The Great Escape
Anyone who has read a book by Gene Logsdon will probably
now recognize what strange bedfellows he and Angier
make as popular heroes of the homesteading movement.
Both, certainly, were contemplative men, men whose desire
to live as free, independent human beings led them off
the civilized grid. Both of them also managed to realize
their dream, in part, through their ability to write
about it. Beyond that, they are about as different as
Cain and Abel.
Growing up on his parents' Ohio farm, Gene Logsdon
decided at the age of 13 that he wanted to become a
priest. The eleven years he spent in seminary exposed
him to teachers who encouraged his writing, and while
continuing to work on the seminary farm he realized
"how much I loved the agricultural life into which I'd
been born," he wrote in a biographical sketch for Ohio
University Press. It was there that he met the woman
he would marry, the sister of a classmate.
Logsdon eventually determined that the priesthood wasn't
for him, returned home to his parents' farm in 1958
and helped his father "nearly go broke" as a dairy farmer.
His experiences provided his first writing material,
and he began writing humor pieces and submitting them
to magazines, without success. He went to graduate school
at the University of Indiana, where he studied anthropology
and folklore for a PhD he would never receive. Tired
of struggling with his dissertation, he started writing
humorous essays again, and discovered, to his surprise,
that magazines were ready to buy them. He was offered,
and accepted, a job at The Farm Journal in 1965,
and worked there until 1974. ("When I found out that
Robert Frost got physically sick trying to be a newspaper
reporter, I understood," he wrote. "But I had no choice
at this juncture.")
Eventually, though, it was the magazine that gave him
his next choice. At that time The Farm Journal
operated a book division in partnership with Doubleday,
and the publisher released two books by Logsdon, Two
Acre Eden and The Wyeth People, in 1971.
It was an auspicious start. While Two Acre Eden
outlined Logsdon's get-away-from-it-all plan, joining
the cacophany of voices that made up the back-to-the-land
movement, The Wyeth People was a more surprising
book, an account of Logsdon's interest in American painter
Andrew Wyeth, which led him to a friendship with the
artist, interviews with the subjects of his portraits,
and reflections on creativity and art. After the release
of the two books, Logsdon continued working at The
Farm Journal, working on his next book on the side.
It was, in a move mirrored by much of Angier's surivalist
canon, a reiteration of his earlier how-to guide, rewritten,
refined, and repackaged. He quit his job, signed a publishing
contract with Rodale, and moved to southeastern Pennsylvania
near Rodale's headquarters with his wife and two children
to start organic farming in earnest.
Homesteading: How to Find New Independence on the
Land, was published in 1973. The book aims to be
a how-to manual for making the move and making it stick.
Logsdon discusses finding and buying the right piece
of land, improving and maintaining soil health and fertility,
raising an organic vegetable garden, organic orcharding,
grains and livestock, wild foods, selling what you grow,
and using old and new technologies wisely. His tone
is friendly and straightforward, skeptical but optimistic.
There is a strong sense throughout the book that one
is reading the opinions of an honest man. In a genre
that invites an instinctive skepticism, this can go
a long way.
Homesteading and organics were undoubtedly a line item
in Doubleday's account books, but were core values at
Rodale, which had been publishing magazines and books
on health and organic gardening since the 1940s. Founder
J.I. Rodale had died two years before Logsdon signed
onto the publisher's roster, and Jerome's son Bob quickly
tapped into what he saw as emerging lifestyle movements
with a handful of new hobby magazines, including Backpacker
and Bicycling, and initiated an approach at Rodale
of treating health, fitness and nutrition as a lifestyle
choice that would turn the publisher into a magazine
empire and would itself become the industry standard.
It is hard to believe that Logsdon's resettlement so
close to Rodale's headquarters was not a deliberate
move to gain more intimate access, and forge closer
and more personal relationships, with the people who
ran the most well-respected powerhouse of small-farming
and organics publishing in the nation. So it is easy
to imagine Bob Rodale and Gene Logsdon playing a role
in each other's thinking, development and plans for
the future, and to see Logsdon's bread-and-butter publishing
from the 1970s and '80s in that light. Most of his books
from that period are expanded texts based on chapters
from those first homesteading books about orcharding,
soil, composting, berry-growing, grain, ponds, thrift,
garden wildlife aided by his freelance magazine
writing and Rodale's continued interest and support
of his work. He was unafraid to repeat himself yet again
for new readers, and published one of his best books,
Gene Logsdon's Practical Skills, in a hardbound, workbench-textbook
format in 1986. He described this period as the one
in which "my books sold well, and for the first (and
last) time I made a little real money."
By Logsdon's own count, he has published twenty-one
books in just over thirty years, a respectable output
for a working farmer. What's more surprising is that
nearly half of those since 1993, when he "retired" and
began drawing Social Security checks. "For the first
time in my life, I had regular income independent of
my work and could write books I considered important
even though I doubted that they would make any money,"
he wrote. Among his later, post-"retirement" works are
a 1998 memoir, a modest proposal on home distilling,
and a novella.
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