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Slayton: Back To The Landers

About 50 years ago, Vermont began to change. And much of what Vermont is known for today — progressive politics, organic farms, food co-ops, and an easy-going, freewheeling approach to life — originated with the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s.

A new exhibit at the Vermont History Center in Barre and a recently published book both focus directly on that time, when hundreds of young idealists left the conventional attitudes of their parents behind and set off in search of what they saw as a more meaningful way of life.

The formed communes, started food co-ops, organized politically — almost always on the left-liberal end of the political spectrum — and experimented with alternative media and new social standards. Though many of those early experiments failed, they helped shape the Vermont we know today, in numerous, profound ways.

The book, entitled “We Are As Gods,” by Kate Daloz, focuses primarily on the Mullein Hill commune in Glover, its members, neighbors, and local town officials. It uses that meticulously reported story as the core of its narrative, while sketching in the larger national movement that flowered at the same time.

I found the book hard to put down. Daloz is a skilled writer and a terrific story teller, and her history documents an important part of Vermont’s — and America’s — recent past.

The Historical Society Exhibit, “Freaks, Radicals, and Hippies: Counterculture in 1970s Vermont,” looks at the same time period through a Vermont lens, with videos, interviews with political activists, communards, and other Vermonters. There’s a geodesic dome, a collection of alternative newspapers and posters and more.

Vermont became one of the epicenters of the back-to the landers because, for one thing, it had land, and rural traditions that often as not, fit in with what the young communards were seeking.

There were perhaps 100 communes in Vermont back then, precious few of which survive today. Ideals wear thin in long winters, and most of that era’s social experiments did not succeed — at least in conventional terms.

But in Kate Daloz’s book, in words that resonate today, one young man says, “Just because we didn’t end up with what we thought we were going to end up with doesn’t mean we ended up with nothing. We ended up with something else. Which is also beautiful.”

You could say that “something else,” is a big part of today’s transformed Vermont.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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