life.
Estate agents are calling it a rural renaissance. As the global pandemic continues, megalopolises are becoming less and less desirable. Their allure had already begun to dim in the pre-Covid-19 era: the rising cost of housing seemed relentless, the scarcity of space almost mocking, the pollution a gnawing worry. Yet, however draining the ceaseless urban rush and roar may have felt, it was also energising, with ample compensatory benefits from accessible cultural riches and a vibrant communal life to a shorter commute. Those perks and pleasures were shunted abruptly into the past with the implementation of lockdowns.
By April, nearly a third of Americans were considering moving to less populated areas, according to market research and consulting firm The Harris Poll. Less than three months later, when UBS surveyed wealthy investors around the world, it found that 46% may forsake cities. Meanwhile, UK property website RightMove reported a 131% rise in online viewers for homes in Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands.
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Upping sticks may demand hard cash and career security but this pull towards reverse-urbanisation is only part of a bigger story, one that encompasses questions of how to live as well as where. In recent months, even those without the luxury of considering a move have been enhancing their day-to-day existence with rustic, homespun habits and hobbies that gesture to a simpler life.
As the UK’s lockdown came into force, for instance, seeds became as hard to source as hand sanitiser. It may have been panic planting, but sowing seeds is an innately optimistic act and there’s little that is more grounding than thrusting hands into soil. In fridges everywhere, sourdough starters – the rising agent of Gold Rush-era pioneers – took up residence in fridges, initiating people who’d never baked a loaf in their lives into the slow satisfaction of kneading and waiting, then kneading and waiting some more before buttering that first oven-toasty heel. Poultry breeders were unable to keep up with the demand from novice chicken keepers, and interest in crafty pursuits surged. As Tegan Kersey of online craft store Wool and the Gang, said in London’s Evening Standard in July, “Knitting is like yoga for your hands”.
Meanwhile, even those whose homes had overnight become both office and school, leaving zero time to crotchet or bake, discovered a newfound appreciation of nature and the way in which a mindful stroll beneath open skies can put life’s stresses into perspective. According to British paint brand Dulux, we’ve been seeking to bring some of its magic into our homes, too: among the top 20 shades sold this year are three greens and three blues, while popular neutrals evoke the wild with names like Polished Pebble and Rock Salt.
Many of these trends had been simmering for a while, and not just locally. Books like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, published in 2014, helped usher in a new age of nature writing. Fads like wild swimming, urban foraging and the visible mending technique rooted in the Japanese art of sashiko all date from earlier in the century, their appeal channelling sustainability, thriftiness and authenticity. Looming ecological calamity has already seen a small but determined cadre of millennials embracing farming as a form of social activism.
Yet the Covid crisis and its daunting, long-haul recovery challenges are binding a group of trends that would otherwise seem only loosely connected, adding urgency and recalling similar back-to-nature movements that have emerged at past pivot points. When life becomes wrenchingly uncertain, history tells us, human instinct is to retreat to the natural world, seeking not just physical security but also mental wellbeing and a renewed sense of purpose in eternal rhythms untouched by cycles of boom and bust or passing (hopefully) pandemics.
‘Peaceful and fruitful’
In Victorian Britain, for instance, as the Industrial Revolution brought about fast-track mass urbanisation, the Arts and Crafts Movement found inspiration in the preindustrial past, harking back to a time when, they believed, the world was purer for being more closely tied to nature. Leaders including textile designer William Morris held new-fangled machines to blame for a plethora of social woes, advocating a revival of handicrafts as the remedy.
While the movement was urban in origin, it imbued the English countryside with almost mythical qualities, and its followers increasingly set up workshops in rural locations like the Lake District, Cornwall and the Cotswolds. Musician and folk song collector Cecil Sharp, for instance, recoiled at the “taint of manufacture” while art critic John Ruskin, one of the movement’s guiding thinkers, pledged “to take some small piece of English ground, beautiful, peaceful and fruitful. We will have no steam-engines upon it, and no railroads.”
The American back-to-the-land movement began to stir at around the same time, galvanised by the financial panics of 1893 and 1907. It faded with World War One but emerged resurgent during the Great Depression, when New Deal officials saw it as a way to rebuild a shattered economy, seeking to rehouse urban slum-dwellers in new farm villages and autonomous garden cities. Entirely lacking in experience as farmers, they largely failed.
A love of nature was paramount to the Arts and Crafts Movement, but in America, it was very much secondary – until the 1970s, when the homesteading movement took off. Rooted in counter-cultural protest against mainstream materialism and corporatism, tens of thousands of young adults packed up and made for the backcountry, taking with them books like On Your Own in the Wilderness by Townsend Whelen and Bradford Angier. More than 60 years after it was first published, much of its thinking is dated: it conjures up a world in which swathes of wilderness still exist where meat is free for the hunting, trees can be felled for heating, and land can be settled on without displacing others. All the same, there’s a bracing logic to its opening salvo: “A lot of us are working harder than we want, at things we don’t like to do. Why? In order to afford the sort of existence we don’t care to live.”
The movement had a counterpart in Britain, where in 1976 John Seymour's book The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency was published. Like Ruskin and co before him, he believed industrial society to be damaging, finding freedom in the backbreaking work of self-sufficiency. His book provided advice on everything from how to plough a field to how to kill a pig, selling more than a million copies and helping to inspire the satirical TV hit The Good Life. Things were forever going wrong for central characters Tom and Barbara. Their methane-powered car continually breaks down, the generator packs in, they can’t bring themselves to slaughter one of their chickens for supper. Adding to the comedy, they were striving for self-sufficiency in the heart of suburbia, but their fictional setbacks weren’t entirely unrepresentative of how many a back-to-the-land adventure has panned out, irrespective of time and place. After all, no amount of idealism can make up for crippling inexperience, and there’s a lot more to it than simply sowing a handful of seeds, as disenchanted social media posts featuring pencil-thin carrots and stunted radishes attested this summer.
There is, of course, an altogether darker strand to the history of such movements. In 19th Century Germany, for instance, some of the notions that the Arts and Crafts Movement embraced about the purity of rural ways of life coined the expression “blut und boden” (blood and soil). By the 1930s, that had mutated into a key Nazi slogan. Even today, it hasn’t gone away: recently, the country has seen a growth in right-wing extremist organisations with links to environmentalism and organic farming. Likewise, in America, fans of self-sufficiency include not just liberal environmentalists pursuing a life free from the taint of capitalism, but also right-wing survivalists. Meanwhile, in China, where young artists have begun to leave cities for villages abandoned in the nation’s rapid urbanisation, the ghosts of Chairman Mao’s Down to the Countryside Movement linger on. Beginning in 1968, it saw the forced rural relocation of some 17 million 15- to 23-year-olds – 10% of China’s urban population at the time – to learn the superior ways of peasants, creating what many believe to be a lost generation.
It’s easy to poke fun at the dreamers who willingly turn their backs on city life in search of a simpler, more authentic-seeming existence in a yurt or on a commune. All too often, they hail from the ranks of the privileged – dilettantes who can afford to be idealistic. And yet, in the end, what’s surprising isn’t that so many of these experiments fail, it’s that they bring about enduring change regardless.
The Arts and Crafts Movement, for instance, petered out with World War One, having never solved the problem of how to make its beautiful, costly goods accessible to the urban poor they sought to save. However, it not only had a lasting aesthetic impact on British cultural life, its principles influenced the founders of The National Trust and The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). The former was brought into being by housing reformer Octavia Hill, Lake District cleric Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and solicitor Sir Robert Hunter. All three shared a love of nature and a deep faith in its healing power; for Hill and Rawnsley in particular, they had Ruskin to thank for it. Both struck up friendships with him as idealistic youths, and it was in fact he who introduced them. As for the SPAB, its manifesto – a significant document in the history of building conservation – was written by William Morris himself. His co-author was architect Philip Webb, a close friend, collaborator and fellow Arts and Crafts advocate.
In America, the Woodstock-era movement famously spawned Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a quirkily influential compendium of ideas and product reviews for the artsy, outdoorsy life, covering chainsaws, maps and seeds, along with details of where to buy them. As Steve Jobs noted in a Stanford commencement speech, “It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.” The movement has also had a lasting impact on the country’s political landscape: Vermont, for instance, was traditionally a red state until an influx of hippies – among them a Brooklynite named Bernie Sanders – upturned its demographic profile. The farm-to-fork movement, the ubiquity of farmers’ markets can also be traced back to a moment captured by Joni Mitchell when she sings in Woodstock of going to “camp out on the land” and getting “back to the garden”.
What will be the legacy of the present back-to-nature impulse? Permanent changes to how and where we work might well be among them, as well as altered views on what we need to make us happy. We may not have sought out the experience, but there is something at once grounding and liberating in stripping life back to basics – air in our lungs, bread on the table, the touch of a loved one. As Henry David Thoreau observed, “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances. Our life is frittered away with detail.”
While those heading for the hills as lockdowns ease may be long-haired for want of a barber, and wearing the pullovers they knit to keep themselves from compulsive doom-scrolling, they differ in many ways from their predecessors of other eras. For starters, these urbanites fleeing to quieter spots take much of what they’re leaving behind with them via the internet. They’re a good deal less utopian, too. But there’s one additional significant difference: though they’d have disputed it, the earliest back-to-nature movements were essentially nostalgic. In the 21st Century, once the Covid-19 pandemic has abated, there will still be climate change to cope with, and in the face of that particular catastrophe, the future may very well belong to the nature-savvy.
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