Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener
Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life
by Jean Hay Bright, 2003, BrightBerry Press, 4262 Kennebec Rd., Dixmont ME 04932
Helen and Scott Nearing may have led the good life, but they didn’t lead the perfect life; and by omitting a few details from their not-so-perfect good life, they may have misled some of the thousands of readers of Living the Good Life, many of whom packed up and moved to rural areas after reading this bible of the back-to-the-land movement. That’s one message that Jean Hay Bright conveys in her self-published memoir about living between the Nearings and the Colemans (Eliot and his family) in the 1970s. In addition, Jean provides a valuable look at another mostly good life; the one that she and her then-husband, Keith, built – with children, and without the substantial sources of outside income that the Nearings had.
Jean and Keith grew up in working class families in Youngstown, Ohio, met in biology class in high school, and were married soon after Jean’s graduation – and just before Keith, who had a low draft number, enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Vietnam. The couple was living in Rhode Island when Keith was discharged, and while there, they read Living the Good Life, a book that spoke to their desires to live a more natural, meaningful life.
While Jean worked for a Rhode Island newspaper and Keith worked as a fisherman and at other jobs, they spent their time off looking for land – once stopping, on as whim, at the Nearings. They were welcomed, and apparently made a good impression: When Jean later told Helen about finding a desirable piece of land in Stetson, Maine, Helen told her not to sign anything until they came to see the Nearings again. Helen and Scott offered to sell the couple 25 acres of land at a reasonable price, and the rest is over 30 years of history, documented in Jean’s notes, journal entries, letters to her mother, articles she wrote for the Bangor Daily News, public records and publicly available letters of the Nearing, and interviews with people who had known the Nearings.
Jean writes about preparing for life in the woods of Cape Rosier, about shopping at antique stores (cheap, then) for goods that she and Keith would need when they lived beyond the power line. She documents their house building and the compromises they made, such as buying a chainsaw when they calculated the time required to cut the logs for their home by hand; and hiring a backhoe to help dig their root cellar as “yet another philosophical resolve bit the dust.” She describes the skills she and Keith gained, such as squaring up logs into beams using an axe or hatchet, and preparing food on a Glenwood cook stove. She talks about the many interesting visitors who stopped at the Nearings’ and, sometimes, at her home – such as one young man who was going to sail around the world and live on wheat grass and alfalfa sprouts.
The couple had saved enough money to buy their land and build their house. Subsequently, they were able to support themselves – Keith by working as a carpenter and, for a while, clam warden (not an enviable job, we learn); Jean by writing part time for the Bangor Daily News after going to the paper’s office to complain about the lack of coverage of an important story in Harborside. Jean also sold baked goods and other local foods at her shop in Blue Hill for a while; and she baked bread to sell at the Colemans’ farm stand. Her family’s financial needs were small compared with the average American’s as she and Keith and their two children “managed to live warmly and well-fed” by keeping hens for eggs, baking their own bread, raising goats, pigs and a cow, growing a very productive garden, and drinking raspberry and blueberry juice – learning many of these skills from the Colemans, Nearings and other locals. They followed the Coleman’s recipe for juice: Put 1 ½ cups of berries and 1 tablespoon of honey in a quart jar; fill the jar with boiling water; screw down the rubber-ringed canning lid. Canning without a boiling water bath will probably make Cooperative Extension cringe, but the method seems to have worked for the Harborside folks.
Jean and Keith maintained some differences from their neighbors, though. They chose to have their children immunized, unlike the Colemans’ and they chose to raise and eat animals and animal products, unlike the Nearings. One discrepancy that Jean points out is that the Nearings professed that animals should not be kept and their products not consumed – even though Helen had a much loved pet cat and a freezer that often stored her much loved ice cream. Likewise, despite pronouncing that people could be healthy on a vegan diet, Scott and Helen both took shots of vitamin B12 at times to supplement their diet.
Jean points out other discrepancies, such as the Nearings’ professed disregard for architects and craftsmen, but their use of an architect’s plans for their new stone house and outbuildings at Harborside – construction of which cost more than $100,000. They also promoted using local products, but had machine-squared Douglas fir beams shipped from Oregon for their house—and then asked Keith to hand-hew the beams on three sides for looks. “Gritting his teeth,” Jean writes, “Keith began the job. Bu after awhile, he couldn’t take the hypocrisy any more…”
Jean also points out that many local artisans helped build the Nearings’ new home, but Helen didn’t give them credit in a documentary by Bullfrog Films, “instead proclaiming it to be a one-man, one-woman house. It was pure myth, the concept of Super Couple, and Helen was unabashedly promoting it, at the expense of the real workers of the world.” This self-promotion was unnecessary, says Jean, because of “what they had already accomplished, the inspiration they were still providing people on a daily basis was truly remarkable. Why did they need to create a myth when realty would have done quite well?” Jean says that their later book, Continuing the Good Life, is more truthful.
Most inconsistent, according to Jean, is Scott’s training as an economist and his lack of reliable figures for living the good life; and his denouncement of unearned income, but his and Helen’s considerable unearned income. She reports that the Nearings’ highbush blueberry operation failed to recover the start-up and maintenance costs even after two decades. Even more enlightening in regard to living the simple life is the income that Scott received from Social Security, insurance annuities and a trust fund, and that Helen received from Social Security and a legacy from a former suitor.
I have been told that some of the details in Jean Hay Bright’s book are inaccurate. Jean describes a memorial service for Helen at the Common Ground Fair as “impromptu,” for instance, when it was actually planned. (Perhaps Jean meant that some people at the service gave short, impromptu speeches at the allotted time for that.) Other details relating to memorial services, obituaries and family interactions have been disputed. And stronger editing would have made the story flow better. Still, Jean has provided a personal glimpse of an important time in Maine’s history. Her book serves as inspiration to those who may want to cultivate their own version of the good life, as Jean and Keith successfully did – until their divorce, and even afterward, as Jean continued to farm; it raises awareness in the reader of the humanity of some of the near-cult figures who lived on Cape Rosier in the ‘70s; and it more than sufficiently acknowledges the good works that the Nearings did. Jean seems to be asking all of us to follow the Nearings’ mantra: “Do the best you can in the place that you are, and be kind.” And tell the truth.
-- J E
Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener -- June-August 2004
A Note about Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life
My review in the March-May MOF&G said that some of the details in Jean Hay Bright's book Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life were inaccurate. I have since learned that the details were either accurate as Hay Bright presented them, so inconsequential as to be irrelevant, or a simple difference of opinion or point of view. I apologize if my review led readers to believe these issues were serious and/or numerous, and I apologize to Hay Bright if my review cast a shadow of inaccuracy over her book. That characterization is not justified or warranted.
-- J E
Other Book Reviews for "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life"!
WomenWriters.Net, June 2004
Maine Sunday Telegram (Portland Press Herald), January 18, 2004
Rutland Herald and Times-Argus in Vermont December 13, 2003
Penobscot Bay Press, Dec. 4, 2003
Amazon.com Review, Nov. 25, 2003
Ellsworth American, Nov. 20, 2003
Bangor Daily News, Nov. 17, 2003
Author Susan Hand Shetterly, Oct. 23, 2003
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