Nearing, Helen (1904–1995)
Nearing, Helen (1904–1995)
American author and pioneer of simple living who is regarded as a "great-grandparent" of the American back-to-the-land movement and a major personality of modern environmentalism. Born Helen Knothe in Ridgewood, New Jersey (some sources indicate New York, New York), on February 23, 1904; died in an automobile accident near her home in Harborside, Maine, on September 17, 1995; daughter of Frank Knothe and Maria Obreen Knothe; sister of Alice Knothe; married Scott Nearing (1883–1983), in December 1947; no children.
In 1932, Helen Nearing and her husband Scott Nearing abandoned New York City and "a dying acquisitive culture" for a Vermont homestead. Through hard work and simple living, they became 75% self-sufficient. In the early 1950s, when she was in her late 40s and he was over 70, they started from scratch once more, on a small farm in Maine. Of the Nearings' many books, Living the Good Life (1954) became a virtual bible of homesteaders starting out in the late 1960s and was much admired, if not always emulated, by counterculture youth. By the end of the 1960s, they had become "senior gurus" for many disenchanted members of a re bellious generation.
The Nearings, who turned their backs on American materialism, came from backgrounds of wealth and social standing. In 1904, Helen Knothe was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey (some sources indicate New York City), into an affluent, individualistic family. Her father was a banker, and both of her parents were vegetarians and theosophists. Aspiring to become a concert violinist, Helen studied music in Europe. She then traveled the globe; dabbled in Indian mysticism for a time, spending the years 1921–25 as a follower of the renowned Hindu spiritual leader Krishnamurti; and spent several years in Australia searching for answers to life's mysteries. Upon meeting Scott Nearing in 1928, she knew she had found her life partner.
Born in 1883, Scott Nearing came from a privileged Pennsylvania family. His grandfather Winfield Scott Nearing ruled the coal-mining town of Morris Run with an iron fist, earning the title "Tsar Nearing" for his opposition to workers' attempts to improve their lives by forming unions. Scott early developed a social conscience, and after earning a doctorate in economics he became an activist and a university professor. While teaching first at Swarthmore College and then at the Wharton School of Finance of the University of Pennsylvania, he campaigned against what he believed to be one of the greatest social evils of the day, child labor. In 1915, while Nearing was an assistant professor at Wharton, he was fired by the school's probusiness trustees, many of whom owned manufacturing plants that employed children. The case became nationally celebrated as an example of the assault on academic freedom by powerful external (and internal) forces.
Two years later, when he was a faculty member of the University of Toledo, Scott was again at the center of a raging controversy due to his opposition to World War I, which the United States had entered in April 1917. As an active member of the antiwar Socialist Party, he attacked the institution of war as "organized destruction and mass murder." His highly unpopular views clashed with those of the great majority of the population, and once again he was fired from his academic position. In 1918, after publishing an impassioned antiwar tract entitled The Great Madness, he was indicted by the U.S. government under the Espionage Act and charged with treason. The eloquence of Scott's defense at his February 1919 trial resulted in an acquittal. He was the only major pacifist opponent of the war to escape conviction and imprisonment during a period of national hysteria. Remaining in the Socialist Party until 1922, Scott ran unsuccessfully against Fiorello La Guardia for the congressional seat from New York's 14th District. In 1927, he joined the minuscule Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) but found its rigid discipline incompatible with his need for intellectual freedom. After having defied the party by publishing a book on imperialism that differed from Leninist orthodoxy, in early 1930 he was publicly expelled from the CPUSA with an announcement published in the Daily Worker. By 1924, his marriage to Nellie Seeds , which had produced two sons, had all but ended in a separation. When he met Helen Knothe, 21 years his junior, in 1928, his life changed radically.
For several years after they began living together (they would not marry until December 1947, after the death of Scott's first wife), Helen worked at menial jobs to provide Scott with the time and money to write books and pamphlets which sold relatively few copies, particularly once the Depression began in 1929.
In 1932, they left New York City. Said Helen, "If you are poor, it is better to be poor in the country, where you can grow your own vegetables, than in a town." With a down payment of $300, they purchased for $1,100 an eroded 65-acre farm on a mountain slope called Pike Valley near the town of Jamaica, in the southern "wilderness" section of Vermont. Facing Stratton Mountain in the foothills of the Green Mountains, their property at Pikes Falls was midway between Brattleboro and Bennington, on a back road that left Route 30 and circled over Taylor Hill at an elevation of about 1,800 feet. Over the next years, the Nearings became homesteaders, their goal being self-sufficiency. This they achieved by producing "goods and services … consumed directly, without the intervention of the market. In our case we raised food and ate it, cut fuel and burned it, constructed buildings and lived in them, thus eliminating the major cash costs of living." Over a period of two decades, the Nearings built nine stone and three wooden buildings on their farm. They organically regenerated the depleted soil of their property by converting leaves, grass, and other organic substances into compost which they spread on their gardens. Within a few years, they accomplished a job of "soil restoration that would have taken nature unassisted at least a century."
As strict vegetarians, the Nearings eschewed processed foods, meat, fish, and dairy products as well as alcohol, coffee, and tea. Their diet consisted of 50% fruit and fruit juices, 35% vegetables (with an emphasis on leafy plants), 10% fats (vegetable oils and nuts), and only 5% protein (from grains, dried beans and peas, seeds, and nuts). They kept no animals, used almost no animal products, ate very little cheese or butter, and consumed milk or eggs only on rare occasions. In Scott's words, "By these means we freed ourselves from the slaughterhouse diet; from the corresponding enslavement to animals of all those who practice animal husbandry; and from the high protein diet so unhealthfully prevalent in the United States."
To earn the relatively small amount of cash they needed to live, they created—without relying on animal labor or machines—a maple-sugar farm of 4,200 buckets. Happy to have mastered the details of successfully practicing the "pre-industrial household craft" of maple sugaring, in 1950 Helen published a book with Scott (largely written by herself) entitled The Maple Sugar Book: Being a Plain Practical Account of the Art of Sugaring to Promote an Acquaintance with the Ancient as well as the Modern Practice. Together with Remarks on Pioneering as a Way of Living in the Twentieth Century. But America's mood in 1950 was dominated by Cold War phobias, and few people were interested either in starting maple-sugar farms or embarking on the difficult life that was homesteading.
By the early 1950s, the Nearings had established a successful routine that they described as "living the good life." Visitors often noted the differences between the two, not only in age, but in personality and temperament. Helen was described as "imbued with a Pythagorean strain of mysticism and the arts," while Scott was thought to possess "an Aristotelian vein of rationalism and science." Both thrived on a strenuous, ascetic life. Their days were divided exactly as follows: four hours for "bread labor" (tending their garden and making their cash living); four hours for reading, study, and writing; and four hours for social activities and service to the world community. Sunday was free of bread labor. Although they owned and used an automobile and pickup truck, they never owned power tools and, because they had no livestock, had no need for machines to make winter fodder. They never owned a baler, mower, or tractor. By building up their successful maple-sugar operation, they created a business which "wed socialism and capitalism into a working philosophy." It also enabled them to pay for travel during the winter season, when they visited friends throughout the world.
In 1952, after two decades in Vermont, the Nearings sold their farm, the reason being that nearby Stratton Mountain was being developed as a ski resort. They had also become subject to the constant traffic of those who had read articles about their simple life and wanted to meet them personally. They bought a 140-acre abandoned farm in Harborside, Maine, at that time one of New England's backwaters. Because they did not believe in the profit system, the Nearings deeded most of their Vermont land, by now increased to 700 acres, to the town of Winhall as a nature preserve. They sold the remainder only for the cash and labor they had put into it, taking $15,000 for a property that at the time was appraised at four times that figure.
In 1954, when the Nearings published Living the Good Life, it met with a largely indifferent reception. Only 3,000 copies sold the first year, and by the end of the 1960s it had sold a total of less than 20,000 copies. By the time its reprint edition appeared in 1970, however, the United States had become a vastly different country, one in which young people were receptive to alternative ideas, and sales quickly soared. Hailed as a Walden appropriate for the problems and aspirations of the late 20th century, the Nearings' book was to be particularly popular in the turbulent 1970s, when it went through 17 printings. By the late 1990s, total sales of Living the Good Life would number well over 250,000 copies.
From 1973 to 1976, the Nearings (she in her 70s and he in his 90s) built with their own hands an impressive stone house in Harborside. They remained in superb health and largely self-sufficient, producing at least 85% of their food and all of their fuel except gasoline for their car. In Maine, their cash crop was not maple syrup but blueberries. Other than this, they were free of the money economy. By the 1970s, they were earning sizable royalties from their books, but except for their travel expenses, which were frugal, this wealth would not be spent by them.
By the late 1960s, the Nearings' Harborside home—named Forest Farm and perched above the dark rocks of Spirit Cove, a small inlet of Penobscot Bay—was withstanding countless visitors looking to "drop out" of what they saw as an inhuman system of materialism and exploitation. In one year, Helen counted 2,300 callers. Their mailbox bore no name, but next to a stone workshop on their property the inevitability of guests was acknowledged by a roughly hand-lettered wooden sign that advised: "Help Us Live the Good Life: Visitors 3–5."
The Nearings often spoke and wrote of community, but neither in Vermont nor in Maine did they ever establish close ties with their neighbors, many of whom remained suspicious of them as outsiders. During the Cold War, they were under surveillance by the FBI, and negative comments on them were elicited from neighbors. Late in life, when Helen was asked if she had any regrets about their homesteading experience, she answered: "Our failure to make headway with our neighbors in Vermont." The Nearings, particularly Scott, were known sometimes to come across as cranky, preachy, or both, but their honesty and integrity impressed millions of readers of their books and visitors to their farmsteads.
In August 1983, Scott Nearing died peacefully in their Maine home at the age of 100. Helen refused to mourn for long, continuing to live the good life, tending her garden, writing several books, and meeting with visitors. In her later years, she made a few concessions to the advancing modern world, using a telephone, freezer, and water pump, and she continued to drive a car. But a washer and dryer given to her by well-wishers remained in her basement, never hooked up.
In the last years of her life, Helen gave away or sold to kindred ruralists all but four of the original 140 acres she and Scott had moved to in 1952. She remained active and in good health up to the day of her death. On September 17, 1995, 91-year-old Helen was driving herself to see the Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate when her pickup truck ran off the road and hit a tree just outside her farm, killing her instantly. Her friends brought her body back to the house she and Scott had built. Placed on a bed of herbs, she was dressed in purple Indian robes and covered with an embroidered South American cloth.
At the time of her death, the four remaining acres she lived on, known as the Good Life Center, passed on to the Trust for Public Land, which has kept the Nearings' stone house and walled gardens open to the public. A few months before her death, Helen Nearing had summed up her ideals at an Earth Day celebration: "Let the earth breathe quietly through the seasons. We should try to leave a better place for our being here. Real stewardship and brotherhood must underlie all our practices on earth."
Ball, Terence. "Nearing, Scott (1883–1983)," in William P. Cunningham et al., eds., Environmental Encyclopedia. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994, pp. 556–557.
Bedell, Robert K. "What Sent the Nearings To a Wilderness Life," in The New York Times. September 28, 1995, p. A16.
Belk, Russell W., and Richard W. Pollay. "Images of Ourselves: The Good Life in Twentieth Century Advertising," in Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 11, no. 4. March 1985, pp. 887–897.
Brinkerhoff, Merlin B., and Jeffrey C. Jacob. "Quasi-Religious Meaning Systems, Official Religion, and Quality of Life in an Alternative Lifestyle: A Survey from the Back-to-the-Land Movement," in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 26, no. 1. March 1987, pp. 63–80.
Cook, Joan. "They Lived Today's Ideas Yesterday," in The New York Times Biographical Edition. April 28, 1971, p. 1411.
Ellis, William N., and Odom Fanning. "The New Ruralism," in Habitat. Vol. 2, no. 1–2, 1977, pp. 235–245.
Fowler, Glenn. "Scott Nearing, Environment, Pacifist and Radical, Dies at 100," in The New York Times Biographical Service. August 1983, p. 975.
Hackett, Bruce, and Seymour Schwartz. "Energy Conservation and Rural Alternative Lifestyles," in Social Problems. Vol. 28, no. 2. December 1980, pp. 165–178.
"Helen Nearing," in The Economist. Vol. 337, no. 7935. October 7, 1995, p. 117.
"Helen Nearing," in The Times [London]. September 21, 1995, p. 21.
Horowitz, Daniel. "Consumption and Its Discontents: Simon N. Patten, Thorstein Veblen, and George Gunton," in The Journal of American History. Vol. 67, no. 2. September 1980, pp. 301–317.
Jackson, W. Charles. "Quest for the Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing and the Ecological Imperative," M.A. thesis, University of Maine, 1993.
Markson, Elizabeth W. Review of Helen Nearing, Wise Words on the Good Life: An Anthology of Quotations (1980), in The Gerontologist. Vol. 26, no. 5. October 1986, pp. 588–591.
McCaig, Donald. "Helen Nearing: The Good Life Lives On With America's Premier Homesteader," in Country Journal. Vol. 17, no. 1. January–February, 1990, pp. 56–60.
McQuiston, John T. "Helen K. Nearing, Maine Writer, Dies at 91," in The New York Times. September 19, 1995, p. B8.
Nearing, Helen. Loving and Leaving the Good Life. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1995.
——. Wise Words for the Good Life. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1999.
Nearing, Helen, and Scott Nearing. Continuing the Good Life: Half a Century of Homesteading. NY: Schocken Books, 1979.
——. The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living. NY: Schocken Books, 1989.
——. The Good Life Album of Helen and Scott Nearing. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1974.
——. Living the Good Life: Being a Plain, Practical Account of a Twenty Year Project in a Self-Subsistent Homestead in Vermont. Harborside, ME: Social Science Institute, 1954.
——. Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. Introduction by Paul Goodman. Reprint ed. NY: Schocken Books, 1970.
——. The Maple Sugar Book. Reprint ed. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2000.
Nearing, Scott. The Conscience of a Radical. Harborside, ME: Social Science Institute, 1965.
——. The Making of a Radical: A Political Biography. NY: Harper and Row, 1972.
——. A Scott Nearing Reader: The Good Life in Bad Times. Edited by Steve Sherman. Foreword by Helen K. Nearing. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1989.
Saltmarsh, John A. Scott Nearing: An Intellectual Biography. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.
Schrecker, Ellen W. No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. NY: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Whitfield, Stephen J. Scott Nearing: Apostle of American Radicalism. NY: Columbia University Press, 1974.
Living the Good Life With Helen and Scott Nearing (video-cassette), Bullfrog Films, Olney, Pennsylvania, 1977.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia