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Back to the Land 2.0

Vancouver's young people are on the move

Note: This story first appeared in our sister publication the Westender. To see the original story click here.

Vancouver’s young people are on the move and leaving the city, many of them for their own slice of rural bliss. But unlike the counterculture movement of the '60s and '70s, this generation is trading idealistic utopian goals for the simple pursuit of happiness and economic freedom.

It’s a view Matt Cavers never gets tired of.

As he pedals to work at the Persephone Brewery in Gibsons down the back roads of the Sunshine Coast, a quick glance up reveals the soaring heights of Mt. Elphinstone looming overhead.

“Seeing that,” he says, “it means so much to me.”

His life today in the rural community is simple and fulfilling. He makes a modest wage as an assistant brewer. He grows fresh vegetables in his backyard.

It couldn’t be further from the life he left behind.

Cavers grew up in Richmond and attended UBC, where, up until a few years ago, his focus was on finishing his PhD in human geography.

“I always assumed I’d make my livelihood in the city,” he says. “The plan was to be an academic or some type of intellectual worker.”

During his Masters program, Cavers began splitting his time between Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast, where his wife Sheena grew up. By 2013, three years into his PhD and with a baby on the way, he decided he wasn’t coming back.

And so Cavers, much to the chagrin of his parents, gave up a bright academic career to drive a delivery truck, paint kegs and brew beer in the country.

“I don’t have a PhD and I don’t care,” says Cavers. “I’m happy, my family is happy. That’s more important.”

Cavers is one of a growing number of young Vancouverites who are fleeing the city not for the suburbs, as in previous generations, but for a humble, bucolic existence in the country.

According to BC Stats, Vancouver has seen young people aged 20 to 30 leave the city in recent years, despite the overall population growing. Between 2010 and 2013, the city saw a net loss of 1,125 young people in that age bracket, while simultaneously growing by more than 20,000 people.

While BC’s rural population fell sharply after a peak of 667,112 in 1996, it has  climbed steadily from 2006 to 2011, growing from 602,187 to 609,363, according Statistics Canada’s census data.

For Todd Serious, lead singer of punk rock band The Rebel Spell, the ridiculous cost of living in Vancouver is what prompted him to leave the city behind and move to the tiny town of Lillooet.

According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver’s year-end stats, the average price for a detached home in the City of Vancouver topped $1 million in 2014. By comparison, Lillooet’s median home price is just $198,000.

“It was a fight to find a place that was affordable [in Vancouver], it was a fight to find a job with so many other qualified people competing for the same job,” says Serious, who is a youth care worker when not on tour with his band. “It wore me out.”

For $600 per month, Serious and his partner rent a two-bedroom detached house sitting on two acres of land, surrounded by nature.

“There’s no mould, no bed bugs, and the landlord’s not going to bulldoze it and build condos,” he says. “We’ve even got a decent garden going.”

Serious says he had no difficulty finding work in town, where he works part-time at the local rec centre.

“As soon as I moved here… I started getting recruited to do jobs, and I could ask for the money I wanted,” he says. “You don’t need to work as much here, and you’re not giving up hours of your day to run errands, because all you have to do is cross the street.”

Today, Serious’ commute is a 10-minute bike ride into town. When he does have to drive – like when his band is on tour, for instance – he has a van that he’s converted to run on recycled vegetable oil.

“I’m much better, healthwise,” Serious says. “I’m outdoors all the time, I spend a lot of time in the mountains.”

Not long after Serious and his partner moved to Lillooet two years ago, his drummer followed suit.

“There’s a little cluster of freaks in town now,” says Serious. “There’s a reconfiguration going on. People are feeling ground down by the city, and they’re starting to realize there’s more out there. Life is a lot less competitive here.”

Of course, if there’s a downside to rural life, it’s the lack of excitement. Unlike Vancouver, there aren’t dozens of bands playing shows at dozens of bars every night, nor are there restaurants open around the clock in every direction.

But small town life is not that bad a deal, Serious insists.

“It’s probably not what you think at all,” he says. “There’s culture reaching out of the city.”

This isn’t the first wave of young people to turn their back on the many trappings of urban life in favour of a simpler rural existence, and it mostly certainly won’t be the last. The counter culture movement of the 1960s and ‘70s saw thousands of young people moving “back to the land” to pursue an idealistic goal of self-sufficiency and environmental connectedness.

But Dona Brown, a history professor from the University of Vermont, says the movement started much earlier.

In her book, Back To the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency, Brown argues the movement began as early as the 19th century as city dwellers sought an escape from the grind of city life.

The movement has its roots in “a deep lack of confidence in the structures of society as [they] exist, whether that’s [now] or back in 1907, or all these different time periods,” she explains in a recent YouTube interview.

“If you could take some control of your own life in your own hands, you could feel safer and more secure,” Brown says. “It’s almost always been about self-sufficiency.”

While the “hippie” generation may have held lofty utopian goals of starting communes and radically restructuring society, the current crop of young people fleeing the city are, once again, realists. Facing a climate of economic and environmental uncertainty, many young people are exploring self-sufficient rural lifestyles, intent on working less and having more control over their own lives.

Clare Kenny is one of them. A bookseller living in Vancouver, her and her partner began exploring the possibility of leaving the city for an idyllic life in the middle of nowhere almost 10 years ago.

“City living didn’t make any sense to us, we felt like we didn’t have anything more to learn,” she says. “And we felt demoralized about what our culture is doing to the planet.”

Vancouver’s rapidly increasing cost of living meant staying here would be a life of wage slavery. So Kenny and her partner decided to see if it was possible to somehow build a house for free.

“Our culture teaches us to separate our real lives from our work lives and houses are such intimate parts [of our lives]. We live in them and for them. So everyone’s life is structured around a mortgage,” she says. “We wanted to explore other options, but we were urban people, we didn’t have any skills.”

So the couple took a 10-day workshop to learn how to build all-natural cob houses, made from clay, sand, straw and water.

“It totally changed my life,” she says. “It was so incredibly empowering.”

Cob homes can be built for next to nothing, incorporating only the materials found on the building site. They take time and labour, but little in the way of expensive building materials.

“This is something you can do with your hands and feet, you don’t even need power tools,” says Kenny.

Kenny and the other workshop participants decided to pool their efforts and create the Mudgirls Natural Building Collective in an effort to help each other get free of the city and get homesteading. The group is proudly anti-capitalist, and offers workshops, labour and advice on a sliding scale to anyone interested in building a cob house, so they have the power and knowledge to exercise their right to provide themselves with shelter.

“Our approach is more the activist/education model,” says Kenny. “We want you to learn how to do it, and do it for yourself.”

The time is right to leave the city, says Kenny. Advances in technology have  enabled people to live off-the-grid and off the land with little impact to their standard of living. Solar and micro-hydro systems – necessary for life in many infrastructure-free rural areas – are cheaper and more efficient than ever, while telecommuting allows workers to earn an income from just about anywhere in the world.

After helping build more than 20 cob houses as part of the Mudgirls Collective, Kenny is finally getting around to building her own home on Lasqueti Island, where she and her partner plan to move in the next couple of years once it’s completed.

Despite the similarities to back to the land movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Kenny sees the current wave as somewhat less naive.

“It strikes me that I don’t know anyone who is doing a neo-commune thing, which is interesting. Communes were such a big part of the homesteading wave in the ‘60s,” she says. “The preciousness and power of the idea of real estate has something to do with it, I think, and a modern aversion to anything deemed “hippy”.

“It’s a less idealistic wave, to be sure.”

For Cavers at least, the decision simply came down to how could he provide the best, happiest life for himself and his family. A busy career that monopolized his time in a claustrophobic city that drained him of his energy didn’t have much appeal.

“It’s not as driven by idealism, getting in tune with nature and all that,” he says. “People want to be in a beautiful, more peaceful place.”

Far from being isolated in his comparatively small community, Cavers says he feels more connected.

“I walk around and I know lots of people here. I go to the grocery store and I’ll recognize someone, and they’ll recognize me. It’s great to have these connections, I don’t feel so anonymous here.”

And for anyone thinking about making the move, Cavers has one piece of advice:

“Just do it.”