Urbanism, the back-to-the-land movement, and individual choice

For the second winter in a row the storms are tracking too far north and the pinyons in the arroyo aren’t looking very good. Every time I get in the truck I think of these ailing trees and have a flash of guilt, as if the emissions from its tailpipe were browning their needles directly. It’s a misplaced instinct, but only partly. Driving is O.K. when you do it because you need to buy rain barrels or garden supplies, I rationalize. I never used to think about these things in Seattle, as if living in a wet place somehow mitigated my consumption. On June 28th of this year that city hit 108 degrees. Clarity is often a product of living with limitations.

Most of the places I have called home have been shaped by migrations of other people trying to live more lightly on the earth. In Vermont, the Bread & Puppet Theater is 15 miles east of the town of Craftsbury, where my cousins run two farms four miles apart raising cows and chickens and vegetables. The theater was founded in 1963 in New York City but by 1974 it was seated for good in the Northeast Kingdom, part of a wave of back-to-landers that made up as much of a third of the state’s population at the time. Seventy miles north of my office, Earthships breach themselves in the drying loam of El Prado, an architectural legacy of the region’s own history of communes and social change. And in Portland, Oregon, where I went to college, daily shoals of rush hour cyclists dominate the arterials in a rainy sea of bungalows with kale in their window boxes.

Inevitably, I’ve been pulled in a similar direction. Our house is on the City of Santa Fe’s first annex, a G.I. Bill street of cracked stucco and latillas and old Fords in the weeds. When we moved in we immediately set to grappling with its footprint, something that has been both empowering and futile. We’re close enough to everything that we can bike there if we’re up for it, far enough that we think twice about walking. It’s two miles to the parking lot where I pick up our CSA box on Tuesdays. Someone drives it up from Albuquerque, the food itself from as far away as Yuma. Nothing gets on a plane, they promise. Almost no one here has lawns, water use is decoupled from population growth, and the groundwater is rebounding. Five hundred miles to the west, the river that irrigates our winter lettuce is dying.

In Vermont, New Mexico, and elsewhere the back-to-the-land movement was a response to the particular anxieties of a globalizing cold war world: pollution, nuclear contamination, the false specter of overpopulation. In the face of the climate crisis the prescriptions of the 70s seem quaint. What good is it to live in a house in the woods and grow squash if you have to drive 40 minutes to work each day? In metro areas across the country urbanists organize to eliminate single-family zoning and improve transit, synonymizing density and environmentalism in an age of catastrophe. The generational divide yawns. “[People] wanted to get out of the cities”, reflects Iris Keltz on Taos’ New Buffalo commune. In 2021, a livable planet seems increasingly to hinge on getting as many people in cities as possible.

I sit uneasily in the middle, pulled in two directions at once. At a coffeeshop close to the point where the oversubscribed Santa Fe River sinks into the sand I read about how in Glasgow, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference has been panned as a laughable failure. I think about how if I were single or braver I’d probably give up driving entirely, a reminder of an internal asceticism that can feel performative. We buy chickens, plant a garden. We slaughter two of our four hens and make broth and then buy a third. I continue to bike everywhere I can, as I have for a decade. We’re also thinking about buying a second truck for the dogs; maybe for firewood, if we can get a permit. I wonder if we should have moved into a small apartment downtown.

Perhaps market forces will raft us all into lives of green efficiency. I still can’t shake the feeling that it’s good to remember that soil is something you can bleed into. Reese from the lab down the hall gives me Miguel’s number and says he can put an outflow valve on our washing machine, so that the water the city traps in the foothills and pumps to us can have a second life keeping our trees alive. The tax credit for putting solar panels on our roof isn’t enough to cover the cost but we take out a loan anyway. Our new truck would burn gasoline and was made in 1995; the Tesla service center in the Nambé Pueblo was tagged with an obscenity shortly after opening. What would Andreas Malm do? The years ahead loom with possibility and contradiction.