Nature and Nurture

ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, my friend Josiah, a young man raised by a Mennonite minister, along with his best friend Ezekiel and other childhood friends, started cultivating land and their own versions of masculinity on a large property in the rural Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. This place quickly became their domain, as Josiah and his friends began reconciling themselves with manhood.

Two years later, a close childhood friend of mine started sharing a home with seven other women in Bolinas, a reclusive and unconventional beachside community in northern California. Their desire was to live an intrinsically shared existence with one another and the land. There are no longer any true communes in Bolinas, but that same mentality, with its gentle and near-religious connection to the landscape, persists.

There were clear differences between these two groups — one on the East Coast, one on the West; one an old farmhouse of young men who came together to work the land, the other a bungalow of young women who came together inspired by one another and the beauty of the earth. But I was interested in the similarities, the myths manifested, the way reality and fantasy converged in both these places, the fictions these young men and women created for themselves. As these two groups connected to the land and matured in their own ways, I found that the landscapes themselves began to take on a gender-specific appearance.

Rachel Barrett is a fine art and editorial photographer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been exhibited nationwide and has appeared in the New York Times, Next American City, and other publications.


  1. Loved hearing about these two groups of folks and their respective relationships to the land (and their structures too). Great visuals. Could do without the simplistic gender dichotomy, though. Everybody has both yin and yang.

  2. ditto… we each have yin and yang and that is present within the land too… wild interior land vs more coastal landscape => different energies, different human responses. Hard to narrow it down to just gender when the land itself is so different from place to place… that being said I do find it fascinating how different people/genders respond to space when they are alone with eachother and struck by my own biases when I make these kinds of observances e.g. men are not always the most practical/utilitarian in their approach and sometimes have more flowers / decorative touches than women as observed in a monastic environment I was once in for a while… all interesting stuff and beautiful images!

  3. I thought these images were compelling and beautifully composed, but I must say that I was disappointed by the simplistic view of gender — the men were photographed working with tools and vehicles, and many of the pictures of their living space featured tools as well, but the women were exclusively presented as standing around looking pretty, or collecting or displaying beautiful objects. Beauty is important, but if those women are truly living off their land, surely they’re using tools and working hard (chopping and stacking all that wood near their woodshed, for instance) too, not simply standing around like catalog models all day long. Orion can do better.

  4. When the images spoke for themselves, they were beautiful. Really lovely. The commentary and attempts to explain the contrasts and link them to gender, however, seemed clumsy and contrived. Some of the language was tired and cliched, and I’ll just go ahead and say it, *sexist*. Women “absorb” and men “put their mark into the land” (why not just go ahead and say penetrate!)-really? I think the images would have worked better on their own, or with words from the subjects. Maybe letting them speak for themselves would have been more interesting and complex. Also thought it was odd that the men are described as figuring out/defining manhood for themselves, but there’s no similar statement about the women. And as others have noted, where are the photos of work happening on the women’s land? Sexy shirtless guy working on a car/sexy bikini-clad woman standing on the beach. Really? snip:”Beauty is important, but if those women are truly living off their land, surely they’re using tools and working hard (chopping and stacking all that wood near their woodshed, for instance) too, not simply standing around like catalog models all day long.” EXACTLY!

  5. How in hell did they afford farmland in Bolinas? A bungalow on a quarter acre there is like $750k. This smells like vanity farming.

  6. I was glad to view this piece. It was a poetic portal, reassuring and interesting. I understand the comments regarding gender but lets not get hair trigger reactive. Can’t we leave some space to accept that gender DOES make a difference and that this is a blessing. In this case perhaps the gender of the photo journalist as well as that of the subjects.

  7. Must be my age, but I don’t hear a point of view in this current narrative much different than the back to the land, Love Family propaganda of the late seventies in Snohomish County, Wa.

  8. I agree, simplistic and typical gender representations, which the photos (though lovely) seemed to reiterate, rather than complicate.

    For an alternative, please visit: — where a man and woman can be seen building a cabin collectively.

  9. I agree with @milkweed. The photography here is gorgeous and speaks for itself, but the commentary seems a bit contrived at times.

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