back to the land, yurt

Freddie Pikovsky has always been a city kid. Even though he enjoyed attending and eventually working at a summer camp near Lake Tahoe when he was younger, the Brooklynite has spent most of his life bouncing between Los Angeles and New York. But even the most seasoned urbanites sometimes tire of the bright lights. A few years back, after Pikovsky had spent nearly a decade hustling on behalf of his travel publishing company Off Track Planet, the glimmer began to wane.

“My dream was to start a company that would allow me to travel and be outdoors,” he says. “But the ambition of building a brand, a lifestyle company, and a publishing company took hold of me. I just felt like I was sort of trapped in front of my laptop, which sucked after awhile.”

After ruminating on possible next steps, Pikovsky shouldered a backpack and headed off to Europe for a few months. It was there, while hiking through the Swiss Alps, that the joy of those summers in Tahoe returned. “There was something about being out there that tapped into this visceral part of my DNA that felt like it hadn’t been activated in so long,” he says. “I instantly thought—well, I’m trying to figure out my place in nature; I feel like more and more people are finding that, as well.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The trip sparked a curiosity in Pikovsky, who began parallel journeys upon his return—first, to rediscover out his own relationship to the outdoors, and second, to build community with others who had already begun to figure it out. He launched Farm + Land, an online platform dedicated to exploring this primal desire to seek reconnection, whether through working the land or living in harmony with the same.

Photo: Freddie Pikovsky

Pikovsky also began working on the foundation of what would become Back to the Land, a book co-authored with Nicole Caldwell, an urbanite-turned-farmer and journalist who brought a rural perspective that he lacked. What they created is an artfully designed exploration of the ways various people have returned to their roots—the kind of thing that would be instantly familiar to fans of Cabin Porn, but with a mission that goes beyond simply satiating our lustful eyes.

Divided into three categories, mountainside, countryside, and desert land, the book strikes an impressive balance of aesthetics and utility, with instructions for creating the makings of your own rustic nirvana: how to tap maple syrup, hot to construct a cozy wooden hot tub, how to become an amateur beekeeper, and beyond. But what makes Back to the Land more than a coffee table novelty are the stories it contains of people and place. It’s somewhat utopian, sure, but in a time when many of us seek to actively detangle from our electronic tethers, these real-life tales of people who’ve successfully reconnected to the land feel not just aspirational, but increasingly important.

ADVERTISEMENT

We talked to Pikovsky about the book and his own connection to the land.

***

AJ: In the purest sense, what does that phrase “back to the land” mean to you?
FP: There was a “back to the land” movement of the late ‘60s which I describe in the book. There was a counterculture of hippies who were rebellious toward everything that was going on in everyday society; they were kind of like—screw this! Groups of people would buy these massive plots of land outside of the city and had communes where they learned to farm and just lived off the land.

I think we’re still very early in the renaissance of a back to the land movement, but what I’m seeing is the early signs of a modern version taking place. As cities get more and more expensive and crowded, and people feel more and more burned out, what I’m witnessing are young-ish people who are trying to put down roots and settle down, and are looking in places outside of the urban setting.

I talk a little bit in the book about how the modern version of that contrasts with the back to land movement of the late ‘60s, which eventually wasn’t sustainable because of the lack of knowledge, experience, and expertise to survive in nature; eventually people came back to the comforts of suburban life. But now, it is very sustainable. There are obviously many positives and negatives to the technology that we have, but one of the positives is that it gives us the ability to have all the knowledge, community, and information that we need to live in these places.

Photo: Pikovsky

Photo: Pikovsky

I definitely think we’ve seen a resurgence of people wanting to return to nature and reclaiming traditional skills, but some would also call it a trend and say—Oh, this isn’t going to last. Why does this current back to the land movement go deeper than being just a trend? 
We’ve removed ourselves so far from being natural. I describe in the book picking a sprig of onion from the ground; it was so exciting because it was like I forgot that food came from the ground; we’re so used to getting our food from the grocery store. When you’re so in joy—and shocked—that food that tastes so good comes straight from the ground, there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong with feeling like that should be such an amazing experience because it should be such a normal experience.

Part of my journey in creating the book was that I want nature to be a bigger part of my life, but I still wasn’t ready to jump in full-time. I think the beautiful thing about the time and place that we’re living in now is more and more people, once they take the time to either take a hike or spend a weekend away from the city, tap into that as well. They’ll tap into the sense that—Huh, I feel really happy and content—and then start to realize how important it is to spend more time enjoying those simple, natural things. The beautiful thing about technology today is that we can be more and more remote, and allow ourselves to be more fluid. I think in the past, you could’ve said it was a trend because it wasn’t as practical, but now it’s necessary and it’s practical.

How did you find the stories that wound up in the book?
That was the tricky thing for somebody who wasn’t an expert in this world—it was like, all right, how do I even jump in? It was a combination of things. The foundation that I laid was—okay, I want to find stories and examples of people in these different landscapes. I took one step on Instagram, trying to find pictures of people doing really interesting things. One that comes to mind was from Edible New Mexico; they posted a picture of this chef who is Native American, part of a family that never left Taos, New Mexico for their entire history. He enjoyed cooking at an early age and decided to be the first one in his entire family to go outside of New Mexico and learn how to be a chef. He ended up working at some of the top restaurants in the country, then decided to take everything that he learned back to Taos; he wanted to show his history, his roots, through the food that he made. So, there’s a story about how he became partners with this woman who owned a farm; he basically took over the farm, grew everything by hand, and just spends his day farming, foraging, and then creating these insane dishes that are super unique and representative of him, his history, and the land. That’s the Shed Project with Johnny Ortiz.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then I learned about Hipcamp, which is like Airbnb for the outdoors. I got in touch with their community outreach person and she gave me lists of all these people that have all these amazing stories to tell; through that, I connected to about three or four of the different stories that you’ll find in the book.

And then halfway through the book, I started realizing—I still love New York City and I don’t think I want to move, but I started working closer to the idea of somehow splitting my time in New York City and upstate New York. I found this town about two hours away, Livingston Manor in the Catskills, and started to get to know some really interesting people that were very relatable—young people from Brooklyn that were doing all these cool things that started to sort of support the whole “back to the land” renaissance.

Photo: Brooke Fitts

Photo: Jeffrey Waldman

It seems you have a pretty deep personal connection to this project; what did you learn or discover through the process of writing this book?
When I started, I wasn’t sure how I would fit this lifestyle into my own life, so part of the journey was figuring that out. Part of me was like—do I just find a cabin somewhere and live off the grid? How far am I taking this? I did end up doing that, where I lived in an off-the-grid cabin for a few months, and I realized that was not a good fit for me. I did miss certain conveniences, but even more so, I missed being a part of a bigger city

ADVERTISEMENT

My takeaway was—I’m still working on it. I’m still figuring it out. I can’t say that I found the thing I was looking for, but I’m literally talking to you as I’m on my way upstate. My lifestyle has ended in the place where I was kind of designing it for; I have an apartment in Brooklyn and I’ve now made myself part of this upstate community two hours away. So, I’m working on refining my balanced lifestyle, but I’m pretty happy with it. Like, right now, it’s fall in upstate New York—you can’t beat it. It’s just like the prettiest thing when I wake up in the morning and take a drive in the countryside to the coffee shop. It’s amazing.

 


This the most important story we’ve written this year:

The Future of Adventure Journal and Why You’re Critical To It