REVIEW: Rural Renaissance
Heading up country
Two urbanites blaze a trail into rural America

Reviewed by Josh Anchors


Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life

John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist: New Society Publishers, 2004
ISBN: 0-86-571504-1
304 pp. $22.95

September 15, 2005: John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s version of “the good life” is situated on a five-and-a-half acre farmstead in southwestern Wisconsin, where they eat organic vegetables with friendly neighbors, run an environmentally conscious bed-and-breakfast, and try to live “a life simple in design yet rich in meaning” (xvii). As Bill McKibben suggests in the foreword, Ivanko and Kivirist are participants—and leaders—in the latest wave of back-to-the-landers. While their quest for simple, fulfilling lives follows in the tradition of Scott and Helen Nearing, the hippie homestead movement and other migrations into rural America, Ivanko and Kivirist are decidedly modern in their approach to country life.

Ivanko and Kivirist are from the city. Both had high-paying city jobs for a number of years, drank countless lattes, commuted hours to work, and gradually realized that their fast-paced city lives were leaving them unfulfilled and disconnected from nature. They resolved to move to the country, open a bed-and-breakfast called Inn Serendipity, and try to practice self-sufficiency without sacrificing all modern conveniences. They have an Internet connection and fax machine, but no television; they are inclined to use “green” products and appliances, but they are not “green” purists. In short, Ivanko and Kivirist understand the importance of flexibility in their attempt to achieve sustainability and simplicity in complex, modern times.

Rural Renaissance, though sprinkled with charming anecdotes from Ivanko and Kivirist’s homesteading experiences, primarily serves as a practical how-to manual for other urbanites interested in embarking on their own rural odysseys. A wide range of topics are covered in the book, from permaculture to green architecture to making homemade fertilizer and buying sustainably harvested wood. Because many of the topics in Rural Renaissance are elaborated in much greater detail in other books, the co-authors follow each topic with lists of print and electronic resources for further study.

One aspect of Rural Renaissance that a reader isn’t as likely to find in other how-to sustainable living manuals, however, is the emphasis on parenting, developing a strong sense of community, and preparing for the financial challenges of country living. The co-authors include a pie chart of their diversified, income-producing work with the aim of helping potential back-to-the-landers understand new definitions of wealth geared towards quality of life over income. Short sections also coach readers on how to go vegetarian, how to start an eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast, and how to travel as an eco-tourist.

Though Rural Renaissance may at times seem like a shameless advertisement for Inn Serendipity, it does serve as a useful, if slightly overstuffed, compilation of eclectic resources and information. Sidebars include everything from homemade granola and raspberry cordial recipes to explanations of biomimicry to lessons on sustainable seafood purchasing.

One particularly thought-provoking sidebar discusses the importance of maintaining “lifelines” as ways of coping with the hardships of country life. “If all else fails,” write Ivanko and Kivirist, “we can always go back to the cubicle” (75). Yet the cubicle can only serve as a reliable, last-ditch lifeline if one began in the cubicle. The new “rural renaissance,” as these co-authors see it, seems distinctly for those who begin with plenty of lifelines, a solid chunk of change in the bank, enough connections to the urban world to continue publishing books and magazine articles, and the possibility of inheriting small fortunes. Sure, it’s still tough—and noble—to start a sustainable life in the country no matter how large your safety net, but that’s where the modern wave towards rural America distinguishes itself from many of the previous waves.

Ivanko and Kivirist belong to the generation of “Cultural Creatives,” those 40 or 50 million Americans who, as Bill McKibben writes, “are educated and successful, but also out of tune with George Bush’s America” (xvi). They are interested in “creating a practical and grounded culture centered on realigning life with personal values” (44). Though this movement may seem like just another opportunity for coining a funky, new-age buzzword, the ultimate aim of many Cultural Creatives is to move away from materialistic consumerism and embrace “simpler lives that are rich in meaning, relationships and friendships” (44). Indeed, such aims are imperative for healing the many problems found in contemporary society. Whether that means enlightened urbanites should all move to the country to open bed & breakfasts is another matter.

For those who consider themselves Cultural Creatives and are thinking of surfing the contemporary wave into rural America, this book will certainly serve as a helpful guide and motivational model. There is much to be learned from the Ivanko and Kivirist’s anecdotal advice, and the resource lists all lead to a wealth of carefully chosen texts. For those, however, who were born into country living and don’t have the cubicle to turn back to, there are a number of other books that teach the same how-tos without tossing around the self-help terminology of an eco-friendly version of Dr. Phil.

Josh Anchors is a beekeeper, novelist, and outdoor guide from central Maine.