The Back Forty
21-year-old Petrina Peterson ventured out to Montana as a solo homesteader in 1911.

back forty : n. a remote and uncultivated or undeveloped piece of land of indefinite size (as on a farm)

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I awoke this morning with the words “back forty” running through my head. When someone is metaphorically “plowin’ the back forty,” they’re off toiling in a remote place and can’t be contacted. The work could be physical, mental, emotional. The implication is that the laborer is tending difficult, unfinished business and is out of reach.

The term’s origin can be traced to the Homestead Acts of the 1860s. Enacted during the Civil War, these laws gave any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. government the opportunity to claim 160 acres of government land and cultivate it. This parcel was referred to as “two front forty acres and two back forty acres.” Generally speaking, the Homestead Act didn’t work out as intended, and the initiative was built upon gross injustices from the start. But the term “back forty” remains in our American lexicon as a historically complex and descriptive metaphor. We seem to have a lot of those.

When a homesteader was plowing the back forty, they were far from house and family, far from the easily accessible front forty. This quartering of the land resonates with me as a metaphor for creative work. Did the front forty get cultivated more frequently, while the back forty got short shrift? The front forty was easy to get to, easy to run back inside the kitchen for a quick, hardtack snack. Its soil was rich and moist, ready to receive and nourish just about anything that fell into it. The back forty? Harder to get to, further from the comforts of home, probably full of rocks, and possibly lonely.

Here’s where it begins to relate to making comics. Recently I’ve been chatting with fellow cartoonists and writers about an all-too-familiar condition of being more adept at the first part of creative projects than the last, “gettin’ it done” part. Creatives often fall into a trap of starting a project, developing it to a certain point, then starting another, developing it to a certain point, then starting yet another …. producing a bumper crop of projects in various degrees of incompletion. One can become a master gardener of the first half of project-making. But the goal is to tend the back half too. The back forty. Cultivate the whole farm.

Which tasks occupy the front or back forty will vary for each practitioner, and may vary from project to project. They are the yet-to-be-done tasks that wait way out past the lush crops of the front forty. The front forty are things that we love, things that are easier for us, or the low-lying fruit. They are tasks that contain any combination of comfort, familiarity, or just plain done-ness (even if they were unpleasant to start, we have completed them, so they are now full of shiny fruit).

I imagine farmers sauntering out their back doors to the front forty where the crops are well-watered, verdant, prolific. They relish in the plentitude. They know they need to schlep on out to the neglected back parcel, but they spot a small empty patch of fertile earth in the front and decide to sew some new seeds given to them by a neighboring farmer. They might sew a crop of new project brainstorming, additional or new research, plant a few more character sketch seeds. They wave to that friendly farmer next door, also doing some front-forty patch-planting. They chat about the perilous back forty and its fallowness. They chuckle uncomfortably and eat juicy berries. They might even share produce. It all tastes SO good! Horrors!

So. Im rambling like a farmer sewing new seeds (this blog) in the front forty! I’ll wrap this up by way of another map. I’ve taken my map from the previous post and classified the various tasks according to the quarters of a homestead parcel. Why? Because I want to be aware of which parts are “done enough” in this current mini-comic, and which parts are back forty material: underdeveloped and in need of deliberate, focussed work in order to bring this project to successful completion. (In my case, I’ve made a conscious and personal decision that “publish and sell” represent success markers for me. More to come on that).

It’s important to note that this map is purely an indication of where I sit in the work flow with my current mini-comic. It will change. The front forty are parts that are done, the back forty are lurking, and have been lurking for about two weeks. I’ve seen myself sewing a few bumper crop seeds. So I am gently calling them to my attention here. Hopefully the back forty will slowly become full of green rectangles as I reorient my work and align my tasks with my goals.

Front Two Forty and Back Two Forty Map. Work in Progress! Trips taken into the fantastical, magical thinking lands of Babylon (“This work is awesome!”) and its partner, Hades (“This is the most wretched work I’ve ever done!”), are all too familiar. Nothing very useful happens during such journeys. So I’ve included these distracting terrains on either end of the map to remind myself not to spend much time in either. Also, the white borders on a couple of “crops” indicate that I didn’t do this task for this mini-comic because it wasn’t necessary due to the short, 7-page length. I’ve left it in because it might be important for longer works.

2 thoughts on “The Back Forty

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: