7 Books About Returning to Nature
Molly Dektar, author of "The Ash Family," recommends literature about living in farms, nature preserves, and communes
After college, I went to work on farms, the more remote the better. I farmed in the Arctic and on a tiny sheep-filled island and in the Alps high above the treeline. I wanted to throw my body into something, and test myself, but one side effect was constant loneliness. And so my first novel, the Ash Family, begins with a kind of fantasy I had for myself: the narrator, Berie, meets a friendly man who invites her to his home, an off-the-grid commune in the Appalachian mountains. (Who among us hasn’t longed to be invited to a commune? Only recently, now that people are reading the book and questioning her motives, have I started to process the fact that this is not an entirely universal desire.) Berie farms like I farmed–herding sheep, bottle-feeding lambs, scooping manure, baking bread–but the community closes in around her, with a strict ideology and stricter rules. She sacrifices more and more of herself to maintain her sense of belonging, and finds herself committing terrible acts.
It was important to me that, despite the family’s coerciveness, their ideology was founded on principles I also believe in. The members of the Ash Family truly have confidence that a better way of life is possible, and that by living in a way that is low-impact and ecologically sound, they are doing their best to counteract environmental degradation and climate change. When compiling this list, I thought in particular about the books that give a sense of the real texture and meaning of returning to nature.
What to include? There are novels about defiantly protecting the land–The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey is a classic–and there are beautiful nature books, like Walden, of course, Wendell Berry’s essays, and John McPhee’s geology masterpiece, Annals of the Former World. Living off the grid is the subject of so many enthralling children’s stories, most formatively for me My Side of the Mountain, Little House in the Big Woods, and Hatchet. I also want to mention Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s Defying Dixie, a revealing account of activism from 1919 to 1950, which shows, against the common narratives, radical collaboration in the south.
But when I was making these selections, I used an entirely subjective criterion that isn’t quite nature nonfiction, or nature novels. Instead, I picked books that’ll make you (if you’re like me) want to get out there and live it.
Voices from The Farm by Rupert Fike
This book is a collection of reminiscences and photos from various residents of The Farm, a rural Tennessee commune founded in 1971. It’s an tantalizing litany that will bring you slightly closer to an understanding of what it was like to live in this utopian community that was, for a time unbelievably functional, and home to 1,200 people. They built their own telephone system and water tower! They built their school and neighborhoods and soy dairy! (The commune in Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is a literary version of the Farm.) Sadly, for people like me, at least, the recollections are more suggestive than immersive. The voices take their brief turns marveling at feats of liberty and imagination for which the Farm was the foundation, like, for instance, that of Katherine Correa, who at fifteen undertook a horse-riding odyssey whose paragraph-long description demands an entire book: “I thought we were only dreaming and we could never actually do it…twelve of us girls rode from rural Tennessee to the Cherokee National Forest in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a six-hundred-mile journey altogether, and we made the whole trip on horseback.”
Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place by bell hooks
This collection of poems by Kentuckian bell hooks expresses tension in both content and form. The short lyric poems are expressly political–itself an uneasy combination–and bring together honeysuckle and slavery, coal’s ravages and joyous spirituality. In the introduction, hooks writes, “Without evoking a naive naturalism that would suggest a world of innocence, I deem it an act of counterhegemonic resistance for black folks to talk openly of our experiences growing up in a southern world where we felt ourselves living in harmony with the natural world.” The book is a quietly forceful evocation of a childhood full of ambiguity.
West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California edited by Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow
Like Voices from the Farm, West of Eden is an assortment of pieces from back-to-the-land hippies in the sixties and seventies. But these essays are more sustained and at times more academic and cover a range of communes, from Oakland’s Black Panther Party to the rural communities on the Albion Ridge. The cover shows Holbein’s woodcut of Utopia, and this book pairs well with Chris Jennings’s Paradise Now, which is a historical account of American utopian experiments. In West of Eden, my favorite essay is co-editor Janferie Stone’s “Our Bodies, Our Communal Selves,” with its helpful schema for understanding the phases of communal experience, from “the individual impulse to physical experience” all the way to leaving, and assessment. The FIC commune list–a repository fit for daydreaming–attests to the fact that the communal spirit lives on in California, which has far and away more communes listed than any other state.
Electric Dirt by the Queer Appalachia Project
This zine, a full-color assemblage of essays, recipes, collages, quilts, artwork, photography, poetry, and other ephemera, provides a glimpse into the tenacious, riotous, multivocal community of contemporary Appalachian queer people. The opioid epidemic, abortion access, and Duke’s Mayonnaise all get their space in these pages. The group behind the zine also has an Instagram account which is equally bawdy and creative and committed to justice.
Syzygy, Beauty by T. Fleischmann
T. Fleischmann’s short book calls itself an essay on the cover, but unfolds in a series of disjointed poetic fragments. The book is only very loosely an account of queer life on a Southern farm. It expands to encompass experiences with art–Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Carolee Schneeman–and with longing, the figurative language pointing back to the natural world: “I could see you better if you were to lie down and touch your fingertips to each other like an arrow, your form a flower trough.”
My Abandonment by Peter Rock
This novel doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of my list, because it did not make me want to go live in nature. However, its treatment of the natural world as both a solace and a terrible power makes nature immediate in a way that often eludes gentler nature fiction. It was recently made into a film–Leave No Trace–which I’m hoping will bring more readers to the book. Because let me tell you, this book is absolutely terrifying. It is one of the few books that forced me to sit down in the subway station on a bench and read it until it ended. It is about a girl and her father living off the grid in a nature preserve in Oregon. Then they get found, and a dark journey ensues, told from the point of view of the girl, Caroline. I’m still trying to understand what happened.
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz
Pretty much every collective house, including the co-op where I lived, has a copy of this on the shelves. This is a cookbook but also a radical treatise that will make you want to throw away your long-shelf-life factory-made foods and start messing around with rotting vegetables. Katz is an underground hero, a participant in Tennessee’s venerable community of off-the-grid queer homesteads, and an HIV/AIDS survivor. He writes in his acknowledgements, “this project has given my life focus and meaning at a time when I desperately needed these things,” and that intensity runs through the book, endowing upon the recipes a religious thrust: “If you are willing to collaborate with tiny beings with somewhat capricious habits and vast transformative powers, read on.”