The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-sufficient Living. New York: Schoken Books, 1989. Reprint of The Good Life (1954) and Continuing the Good Life (1979).
Scott (1883-1983) and Helen (1904-1995) Nearing are famous models of self-sufficient living and rural homesteading. These two books describe their lives and pursuits beginning in 1932 during the depths of the Great Depression in the United States, when they quit New York City for a farm in the Green Mountains of Vermont, culminating in their move and new homestead in Maine.
We left a society gripped by depression and unemployment, falling a prey to fascism, and on the verge of another world-wide military free-for-all, and entered a pre-industrial rural community.
Scott had successively lost two academic posts because of his political views (not mentioned in the books, nor details of their personal lives prior to 1932.) But the Nearings felt a responsibility to share their ideas while effectively renouncing conventionall and outworn activist methods, insisting on practicality and simpler methods for "living sanely in a troubled world."
The ideal answer to this problem seemed to be an independent economy which would require only a small capital outlay, could operate with low overhead costs, would yield a modest living in exchange for half-time work, and therefore would leave half of the year for research, reading, writing and speaking.
The Nearings maintained just a few requirements: "simplicity, freedom from anxiety or tension, an opportunity to be useful and to live harmoniously." This they opposed to "complexity, anxiety, waste, ugliness and uproar." Aesthetically they preferred four seasons, physically and psychologically balanced. And they preferred New England's Old Worldliness, choosing Vermont because it fit their economic and social ideals. The property they purchased was a rundown farm, expanded to nearly 125 acres over the years, with ample woodland. Maple sugar production enabled them to finance repairs and pay off debt.
Living the Good Life: TABLE OF CONTENTS.
- We Search for the Good Life
- Our Design for Living
- We Build a Stone House
- Our Good Earth
- Eating for Health
- Rounding Out a Livelihood
- Living in a Community
- A Balance Sheet of the Vermont Project
Self-sufficiency consisted of raising their own food and wood fuel, bartering for what they could not produce, and only using themselves for labor. They made their own implements as much as possible, and rented or traded heavier machinery rather than buying it.
They had no intentions of making money, only "making a living." After they discovered maple sugar would see to their economic needs, they shared garden surplus with neighbors and visitors. They did not hunt or fish, nor did they keep animals because of the responsibility and expense, but also because they were vegetarians. The Nearings built with natural stone and rock, using a gravel pit and sand for concrete. They ruthlessly tore down old buildings no longer viable or reparable, in part to store lumber for future use; they collected useful rocks found on lengthy walks for similar building projects.
A chapter of Good Life is devoted to the building of their stone house, based on principles of Frank Lloyd Wright concerning form and function, adaptation to the environment, and use of local materials -- principles of economic simplicity still largely alien to modern building and not fully comprehended until the 21st century. Another chapter describes food-growing, pioneering year-round produce and unprocessed varieties of organic foods.The generous details are the equivalent of a manual on gardening, describing soils, composting, and mulching. They elaborate on nutrition, industrial food, chemicals -- all novel topics during the decades from 1930s to 1960s. They also detail the vicissitudes of living with neighbors and trying to create community.
Continuing the Good Life picks up from the Nearing's move to Maine and their 25 years there up to publication of the book in 1979. Their neighbor in Maine happened to be Eliot Coleman, well-known today for his standard books on organic growing.
Continuing the Good Life: TABLE OF CONTENTS
as a Productive Avocation
- We Move, Bag and Baggage, to Maine
- Spring and Summer Gardening
- The Fall Garden
- Winteritime Gardening
- Winter Storage
- Building the Soil with Compost
- Water for House, Garden, and Pond
- Our Cash Crop: Blueberries
- Tree Crops in Maine
- Wood for Fuel
- Stone Walls versus Wire Fences
- Building Stone Structures
- Remodeling Old Wooden Buildings: Don't!
- Plans, Records, and Budgeting
- Visitors and Helpers
- What We Eat and Why
- We Practice Health
- A Rewarding Way to Live
The Nearings moved to Maine due to the incursion of logging and the ski industry near their Vermont property, with the onset of roads, urbanization, and commerce. As with the first title, the writing style of Continuing the Good Life is matter of fact, filled with useful detail, sometimes literal instruction and how-to, a practical outline even for today's reader contemplating a project like that of the Nearings, or simply admiring it.
The Nearings describe seasonal characteristics of life in Maine, where blueberries were the cash crop. They again built with wood and stone, and revisit health and food issues. One great contrast to Vermont was their growing fame, as visitors in the 1960s, especially young people, arrived to observe, to admire close up, and to work, or to be put to work. Visitors numbered in the thousands a year by then.
As the Nearings aged, especially Scott, who was 21 years older than Helen, they found volunteers to be a welcome adjunct to their physical labors. The Nearings liked to keep to a formula: four hours of labor, four hours of professional activity such as reading and writing, and four hours serving others in activities, local and otherwise.
The Nearings were idolized by the "back-to-the-land" interests of the sixties because they were iconoclasts and pioneers of many of the era's interests, especially in the example of combining labor, self-sufficiency, simplicity, health, and the intellectual life. Yet their books read refreshingly modern, never dated, because what the Nearings accomplished is perennial and can be done here and now.¶