'Back to nature' movement nothing new - dates back to 1880; Back to the Land: The Pastoral Impulse in England, from 1880 to 1914, by Jan Marsh. New York: Quartet Books. 264 pp. $24.95.
Some advanced civilizations have tended to invest rural or more primitive societies with virtues they perceive as lacking in themselves. Virgil called the farmer ''blest beyond all bliss''; Marie Antoinette and her friends played at dairy farming; Rousseau praised the ''noble savage''; and the 19th century discovered paradise in the South Seas.
But political ideologies and a growing concern for the environment have changed these essentially nostalgic attitudes into a prescription for a radical transformation of society. In ''Back to the Land,'' Jan Marsh has written a book that, in detailing the pastoral impulse in England during the years between 1880 and 1914, shows how much of present attitudes is not only indebted to, but are also heirs of, these movements.
What distinguished the late-19th-century movement from earlier aspirations was a political drive to socialism and a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. Living conditions in the city were undoubtedly unpleasant: Pollution was high, unemployment endemic, and housing meager and cramped - although whether those conditions were worse than those prevailing in rural areas is open to question. Still, the need for social reform was widely realized, and, as the century ended, the early stitches had been made in the safety net of services that the modern state now provides.
Some high-minded idealists thought more radical measures were required: Only a return to the land - to a mythical English countryside, which had been and could again be the repository of all that was good and true - could bring about the ideal society. John Ruskin argued for taking some ''small piece of English ground, beautiful, peaceful, and fruitful. We will have no steam engines upon it . . . we will have plenty of flowers and vegetables . . . we will have some music and poetry; the children will learn to dance to it and sing it.'' It was a vision not so dissimilar from today's collectives and communes where vegetarianism and handicrafts are encouraged as part of the millennium to be.
Other leaders planned and carried out more cooperative agricultural ventures, encouraging city dwellers to return to the land as cottage farmers. Only a few of the ventures managed to survive more than a few years, and those that succeeded did so by using advanced farming techniques and some mechanization, and by relying on the city dwellers to buy their expensive hothouse fruits and vegetables. In its least political form, the pastoral impulse led to the buying of country cottages for those who wished to escape from the city at weekends, when they could enjoy the country life in small and tolerable quantities.
Hand in hand with the political aspects of the movement was the emphasis on the traditions of a distant and supposedly happier past. Morris dancing, May queens, and maypoles were revived, and folk songs collected and reintroduced to country people who had long since let the customs and songs fall into disuse. Past customs were seen to be aesthetically picturesque and free from the ''taint of manufacture or the canker of artificiality.''
The revival of handicrafts - there are contemporary parallels here - was another important part of the back-to-the land movement. To some degree, it was a reaction to machines, which were blamed for social problems. It was also partly a reflection of a time in which the craftsman and the artist were perceived to be united and living harmoniously in small rural communities. The result was a new interest in pottery, weaving, wrought-iron work, and leatherwork. William Morris, who always realized that it was the men using the machines rather than the machines themselves that were responsible for the deterioration in the quality of life, became the best exponent of this movement.
As is common with such movements, it was the upper-middle-class intelligentsia that not only embraced the movement most vigorously but also introduced its ideals into several areas. In education, for example, new schools were founded with a curriculum that emphasized manual work and fresh air - including keeping windows open in all kinds of weather. In fashion, the wearing of wool next to the skin was obligatory. Much was impractical, unrealistic, even absurd, but the ideals were sincere, and they represented an understandable reaction to some of the social disparities and social conventions of the late 19 th century.
Most of the land settlements soon broke up; the handicrafts continued in a more restrained way; and World War I accomplished what the movement had failed to do to women's fashions. Women's clothing was at last seen to be a matter of function rather than fashion alone. And the social programs of subsequent governments did much to resolve the most glaring ills.
But the tendency to invest the countryside, nature, and primitive peoples with mythic attributes is still with us. In an increasingly secular society there is still a tendency to worship nature as the source of all that is good. Industry, equated with capitalism, is deplored, and a rural life is seen as the only redeeming alternative. Marsh shows us how derivative many of these attitudes really are, and how much of our own thinking echoes such illustrious members of the earlier movement as George Bernard Shaw, Ruskin, and Morris. ''Back to the Land'' is a useful, if somewhat unspeculative, book, which serves to remind us that the history of ideas, like the history of art, is the story of revivals. It is a pity that Marsh does not examine more extensively why so many members of the intelligentsia were drawn to a movement so ignorant of the tediousness, discomfort, and toil that are the reality of much of rural life.