PhD Student Explores Back-to-the-Land Movement

She draws on her own experience farming in Cape Breton

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Sharon Weaver

For four years, Sharon Weaver and her husband lived in an old carriage shed on their 400-acre farm in Cape Breton.

“You could see the stars through the walls,” she recalls. “In the winter, we’d be sleeping in the warmest down sleeping bags we could get, but in the morning our boots would be frozen to the floor and my husband’s moustache would be white with frost.”

They were living in the carriage house while working to rebuild an old stone house on the property. “We didn’t want any debt, so we both worked. I worked in a sawmill, and I was the first woman they’d ever had working there,” Weaver says. “That house we rebuilt is now a heritage building.”

Weaver is now a PhD student in history at U of G. She says she and her husband settled in Cape Breton as part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970’s. “We were young and fired up with ideas, as the young always are,” she says. “We were living in Vancouver, but we wanted to get out of the city and find cleaner air, fresher food and a more community-centred lifestyle in the country.”

She’s now writing her doctoral thesis about the experiences of both the “back-to-the-landers” and those living in rural communities who acquired these young people as neighbours. She gave a public presentation about her research as part of the University’s Rural History Roundtable on Feb. 15.

What she’s found is that the experiences of those who went to the West Coast were in some ways quite different from those who went to the East Coast.

“In Cape Breton, land was cheap and sold in blocks of 100 acres. My husband and I and his brother and sister-in-law bought 400 acres; we worked the farm, raising sheep, pigs and cattle. Because the farms were big, the back-to-the-landers were interspersed with the locals,” she explains. Many found jobs working in the nearby sawmill or on fishing boats where they had opportunities to interact with local people and demonstrate their commitment to working hard and being part of the community.

Weaver adds: “You realize when you get there that the books don’t tell you how to make this particular brand of woodstove work, or how to milk a cow that’s not cooperating. Most of us on the East Coast found mentors who helped us figure it out.”

On the West Coast, most back-to-the-landers ended up buying small plots of land ─ 10 acres or less ─ on the small islands near Vancouver Island, and many turned to selling crafts or planting trees rather than farming for income. There were also many more of them.

“Their culture came to dominate the islands where they lived. In fact, on those islands today you can still see structures that reflect the back-to-the-land values and presence,” says Weaver. “It’s mellowed now, but the community was very divided back in the 1970s.”

For her thesis, Weaver has spent many hours interviewing people on both coasts about their experiences. “It’s fascinating to see how the groups slowly formed communities,” she says. “On the West Coast, despite the somewhat fractious beginnings, there’s less and less difference between the back-to-the-landers and the locals. The families have intermarried.”

She points out that many of the young people who arrived were well-educated Americans, a few of whom were trying to escape the U.S. draft and military service in Vietnam. They brought with them a different attitude about authority that ended up benefitting the islands. When the logging companies wanted to spray pesticides, for example, the new residents fought them and won.

“The strong environmental values of the back-to-the-landers helped protect the land,” says Weaver.

While she and her family left their farm after ten years, she still feels positive about the experience. “I’m glad I did it. It has really enriched my life, and I have more appreciation for people who farm. It’s hard work. You are very tied to the land; you’re at the mercy of the weather; there’s no paid vacation. I also met some amazing people, both locals and other back-to-the-landers. It’s a very different way of life.”

Her personal experience gave her context for the stories of the people she’s interviewed, but she adds that it’s often been emotional to go back to familiar places and relive some of her past. “It’s been a journey of personal growth,” she says.

Weaver’s interested in turning her research into a book, but also has a new research project in mind. “I’d like to track down the children of the back-to-the-landers and see how the experiences have shaped their lives,” she says.