Has it really been 50 years? As a 13-year-old in 1970, I remember my straight-laced dad devouring this new magazine, all in black and white on rustic paper. It was called Mother Earth News, and it was filled with every kind of back-to-the-land and self-reliance idea you could imagine. John Shuttleworth steered the visionary team that cranked out counterculture issues.
Post-Woodstock, Mother Earth News embodied both the frustrations and the hopes of the first wave of baby boomers questioning the foundations of the World War II generation. Readers were introduced to many icons of the environmental movement through the Plowboy Interviews, including Allan Savory, Bill Mollison, and A.P. Thomson. In each issue, those of us desperate to redirect the course of our culture received a bonanza of information and new guides.
What a joy to find others who thought like we did. In those early days, I was but a fledgling teenager raising chickens without vaccines. I even had them on pasture in movable shelters. As an active member of 4-H, I received a steady dose of orthodoxy from the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences at Virginia Tech. In fact, those professors mounted an aggressive campaign to enroll me in their program. They sent me on trips, introduced me to Colonel Sanders (that was memorable), and performed all sorts of arm-twisting.
But every time I came home from their activities, there was Mother Earth News, a beacon that called the industrial mechanical orthodoxy into question. It and another title, Organic Gardening and Farming, had iconic status in our house, alongside the Bible, which I now realize was quite unusual.
In my formative years, Mother Earth News was the antidote to conventional establishment thinking. It dared to question everything. I remember one especially fascinating story titled “Kon Tipi” (May/June 1982). The exploits of Kon-Tiki were hot at the time, so a title like “Kon Tipi” caught my attention. The article was about a homesteading family who built a house using only poles and heavy canvas. Although it would require a new skin in about 20 years, the entire structure cost only $1,421. Even if we adjust for inflation, who can’t see the financial value of living in a house that costs so little to rebuild every 20 years? What’s not to love?
That kind of thinking shaped my perspective on values and cultural norms. Instead of wanting more things, I wanted fewer things. Instead of high-capital farming, I wanted low-capital farming. Instead of supermarkets, I wanted larders, root cellars, and backyard abundance. Then, the alternative fuels movement took off. Wood gas, solar, windmills, woodstoves — the pages of each issue fueled our minds with alternatives. If I could boil down the magazine’s persona to one word during that time, it would be “hope.” The can-do spirit pervaded every page.
My library contains hundreds of yellowed Mother Earth News articles on topics as varied as season extension to cordwood construction to greywater systems. Today, I continue to add to this legacy file. You’d think that everything that could be written about resilient living would’ve been written by now. But no, innovation continues. So, over the past half-century, what has changed, and what has stayed the same?
First, as a writer and publisher myself, I’ve seen an obvious advancement in printing technology. Those early editions were glorified newsprint. Today, the glossy color look is catchy and first class. For the record, I buy based on content, not on glitzy presentation. But the modern Mother Earth News does look cooler on a desk. I’ll grant you that.
Second, as the movement and magazine matured, both settled into a less-strident critique of the status quo, and realized that not everything “normal” is “bad.” As hippies matured into parents and employees, the content took a practical turn, and the magazine found its voice, a balance, and a niche.I don’t think it’s uncharitable to say that during the 1990s, Mother Earth News lost its way. Circulation plummeted, and many of us dropped our subscriptions for a time. But by the turn of the century, the magazine found its footing again, right as baby boomers, who too often got hooked into the grasp of orthodoxy, began questioning things again.
Age has a way of making you rethink where you are and how you got there. In addition to baby boomers rediscovering some of their roots, millennials began asking questions about scarcity, sustainability, and soul-satisfying vocations. They realized that spending a lifetime working for a corporation didn’t provide soul satiation; growing up in that grind pushed many millennials into social entrepreneurship. And for those individuals, Mother Earth News was there to offer hope yet again.
And that brings me to what hasn’t changed. Practical, how-to advice on wide-ranging topics has been and continues to be the bread and butter of the magazine. But now, a renewed sense of urgency, brought on by our understanding of ecology and climate change, is driving content in these pages.
It’s no longer about a more enjoyable way to live, or casting off societal expectations. It’s now much more about survival, health, and feeding our grandchildren. New understanding sheds light on old topics. For example, research into the microbiome, and accentuating the soil-health connection, is light-years beyond the early compost-building content. My own observation is that the home-schooling movement, as well as the learn-by-doing educational movement, has provided a shot in the arm to the mission of the magazine. Its current audience is made up of folks who want to care rather than conquer, to explore rather than exploit.
My sense is that the magazine has moved more from a planetary mission to a personal mission. While it’s always good to have a macro perspective, Wendell Berry’s admonition that all global problems start with local dysfunction has merit. Planting a garden, building an energy machine, installing a solarium, creating an herbal stash in our homes — these are things that enable us to participate, viscerally, in the changes we want to see.
Empowerment comes from undertaking projects that change our situations, where we are now, where we live. Make no mistake, the cumulative effect of multitudinous small actions adds up to big changes. That is today’s Mother Earth News persona. In a time when calamity and dysfunction are on every corner, here is can-do information that moves us from hopelessness to hope. If all we do is concentrate and converse about things beyond our sphere of influence, like Stephen Covey says, we’ll eventually wear out, burn out, and descend into depression.
Today’s coaching movement illustrates the disempowerment most of us feel. We can’t talk to people at businesses; all we get are phone robots (press 1, 2, or 3). We can’t fix our cars. We can’t fix our computers. We can’t fix our refrigerators. Everything is complicated and technologically out of our reach. So we have wellness coaches, fitness coaches, nutrition coaches, investment coaches, self-help coaches. You can find a coach for almost anything.
What draws people to the pages of Mother Earth News is the same thing that drew us 50 years ago. A despairing sigh of “What can I do?” can be appeased by participating in a self-empowering project from the magazine’s pages. That’s a message that draws all thinking people, all mavericks, all “lunatic fringers.” I hope Mother Earth News offers that clarion call for another 50 years. The future will be interesting and probably disturbing, but through these pages we’ll all be able to weather the turbulence better.