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At Home in Nature

Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America

Rebecca Kneale Gould

Publication Year: 2005

Motivated variously by the desire to reject consumerism, to live closer to the earth, to embrace voluntary simplicity, or to discover a more spiritual path, homesteaders have made the radical decision to go "back to the land," rejecting modern culture and amenities to live self-sufficiently and in harmony with nature. Drawing from vivid firsthand accounts as well as from rich historical material, this gracefully written study of homesteading in America from the late nineteenth century to the present examines the lives and beliefs of those who have ascribed to the homesteading philosophy, placing their experiences within the broader context of the changing meanings of nature and religion in modern American culture.

Rebecca Kneale Gould investigates the lives of famous figures such as Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, Ralph Borsodi, Wendell Berry, and Helen and Scott Nearing, and she presents penetrating interviews with many contemporary homesteaders. She also considers homesteading as a form of dissent from consumer culture, as a departure from traditional religious life, and as a practice of environmental ethics.

Published by: University of California Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. iii-vii


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pp. ix-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xi

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pp. xiii-xxi

In 1996, I was living in a wood-heated stone house on the coast of Maine. The food I ate came mostly from the garden. The waste I produced went into the soil. I collected seaweed, for the compost, from the Penobscot Bay cove I daily surveyed from my living room window. In ways both large and small, I lived a life dictated by the cycle of the seasons and the pleasures and limits of staying ...

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pp. xxiii-xxvii

My first debt of thanks goes to the many homesteaders who opened up their homes and gardens to me from 1994, when I began an early version of this study, to the present. Many who hosted me are not profiled closely in this book, and still fewer are mentioned with their real names (see the Appendix), yet the role they have played remains vital. There are others whose printed words gave ...

A Homesteading Time Line

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pp. xxix-xxx

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pp. 1-10

To say this is a book about American religion is—to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson—to tell the truth but “tell it slant.” It is a book about choices and negotiating the circumference of choice. It is a book about people who have chosen to be self-conscious about their lives and to shape life with less attention to economic livelihood and more attention to living itself. The problem of living, ...

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1. Conversion

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pp. 11-37

I sit at the kitchen table of a home located about fifteen miles from the Nearing homestead.1 I am surrounded by projects in motion. Children’s artwork is scattered at one end of the table. Dried herbs and flowers spill out from the kitchen into the dining room. Books are stacked in piles on and near shelves. One volume of a children’s encyclopedia, a staple of home schooling, lies open near the ...

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2. Getting (Not Too) Close to Nature

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pp. 38-62

When I first asked Helen Nearing what thinker had most influenced her life, she instantly replied, “Thoreau.” Subsequent conversations turned up a rotating repertory of writers and activists who were touchstones for her: Scott Nearing, of course, whose notebooks Helen frequently reread; Krishnamurti, her first great romantic and spiritual companion; Olive Schreiner, an early feminist ...

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3. Homemade Ritual

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pp. 63-101

When Thoreau set up one-room housekeeping on July 4, 1845, he was engaged in two kinds of activity: the practical work of establishing a rustic home in the woods and the symbolic work of expressing his personal declaration of independence from the “mass of men” whose culture he wished to reject. His goals and the means by which he achieved them were both symbolic and ...

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Interlude: Interpreting Ambivalence: Homesteading as Spiritual and Cultural Work

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pp. 102-107

When Woody Allen commented on the “twoness” of his relationship with nature, his quip was intended to sum up the attitude one would expect from an angst-ridden, lifelong New Yorker. But a move to the country does not guarantee that this twoness will go away. Such twoness belongs to the human condition. We long to break down the boundaries of artifice and culture that separate ...

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4. The Reenchantment of the Farm: John Burroughs Goes Back to the Land

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pp. 108-138

By the close of the year 1872, John Burroughs had begun to establish himself as both literary critic and nature writer. Although Burroughs had self-published his first book, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867), he was warmly invited by publisher Oscar Houghton to send material for a new volume. Burroughs’s occasional essays, appearing in such magazines as Putnam’s, the New York Leader, and ...

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5. Scott Nearing and the Social Gospel of Agriculture

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pp. 139-170

At the age of twenty-two, Scott Nearing built his first house and planted his first organic garden. In the growing single-tax community known as Arden, Nearing bought one of the last remaining plots abutting the common green, hand built a wood and stone home that he called Forest Lodge, and reclaimed a poor section of land with compost and manure.1 Soon he would become well known ...

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6. Ambivalent Legacies I: The Dynamics of Engagement and Retreat

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pp. 171-200

The explorations of chapters 4 and 5 have served to put the work of homesteading— as presented in the first three chapters—into historical perspective. Burroughs’s and the Nearings’ homesteading efforts (which taken together span a period well over a century) reveal to us the persistence of homesteading as a cultural gesture or performance, by which I mean not that homesteading is ...

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7. Ambivalent Legacies II: Gender, Class, Nature, and Religion

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pp. 201-236

It is the ironic nature of religious practice, practice often infused with profound emotional commitment and the sense that one is engaged with the “really real,” that ambivalence persists amid these very depths of commitment. For instance: A young man grows up as an evangelical Christian; his life has been transformed by the personal grace of Christ’s presence. He is also gay and must contend with ...

Appendix: Of Hoes and Huckleberries: A Note on Method

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pp. 237-241


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pp. 243-307

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 309-326


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pp. 327-350

E-ISBN-13: 9780520937864
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520241428

Page Count: 380
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 61160216
MUSE Marc Record: Download for At Home in Nature

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Religious life and customs.
  • Country life -- Religious aspects.
  • Nature -- Religious aspects.
  • Spirituality -- United States.
  • Country life -- United States.
  • Nature and civilization -- United States.
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