KZYX Marks The 50th Anniversary of the Back to the Land Movement with ‘Promise of Paradise: Back to the Land Oral Histories of Mendocino County.’
In the 1970s, young journeyers from urban and suburban America seeking to reinvent themselves in rural environs began moving to Mendocino County digging in and working to gain the skills they would need to thrive in this new home. They built lives and raised families. Eventually, of course, this phenomenon became known as the Back to the Land Movement. Roughly speaking we are now at the 50th anniversary of the beginning of that wave.
In celebration and acknowledgement of the people who fired this watershed movement in local history a half-century ago, KZYX, Mendocino County Public Broadcasting, is now airing “Promise of Paradise: Back to the Land Oral Histories of Mendocino County.” The locally produced weekly program showcases the first-hand stories of dozens of the Mendocino County residents who came to the area with that storied wave of dreamers and builders.
The half-hour show airs at 3:30 pm every Thursday, and is archived on the station’s Jukebox feature, found online via www.kxyz.org. Now coming up on its 30th anniversary, listener supported KZYX broadcasts music, news, and public affairs programming across the length and breadth of Mendocino County, and into Lake County. The station is the region’s primary NPR affiliate.
“Promise of Paradise” is the result of a labor of love by producers Kate Magruder, a well-known local historian, actor and director, and radio/print journalist Sarah Reith, a KZYX regular who also produced station’s recent series on homelessness, “A Place to Call Home.” Over the past several months, Magruder and Reith, along with KZYX program director Alice Woelfle, conducted interview sessions in locations around the county, including the Elk Community Center and the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah. Together, they recorded the stories of approximately 75 back-to-the-landers.
Speaking about the genesis of the project, Magruder says, “I blame it on Laura Fogg, a beautiful local quilter. She had done a giant portrait quilt that I believe was based on a photo of her family that was hanging in the Corner Gallery in Ukiah. Laura told me, ‘I came here in 1970, so in 2020, it’s going to be 50 years.’ She wanted to do a quilting project, portraits of people who had been here then and are still here. And, the moment she said that, I knew I was going to do an oral history project with these people. Because, stories, and especially local stories, have been my line of work for many years.”
Magruder says that as she thought about the idea, it began to resonate more strongly.
“I thought that it was time to get these stories down, to capture them, because we were going be losing people. It was a significant cultural experience that changed the people who came and changed this place. So I wanted to dig around, to get archival stories that people can refer to years from now. I wasn’t even thinking of it as a radio project. And then, as I was beginning to consider the idea further, and talk about it more, (KZYX Board of Directors president) John Azzaro approached me, and said, ‘Could you come and talk with us about what you want to do? Your idea might make a really good collaborative project with our radio station.’ And it did, of course. It was perfect.”
In the meantime, Reith was looking for a new endeavor to take on. She, too, thought of an oral history project. Through contacts in the arts community, Reith and Magruder, as they put it, “found each other.” Once they had the partnership with KZYX in place, the pair, along with Woelfle, began writing grants, eventually receiving support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, California Humanities, the Arts Council of Mendocino County, the Judy Pruden Historical Preservation Fund of the Community Foundation of Mendocino County, the Mendocino Institute and the Grace Hudson Museum. Local author/historian Cal Winslow has been an important advisor on the project.
Finally, it was time to stop planning the project and to start interviewing. A professional radio documentary maker advised them to create highly produced, themed segments with several people interviewed together. The pair discarded that idea, however, in favor of a more informal approach, interviewing people one at a time, and letting each session, each experience, stand on its own.
“I’d have a list of questions prepared,” Reith says, “but sometimes one question would spark a long, interesting story, and I would think, never mind the list. Let’s just follow this thread.”
Magruder says, “Our great joy was sitting down and talking to the people who were there and being given a glimpse into this wild, wonderful world, hearing details about that time that would never occur to you. The people I talked to, almost to a person, expressed a sense of, ‘I'm so lucky, that we came here.’”
There is a strong awareness, says Reith, that the movement was very much a product of its time, that the generation caught lightning in a bottle. “There’s a sadness among many,” she says, “that, especially because the economics have changed so dramatically, it is an experience that their children could never have.”
There are dark edges to some of the stories, and of course not all long-time residents were happy to see the newcomers showing up. But mostly, Magruder says, it’s a story of resilience and forward thinking. “I have been surprised by how buoyant people are,” she says. “People talk about how the experience shaped them in ways they’d never imagined. The overlapping nature of the stories, and the connection to the social issues of the day, add depth to the narrative. Something was allowed to happen here because the conditions were right for it.”
“I’ve read,” Magruder concludes, “that when the whole thing began, nobody thought of it as a movement. It was just a gut reaction to what was going on in the world. People needed to get somewhere, and it was a collective feeling.”
“Promise of Paradise,” now airing Thursdays at 3:30 pm on KZYX, offers a detailed look into a storied time in Mendocino County history through the first-hand perspectives of the people who lived through it.