Nearing, Helen Knothe

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Nearing, Helen Knothe

(b. 23 February 1904 in New York City; d. 17 September 1995 near Harborside, Maine), author and advocate of organic farming and homesteading.

Helen Nearing was the daughter of Frank K. Knothe, a businessman, and Maria Obreen Knothe, and grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey. The Knothes were intellectuals and philanthropists, with a broad range of interests and acquaintances. They were well educated, with interests in music, art, Eastern religion, and vegetarianism. Nearing acknowledged to an interviewer late in her life that these were unusual interests for the 1890s, and she felt that she had “picked” a family that was uniquely suited to her. She studied the violin and was considered a gifted and promising young musician. At age seventeen she chose to go to Europe to continue her musical studies instead of attending Vassar or Wellesley.

After her return from Europe, in 1927 Helen Knothe met Scott Nearing, a committed pacifist and critic of mainstream American life who had been dismissed from several academic positions because of his political and social beliefs. Knothe described herself as a “flibberty-gibberty” kind of person when she met Scott and believed that her real education began with the start of her life with him. Giving up her musical studies, she immersed herself in a new life of political and social activism, saying that there are many violinists but not many people involved in the kind of life she developed with Scott.

Knothe and Nearing lived together in New York City (Scott was married but separated from his wife, Nellie) and worked for the New York Public Library, doing research to support Scott’s writing. By the early 1930s they had made a decision that they could live more simply and cheaply in the country. This decision was spurred by the United States’ slide into depression and unemployment and the increasing grip of fascism on Western Europe. In 1932 they purchased a farm in Jamaica, Vermont, for $1,000. Unlike many American intellectuals who chose to leave the United States, Knothe and Nearing decided that they should stay in the United States and be part of developing an alternative social and economic system. Specifically, they had three goals: to develop an independent living for themselves, without the influence of businessmen, politicians, or educators; to improve their health and physical well-being; and to remove themselves as much as possible from social exploitation and work toward a new social and ethical order.

After the death of Nellie Nearing, Helen and Scott married on 12 December 1947. The Nearing built a stone house from Vermont native granite and established a simple, productive way of life, earning an income from making maple syrup. In 1952 they moved to Harborside, Maine, and established Forest Farm, which was originally 140 acres but gradually was sold down to four acres by the time of Helen’s death. Stressing that they were committed to assisting people who were truly committed to establishing a simple life, not making a financial fortune for themselves, the Nearing sold land (at 1938 prices) only to families committed to homesteading and living simply. As in Vermont, they built a stone house and developed a cash crop—in this case, blueberries. The blueberry farm was not as economically profitable as the maple syrup business, but it was not as time consuming, and, once again, the Nearings were interested in simplifying their lives and increasing their leisure time for writing and study.

In 1954 the Nearings published Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, a description of their way of life in Vermont. This was followed by Continuing the Good Life: Half a Century of Homesteading, which was published in 1979. The couple wrote numerous other books dealing with the philosophy behind their life choices and providing practical homesteading information. Both Nearings were proponents of fasting and simple eating, and Helen also published an “anti-cookbook” called Simple Food for the Good Life: An Alternative Cookbook in 1980. The proceeds from the books were put toward publishing Scott’s writings, which did not attract interest from mainstream publishers.

Forest Farm attracted huge numbers of visitors (up to 2,300 one summer), as the Nearings’ writings became well-known and Americans’ interest in alternative living and organic farming grew. Visiting hours were posted, but visiting was actually an open, informal process. The Nearings continued to live privately and simply, without a telephone or most other conveniences considered essential by the society around them.

The Nearings chose not to avail themselves of conventional medicine and did not see doctors, relying instead on fasting and simple food for good health. Helen claimed that she had never had a headache. When a doctor did convince them to come in to the local hospital for tests, both were found to be in excellent health.

Scott Nearing died at home in 1983 at the age of one hundred, after making the decision to fast and end his own life. Helen continued to live at Forest Farm until her death in an auto accident near her home in 1995. She continued to entertain visitors and write until the end of her life, with an increasing interest in issues related to aging and dying. Loving and Leaving the Good Life, published in 1992, was the memoir of her life with her husband, chronicling a relationship that she considered completely harmonious. As she and Scott had decided, Forest Farm was maintained after their deaths as the Good Life Center, an educational retreat. She was cremated and her ashes were spread, together with Scott’s, on the garden at Forest Farm.

Helen Nearing and her husband met the goals that they set for themselves when they left New York City in the 1930s, achieving economic self-sufficiency and a simple, healthy life and establishing a personal lifestyle based on their social and ethical principles. Their writings and personal example struck a chord with many others who were also searching for a simpler, less exploitative lifestyle. Their beliefs and life decisions anticipated the “back to nature” movement of the 1960s by more than thirty years and continue to inspire those interested in reinventing modern life.

Helen Nearing’s papers are at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Her writings include The Good Life Album of Helen and Scott Nearing (1974), which contains numerous photographs; Simple Food for the Good Life: An Alternative Cookbook (1980); Our Home Made of Stone: Building in Our Seventies and Nineties (1983); and Loving and Leaving the Good Life (1992). With Scott Nearing she wrote Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World (1954), Continuing the Good Life: Half a Century of Homesteading (1979), and numerous practical books on aspects of organic farming. Her friend Ellen LaConte wrote the biographical volume On Light Alone: A Guru Meditation on the Good Death of Helen Nearing (1996). Two extensive interviews with Helen Nearing appear in Whole Earth Review (winter 1994) and Mother Earth News (June-July 1994).

Martha E. Nelson