Back to the Land with the Nearings
How two big-city radicals helped take America back to the land
(originally published in the Boston Globe as “The Really Simple Life”)
By Paul Greenberg | September 5, 2004
Did you ever wake up one morning and declare that from this point forward your life would be radically different? Did you then commit your scheme to paper, structuring your ideal day into constituent ideal parts all aimed at the goal of improving mind, body, and spirit? Did you make strong decisions, vow to give up coffee, alcohol, meat, and your little job, too? If this sounds familiar, then I have an old book for you. It is called "Living the Good Life," and it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
"Living the good life: being a plain practical account of a twenty year project in a self-subsistent homestead in Vermont, together with remarks on how to live sanely & simply in a troubled world," as the book was titled in its self-published edition, is a work that never seems to leave us, just as its authors Scott and Helen Nearing, who lived to the ages of 100 and 91 respectively, never seemed to either. It has been through over 30 printings, sold upwards of 300,000 copies, and inspired half a dozen Nearing-authored sequels with titles like "Continuing the Good Life," "Man's Search for the Good Life," "Simple Foods for the Good Life," "The Good Life Album," and "Loving and Leaving the Good Life" (not to mention "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life," a farm-and-tell memoir by a former neighbor).
But with the exception of a large spike in the early 1970s, sales have largely accumulated in the methodical way Helen and Scott established their homesteads in Vermont and Maine: Put some hay on the compost pile, gather some rocks to build a stone house, hold a weekly meeting on world revolution, repeat precisely and relentlessly for 60 years, and voila, a legacy.
. . .
Ask a veteran of the back-to-the-land movement, and chances are they remember the moment they first encountered "Living the Good Life." Eliot Coleman, the Nearings' Maine neighbor and coauthor of the 1989 classic "The New Organic Grower," had it passed to him samizdat-style at the back of a health food store in 1965 while shopping for a yogurt machine. Vermont homesteader and unofficial Nearing historian Greg Joly happened upon it in its more presentable Schocken edition 20 years later.
"It was the middle of the Reagan administration," Joly reminisced recently, stroking his long, well-groomed beard and looking out over his idyllic hilltop cottage just up the road from the Nearings' first Forest Farm in Jamaica, Vt. "It was 1984. And we were going to have `morning in America' again. . . . I went back to my dorm room and read it and pretty much said this is it. . . . [Then] I went back to my parents' house and dug up the backyard."
If you were to have told Scott Nearing in his days as a young professor of economics that his reputation would one day rest on convincing young men to dig up their backyards, he would have probably responded, as was his nature, with a lecture. Even as a young boy growing up the son of a wealthy industrialist in Morris Run, Pa., Nearing was unnaturally loquacious. In his 1972 autobiography "The Making of Radical," Nearing recalls his father reprimanding him with a very prescient warning, "Son, you talk too much."
Like his early hero Leo Tolstoy, Nearing was attracted to both the military and the ministry but eventually chose the academy, taking a position as an assistant professor at the recently founded Wharton School of Economics in 1906. But as John Saltmarsh points out his 1991 biography, Nearing always considered himself "as much a prophet as an economist." At Wharton, he hounded Philadelphia's "plutocrats" (a keyword in the Nearing lexicon) for their use of child labor. In return they had him dismissed from his post in 1915.
Nearing's unsuccessful battle for reinstatement made national headlines, and a few years later he was in the papers again after being indicted under the Federal Espionage Act for instigating draft-dodging in his 1917 pacifist tract "The Great Madness." Upon his acquittal in 1918, The New York Times described him as "the most prominent peace at any price agitator in the United States."
Blackballed from the academic world, Nearing tirelessly worked the public debating circuit for the next decade to support his wife and two sons. He drew crowds in the thousands, taking on high profile opponents like Clarence Darrow and even running for Congress on the Socialist ticket against Fiorello LaGuardia.
But Nearing's uncompromising ideals proved increasingly rancorous to ally and enemy alike. He announced to his wife that he would no longer accept meals served on china and would instead eat with chopsticks from a wooden bowl. He quarreled with the American Communist Party (which he had joined in 1927), which denounced his "mystic individualism" and eventually expelled him. In 1928, a year before the US stock market collapsed, Nearing was at a nadir. It was at this time that he met a music student 20 years his junior named Helen Knothe.
Born in 1904 in Ridgewood, N.J., Helen was also well-educated and quixotic, though in a different manner. Her parents were, in her words "flower children of their time," committed to meditation and Theosophy. While studying violin in Europe in the early 1920s Helen became a companion of Theosophist world-leader-in-training Jiddu Krishnamurti. Later she would claim to have the power of divining underground water by swinging an amulet over a map and would develop a keen interest in UFOs.
Helen and Scott's early correspondence reads like a duet between a flute and snare drum. In one letter Helen notes that she feels herself to be "a free woman. Planless as a bird and happy as a bird and clean and fleet-winged as a bird." Scott's dry response was headed "Comment on your letter of August 1 re: freedom. . . ."
Still, Helen and Scott did share a dedication to personal liberation, a belief in nonviolence, and a deep affection for vegetables. Helen had been raised a vegetarian and Scott had stopped being a "carcass eater" in early adulthood. Scott had also dabbled in farming, spending his summers from 1905 to 1916 at the utopian Arden community in Delaware, tilling the soil next to "Jungle" author Upton Sinclair. With no money coming in, Helen and Scott realized they needed a third way. And so, in 1932, they abandoned New York and established themselves on a 65-acre plot in a remote corner of southwestern Vermont that they dubbed "Forest Farm."
. . .
"We maintain," declare Helen and Scott in the introduction to "Living the Good Life," "that a couple of any age from twenty to fifty, with a minimum of health, intelligence and capital, can adapt themselves to country living, learn its crafts, overcome its difficulties and build a life pattern rich in simple values and productive of personal and social good."
In 1932, the simple farming life was not the remote gauzy ideal it seems today. Roughly 25 percent of Americans still lived on farms, and as a result of the Depression 20 percent more people moved back to the land that year than migrated to urban centers. In 1933 Roosevelt even established a Division of Subsistence Homesteads with the goal of resettling between 10-15 million of the urban unemployed.
But the Nearings saw homesteading as much more than just a way of weathering the Depression. Rather, Forest Farm was to be a redoubt from which they would "assist in building up a psychological and political resistance to the plutocratic military oligarchy that was sweeping into power in North America." "Living the Good Life" was written as a manifesto for that resistance, though one with a markedly practical bent.
In Vermont the Nearings lived without electricity, indoor plumbing, or any source of heat beyond hand-split firewood. They ate most of their food raw out of wooden bowls with chopsticks. They foreswore alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. They divided their days into three units: four hours for "bread labor;" four hours for music, writing, and other avocations; and four hours for social interaction. They avoided cash as much as possible. What money they did handle came as a result of a maple sugaring operation they used to create specialty candy and syrup. Scott's exacting practices amazed even Helen. "I bet you fold your toilet paper neat and square," she once chided him. He acknowledged that he did.
"Living the Good Life" draws directly from these experiences, constantly circling back upon the themes of self-sustainability, feasibility, and the need to dissociate "as much as possible, from . . . the plunder of the planet; the slavery of man and beast; the slaughter of men in war, and of animals for food." The book's subjects range from detailed explanation of how to build a stone house to the importance of eating "whole foods" in synch with the seasons, from improving soil with natural fertilizers to improving human nature through hard work.
Unlike the transcendentalist rhapsodies of Thoreau's "Walden" (a frequent point of comparison), the Nearings' treatise is very much rooted in this world. We learn, for example, that "stone buildings should be kept low, because after they reach a height of five feet, the cost of lifting the stone and concrete increase progressively with height"; that "materials used for compost are likely to be sleazy and messy"; and that "of 704 chemicals employed in food use today, only 428 are definitely known to be safe."
"Living the Good Life" is a contractor's manual, a prescient lesson on healthy eating and a radical home economics tutorial all balled into 200 hundred tightly wound pages. It's also the account of a idiosyncratic May-September romance, the details of which come through in veiled references to private compromises ("a mantel, especially a low one, adds cosiness but collects trinkets") and quarrels ("building operations, like true love, never run smoothly").
Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl Buck (a friend and fellow stone house builder) had helped the Nearings sell a treatise on their maple sugaring operation in 1950 called "The Maple Sugar Book." But after the book moved only 2,000 copies their publisher John Day was not keen for a sequel. The McCarthy hearings had helped run many of Scott's left-wing publishers out of business. Eventually the Nearings published the book themselves under their own imprint, The Social Science Center, in 1954.
The Nearings, however, applied the same regimented daily effort to promotion as they did to everything else. Scott continued to tour the country during winter months, lecturing and distributing thousands of copies of his many books and pamphlets. "He would speak anywhere to anybody at any time on any subject," says homesteader Greg Joly, who is in the process of reconstructing every day of the Nearing's Vermont lives by reviewing their correspondence and over 800 pages of FBI files.
The upheaval of the 1960s brought a new readership. "Everything in the `60s went by word of mouth because the weird people who were thinking that way weren't the ones who got sucked in by advertising," remembers organic farmer Eliot Coleman. "Living the Good Life," he says, was "known in all the leftist circles because Scott and Helen were known there."
Eventually the book made its way into the offices of Schocken Books, a small house that published primarily Judaica and literary works by young Jewish novelists. Schocken's 1970 edition of the book was a quick success, helped along by the Nearings' regular column in the newly launched magazine Mother Earth News. By 1979 "Living the Good Life" had sold through 17 printings, and by one estimate more than 1 million people had made the decision to go back to the land. . . .
Back-to-the-landers searching for their spiritual leaders in Vermont, however, were disappointed to find that the Nearings had, in the parlance of the day, "split." Even before "Living the Good Life" was published, the Nearings felt oppressed by a rising tide of visitors and by the encroachment of the adjacent Stratton Mountain ski development. And so in 1952 they sold their stone buildings, gave away their timber acreage to the town of Winhall, and established a second Forest Farm on Cape Rosier, a remote Maine peninsula just south of Blue Hill.
The visitors kept coming all the same. Helen recorded over 2,000 "pilgrims" dropping by on a yearly basis throughout the `70s. Some who tried their hand at homesteading later came to feel the Nearings' own experiment was rigged. Scott and Helen, it turns out, were not entirely self-sufficient -- they had money from inheritances and insurance policies. They hadn't built their massive stone houses entirely by themselves. And Helen broke the no-processed-food party line by eating ice cream.
But others understood. As Rebecca Gould (an early "resident steward" at Forest Farm after Scott and Helen had died) writes in her forthcoming cultural history of homesteading, that "the Nearings' decision to make homesteading `look easy' was, in part, an expression of their evangelical enthusiasm for the ways of life they had chosen." These folks helped Helen care for Scott after he announced, at the age of 100, "I think I won't eat any more." And after Helen died in a car crash in 1995 they helped transform the Harborside farm into a nonprofit working homestead called the Good Life Center.
(They also found the groupie-like enthusiasm of many pilgrims to be downright silly at times. After Scott died and Helen began spending winters with a sister near West Palm Beach, Eliot Coleman recalls, some neighbors suggested posting a sign on Cape Rosier Road: "Scott's dead. Helen's in Florida. Get a life!")
Looking back on the success of his meat-packing industry exposé "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair once lamented, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach." That epitaph can in some way be applied to Sinclair's one-time neighbor at Arden. Scott Nearing's more than 50 published works attest that his paramount concerns were equal distribution of property, nonviolence, and the propagation of a new social order. But his and Helen's more lasting legacy was to be what Scott Meyer, the current editor of Organic Gardening Magazine, calls "the seed" for the organic food movement, which has made organic the fastest growing sector in the American food industry.
Today, the mainstream vision of the wholesome good life is more likely to involve buying organic maple syrup at Whole Foods than tapping trees, chopping wood by hand, and patiently boiling down the sap. But "The Good Life," a one-volume edition bundling "Living the Good Life" with its sequel "Continuing the Good Life," still sells a steady 3,000 copies a year. Korean and Japanese editions are in the works. It would seem that for people who dream of abandoning New York, or Seoul, or Tokyo, the Nearing legacy is neither dead nor dying, but rather -- like the couple's own cremated remains scattered over Forest Farm -- composting.