Helen and Scott

I was just talking to a visiting friend who’d lived in Vermont for a awhile. We got on to the subject of Helen and Scott Nearing who started homesteading in Vermont in the thirties. We were both surprised the other knew about them and we enjoyed reminiscing about what the Nearings had done in Vermont. In one of those “small world” occurrences, it turns out that the book he’d read years ago might’ve been mine. The Nearings wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” which went on to influence and inform lots of people, mostly hippies, who were interested years later, in returning to the land. Now with farmer’s markets abounding, the slow food movement, and a desire to know where your food comes from, there’s relevance again for the Nearings’ lives. I was, and still am fascinated by what they did.

The Nearings were college educated, left leaning, city folk who abandoned their big city progressive New York life in 1932 for a go at a simpler way of living and self-reliance in a very rural (depression era) Vermont. Ahead of their time, they practiced organic farming, having a small footprint, and healthy living. They  both lived to be very old, Scott died at 100 and Helen at 91. They also built their own structures out of stone from their and.

And then, they did it all over again. In 1952 they started from scratch on the coast of Maine when Scott was in his seventies(!) when they felt too much development was encroaching on their world in Vermont. In Maine they were working from experience to recreate a similar homestead there too.

More than most people, their life was an experiment, lots of trial and error. Remember, information wasn’t easily available then. But they worked hard, were nice, and it paid off. They went slowly and figured things out as they went along. They generally took a long view of the processes like building up their weak soil and constructing new buildings, taking years to complete new stone structures while they lived in the older wooden ones. They learned how to collect maple syrup to use as a cash crop, but they didn’t need too much money since they lived simply and were able grow most of the food they ate.

The book’s style is informative and interesting but the writing style is old-fashioned. Most aspects of their simple lives are detailed in their book with the exception  of sex and children, they didn’t have kids, from what I can remember. “Living the Good Life” can be read in several lights: as a primer on homesteading, as just a fascinating tale of a couple creating a new life, as a historical look at early 20th century rural life in America, or as a  record of a prototype for green living. If any or all of that sounds interesting, you’ll get a lot from the Nearings.