Shade Grown Hollywood: Laura Ingalls’ ‘Wilder Life’ and the Modern Green Movement

ColumnWhere celebrity goes conscious.

Many of us have long lived off the grid. We grew up chasing prairie dogs through tall grass, wading in creek beds teasing giant crabs, and feasting on vanity cakes on special occasions. We learned to sew a patchwork quilt, play with a pig’s bladder, walk barefoot to school, make a button lamp, and turn blackbirds destroying our crops into vengeful blackbird pies. Sure, this living happened over a century ago. But to us, it’s real. This is because many of us grew up inside the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.

From Little House in the Big Woods to These Happy, Golden Years, Wilder (1967-1957) captured her pioneer girl experiences throughout the American Midwest. Accordingly, many of her young readers have grown up as post-modern Lauras. How does this play out? We tap away on our laptops, sitting under ceiling fans going at full blast in 90 degree weather. Every other minute, we’re checking the news, taking a sip of cool, filtered, BPA-free water, and writing ourselves notes to remember to put out the recycling. Ten emails into the day, we might romanticize a time when our only connection to society required a three-mile walk into town for a sociable.

A post-modern Laura to the core, I love the idea of living off the grid, late 19th century style. To a point. Like, a fun point. I’ll diligently scrub my existence to make it as carbon-footprint-less as I can. I’ll use an outhouse despite a totally rational fear of errant raccoons. Urban homesteading and gardening are right up my alley. But Wilder’s “simple life” also involved near death from malaria, scarlet fever, and Native American massacres, with some bone-crippling poverty thrown in. It’s not so fun to confront an angry (and rightly so) Native American after you’ve illegally settled on his land because of your Pa’s addiction to Manifest Destiny.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

And then there are the politics of Little House. Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a highly successful writer and political theorist operating as an early 20th century proto-feminist. Lane, who died in 1968, traveled around the world as a freelance writer and was the first biographer of Herbert Hoover. Alongside Ayn Rand, Laura’s only child is considered one of the mothers of the Libertarian movement. Lane is said to have had a heavy hand in helping her mother craft the Little House series. This is particularly true with the writing of Little House on the Prairie, which captures the Ingalls expulsion by the government off the Osage’s land.

So was Laura Ingalls Wilder really the first green girl heroine of American literature? Or was she more a proto-politico espousing the rights of man’s dominance over the land? Would she secretly laugh at our green inclinations or embrace them like a bone-lined corset under poplin?

Wendy McClure

We contacted expert Wendy McClure to get some answers. McClure is the author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. McClure takes us through her utterly delightful journey to recapture her childhood image of “Laura World” and what it meant and means to be a true pioneer woman. She travels through several Wilder landmarks and museums across the Midwest, sharing adventures with butter churning, hay twisting, and wheat grinding. McClure spoke with us about Wilder’s “off the grid” living, her possible Sarah Palinesque politics, and who would win in a cage match – Michael Landon or Charles Ingalls.

EcoSalon: A lot of people might romanticize Wilder’s “off the grid” living without really understanding the downsides of late 19th century frontier living, which included scarlet fever, locusts, and/or near starvation by endless winter blizzards. What do you think Laura Ingalls Wilder would have thought of urban homesteaders or urban gardeners?

McClure: I think she would have appreciated the trend. When she wrote Little House in the Big Woods in the 1930s and described all the self-sufficient things her family did—making cheese and butter and maple sugar, butchering hogs—it was with the recognition that those ways of living and making food were disappearing. You can even see the difference in the family’s lifestyle by the end of the series, by the time they’re living in South Dakota, 15 years later, they’re much more dependent on the railroad and store-bought meat. Today’s urban chicken coops and beehives would probably remind her more of the kind of farming she did as an adult more than her pioneer childhood. She was actually an expert at raising chickens and it helped launch her writing career as a columnist for a farm paper, The Missouri Ruralist, so I imagine she’d be thrilled to see people farming in new ways.

EcoSalon: Environmental issues are more politicized than ever. Considering daughter Rose Wilder Lane is one of the mothers of the Libertarian movement, do you think Laura Ingalls Wilder might have eschewed the modern green movement as “too liberal”?

McClure: I suppose it’s possible that with Rose’s influence, Laura would have a Sarah Palinesque sort of viewpoint, full of contradictions, appreciating the natural world while objecting to regulations that would protect it. Then again, she sure loved her trees—all those years of living on South Dakota prairie had to have helped her appreciate them, and when she was older she wrote Missouri Ruralist columns about the need to restore forests and find clean energy sources. Living on the frontier would have given her a firsthand knowledge of the effects of dwindling resources, so maybe she’d have a different perspective.

EcoSalon: Blizzards, tornadoes, and flooding creeks, as well as swarms of crop-destroying locust and blackbirds were common in Wilder’s books. And yet, when you read them, there’s a clear acknowledgment and love of the beauty of her surroundings. What advice, if any, do you think Wilder would give today to environmentalists trying to preserve this beauty?

McClure: I think the best advice she could give would have to come from more than a century of beyond-the-grave observation. It’s clear from the Little House books that she and her family tended to accept the natural world on its own terms, but like other pioneers, they sometimes misunderstood it, too. In South Dakota they tried to farm the land the same way they did back east, and they hoped that homestead claims dedicated to tree-planting would turn the prairie into a forest. Not sure whether Laura would have recognized the futility of these things during her lifetime, but I’d like to think she’d have plenty of wisdom in the longer run.

EcoSalon: You touch on the latent racism that runs through the books, with Caroline Ingalls’ terror of Native Americans to Charles Ingalls donning blackface for a minstrel show. And yet, in your recent interview with WYNC’s Brian Lerher, African Americans and Latinas called in to share how much they related to Laura Ingalls. Why do you think that is?

McClure: The books were written in a time that wasn’t as enlightened as ours, and the era they portray was even less so, so there are a few dismaying moments in the series. But they’re by far outweighed by the extraordinarily relatability of Laura Ingalls and her family. There’s something so vivid and immediate about the narrative that invites readers to really identify with Laura and inhabit her world.

EcoSalon: And finally, in a cage match, who do you think would win? Charles Ingalls or Michael Landon?

McClure: Charles Ingalls, definitely. Michael Landon was too much of a pretty boy, but the real Pa seems like he’d be scrappy.

The TV cast of Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983)

This is the latest installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade Grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.

Author photo courtesy of Wendy McClure


Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.