Maine Sunday Telegram
January 18, 2004
Page 8E Books
Fascinating look back at Nearings,
By Lloyd Ferris
Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life
By Jean Hay Bright,
BrightBerry Press, 370 pages, $20
In an era when new Maine residents buy $150,000 houses and arrive with vans full of stuff, it’s hard to imagine the hardscrabble homesteading movement that accounted for so much of the state’s in-migration three decades ago.
The couples of that era – and they were usually couples – made their Maine entry in beat-up Volkswagens or other old cars. After buying 20 or 30 acres for a few thousand in cash, they set about clearing trees and building houses. Then they grew food and tried living like 19th-century pioneers.
Hardly a decade after it had begun, the homestead movement collapsed in an epidemic of divorces and flight from poverty. But while it lasted in this state and others, the inspiration for countless back-to-the-landers were Scott and Helen Nearing of Cape Rosier.
Now Jean Hay Bright has written a fascinating insider’s view of both homesteading and the complex and quirky Nearings, who promoted their rural self-sufficiency in their books and by counseling thousands of drop-in visitors.
Hay’s book, "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life," depicts the Nearings as courageous and hard-working, yet not entirely honest about family money and other funds that kept their experiment afloat.
As a writer, Hay has impeccable credentials for writing about homesteading, and exploding the Nearing myth.
In 1971, while still in her early 20s and working as a clerk for the Providence Journal, Hay and her then-husband Keith visited the Nearings at Cape Rosier. They had read the Nearings’ 1954 book, "Living the Good Life," and came to Maine in search of land for homesteading.
Keith, a Vietnam veteran whose short hair and shaved face set him apart from the hoard of other Nearing drop-ins, split wood with Scott that afternoon. Helen Nearing took an immediate interest in Hay. Two weeks later, Hay was astonished when the Nearings offered them 30 acres of land for homesteading, at only a few thousand dollars.
They had not asked the Nearings for land, nor had they thought of asking.
Within months Hay left her job t the Providence Journal and joined her husband, already clearing land and building their house. She became a close friend to Helen Nearing; serving over the years as Nearing house-sitter, personal secretary and sometimes confidant.
As the Nearings’ neighbors, the Hays’ barn-like yet attractive owner-built house abutted property owned by Eliot Coleman and his first wife, Susan. Eliot Coleman went on to write "The New Organic Grower" and other popular gardening books.
In her book, Hay describes in detail the challenges of goat-keeping, vegetable-growing, and eking out a living on a few thousand dollars. Despite mild disagreements with the Nearings (Hay and her husband ate meat and used a chain saw; Helen and Scott did not), the little Cape Rosier community thrived.
Then tragedy arrived.
In 1976, just as Hay was about to give birth to her second child, the Colemans’ 3-year-old daughter drowned in a shallow pond. It was one of two untimely deaths in the neighborhood.
Photographer Stanley Joseph, who bought the Nearings’ original farmhouse, committed suicide there by carbon-monoxide poisoning.
The Colemans separated and divorced. And in 1978, Hay and her first husband dissolved their marriage. By then Hay was a reporter for the Bangor Daily News.
As with so many 1970s homesteaders, their experiment passed quickly.
Although Hay continued her friendship with the Nearings right up until their deaths, she was troubled for years by inconsistencies between the way they portrayed themselves in their books and lectures compared to the way they lived.
In her search for the truth, Hay researched Nearing letters, interviewed their close friends and examined Vermont property deeds dating back to the Nearings’ initial homesteading venture in Vermont in the 1930s.
"Although they budgeted carefully, did grow a lot of their food, worked hard and didn’t spend much money," she writes, "it was banks, stocks, annuities, monetary gifts, inheritances and unearned income from other people’s labor that kept Scott and Helen going for most of their frugal homesteading lives."
Scott Nearing, according to Hay’s book, used leg-hold traps to catch critters who bothered his garden; this despite his vowed pacifism and harmless lifestyle. They claimed to follow a vegan diet – one free of both meat and dairy products. But dairy products, including ice cream, found their way into the Nearing home.
Hay’s revelations are not bitter. She admires the Nearings. At times she seems perplexed by her own findings. "Why," she writes, "did they have to create a myth when reality would have done quite well?"
I do have a couple of reservations about the book. At 370 pages, it drags at times and could have used editing.
More than 25 pages, for instance, are devoted to an 1800s diphtheria epidemic in Cape Rosier. Hay includes it to refute the idea poplar among 1970s homesteaders that vaccinating kids is unnecessary. But it’s too much.
Reprinting Nearing obituaries and memoriams, including an entire article from Yankee Magazine, is also too much.
What I would like to have seen is some analysis by Hay as to why the 1970s back-to-the-land movement crashed in a few short years. Perhaps the answer why so many left their homesteads, or became workday commuters like everyone else, lies in the discrepancy between the flawed Nearing model they tried to follow and reality.
But were there other causes, such as boredom? Or did the gulf between the easy urban upbringing of so many homesteaders, and the physically numbing work of pioneering, create a gap too wide to bridge? Informed speculation would be interesting.
Still, my criticisms are minor. Hay’s book invokes the spirit and excitement of homesteading in Maine three decades ago. And by gently removing the superhero myth that surrounded the Nearings, Hay performs a valuable service by setting the record straight.
Lloyd Ferriss is a free-lance writer from Richmond.
Other Book Reviews for "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life"!
WomenWriters.Net, June 2004
Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, March-May 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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