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Cover: Galena Bay Odyssey: Reflections of a Hippie Homesteader

Galena Bay Odyssey: Reflections of a Hippie Homesteader

By Ellen Schwartz

Review By Nancy Janovicek

March 20, 2024

Galena Bay Odyssey begins with an epigraph by an American soldier who fought in the Spanish Civil War: “We were naïve … but it was the kind of naïvité the world needs.” This epigraph sets up Schwartz’s reflections on the personal and political reasons for leaving a comfortable middle-class upbringing to go back to the land in – what was then – a remote community in the West Kootenays. In this book, Schwartz reflects on the youthful enthusiasm that compelled her to take a risk to live off the grid and the pragmatic reasons for returning to the city.

Schwartz begins by describing a conventional middle-class childhood in suburban New Jersey. Though her parents were well-educated and affluent thanks to postwar opportunities, they were raised by Jewish immigrant refugees of East European pogroms in the Lower East Side of New York. Her father’s medical career allowed them to raise their children in comfort rather than poverty. Like many other middle-class youth in the 1960s, Schwartz rejected the consumption, militarism, and conservatism that she believed were the foundation of her parents’ generation’s comfort. But she did not reject the importance of her family. Indeed, family – more so than politics – is a central to this memoir.

The political turmoil of the 1960s is the backdrop to a chapter on college. Relationships are more important than politics for Schwartz and explain her reasons for moving to a communal farm in Pennsylvania after college. Following graduation, a college friend invited her to join them on the farm and she agreed because she had not decided what to do next. Initially she planned to stay for a short time and admits that although she enjoyed the work, she did not share the commune’s goals. She fell in love with Bill, a founder of the commune. Her relationship with him was the primary reason for her joining and then immigrating to Canada in 1973. The commune of five split into two groups because they could not agree on which land to purchase in British Columbia. Eventually, only Ellen and Bill remained on the land that they purchased in the Kootenays with another friend.

What I like about this memoir is that Schwartz doesn’t shy away from her frustrations with the hard work of living off grid and establishing a smallholding farm. Ultimately, the stories of building the house, outbuildings, and sauna and clearing the garden plots express pride in the self-reliance of figuring things out. She also describes moments when she was tired of digging soil, chopping wood, and hauling water. Self-sustainability was a pipe dream for most who went back to the land. Neighbours who had been raised on the land were essential because they had already learned how to grow crops and raise livestock.  Because they were both educated, she and Bill were able to work and teach to bring needed cash to support their dreams. They benefited from federal investment in job creation programs in the period that supported energy conservation education, which led to a full-time job for Bill in Vancouver.  Having children made a steady income more necessary and was why they left Galena Bay.

Though naïve when she began her adventures, the experiences learned from living in a simple A-frame log cabin in the Kootenays laid the foundation for her and Bill’s life-long commitment to ecology, community, and civic engagement. Back-to-the-landers often emphasize political disillusionment as a reason to “drop out.” This memoir also provides glimpses of the possibilities they envisioned when they created alternative lifestyles based on their political visions.

Publication Information

Schwartz, Ellen. Galena Bay Odyssey: Reflections of Hippie Homesteader. Victoria: Heritage House Publishing, 2023. 265 pp. $26.95 paper.