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Books & Authors: Reconsidering Helen and Scott Nearing

December 13, 2003


MEANWHILE, NEXT DOOR TO THE GOOD LIFE, by Jean Hay Bright. (BrightBerry Press, 370 pp., $20, paper)

During the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, the most influential book for many New England homesteaders was "Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World," by Helen and Scott Nearing.

Originally published in 1954, while the Nearings were farming in Vermont, the book detailed the Nearings’ philosophy of simple living and described how they had learned to live a balanced, self-sufficient life supported by the fruits of their own labor.

For Jean Hay Bright, an Ohio native, and her first husband, Keith, the book was a revelation.

"’Living the Good Life’ seemed to have been written just for us,” writes Hay Bright in this engaging memoir of her neighbors. “Getting away from the crowds, living in the woods, figuring it all out and pulling it all together, sounded like an exciting challenge,” she adds. “If we decided to follow suit, we would be 20th century pioneers, in the true wild west sense of the word – pack everything we owned into the Volkswagen van and head north into the wilderness."

Helen Knothe Nearing, (1903-1994), an accomplished violinist, and Scott Nearing, (1883-1983), an academic economist known for his radical views, came to Vermont in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. They bought a rundown farm at Pike’s Falls, near Winhall, and were determined to create a life of simplicity by raising their own food and living – in other ways – off the land. They built a stone house by hand, earned money from maple sugaring, lived frugally, and wrote and lectured whenever they could about the virtues of communal living, peace and a vegan diet. Vermont folks weren’t impressed.

"Twenty years later, tired of the local hostility toward their odd ideas, the Nearings packed up their Puritan work ethic and set out for Maine to start the process all over again," recalls Hay Bright in the opening pages of "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life."

By 1971, when Hay Bright and her husband headed north, the Nearings had become icons of the homesteading movement. "Forest Farm," their home on Penobscot Bay in Harborside, had become a Mecca visited each year by hundreds of back-to-the-land pilgrims. The total that year stood at 1,371.

Hay Bright and her husband, a Vietnam veteran, were then in their mid-twenties. Helen Nearing was 69 and Scott Nearing was 88. But despite the age difference, Helen Nearing was immediately drawn to the young couple.

"She wanted to know all about us – how long we had been married, what we thought of the war, where we were looking for land, if we planned to have any kids," writes Hay Bright.

Soon afterwards the Nearings sold the couple a 30-acre portion of "Forest Farm" for $2,000. The property was situated between the Nearing farmhouse and a 60-acre section previously sold by the Nearings to young Eliot Coleman, (who later authored the popular gardening books, "The New Organic Grower," "Four Season Harvest"), and his then wife, Sue.

"In all, the Nearings sold pieces of … (the farm) … to only a handful of people. Over the decades some other chunks were sectioned off by those new owners to a few of their friends, resulting in about a dozen houses, cabins and homesteads being built along the mile of road frontage of what had been the Nearings’ original farm," writes Hay Bright.

A former reporter for the Bangor Daily News, Hay Bright is the author of two previous books, "Proud to Be a Card-Carrying, Flag-Waving, Patriotic American Liberal," and "A Tale of Dirty Ticks: Susan Collins V. Public Record," which is a behind-the-scenes look at the 1996 U.S. Senate race in Maine.

During her homesteading days, Hay Bright saw that what the Nearings said and wrote could not always be taken as gospel.

"Undoubtedly they were principled human beings, and they wore their principles firmly and resolutely," she writes.

(But) … "That self-assuredness and confidence and worldliness and stubbornness that drew so many people in – they were, after all, living proof that it was possible to beat the system – made it all the harder to understand the inconsistencies that kept cropping up."

For example, the Nearings were against the owning of pets, dairy or meat animals, yet they used draft horses to plow or haul maple sugar, and Helen kept a cat. Scott railed against "animal slavery," but used cruel steel-jaw leghold-traps to rid his blueberry patch of wild creatures.

Hay Bright says she wrote "Meanwhile Next Door," in part, to set the record straight so that novices trying to follow the Nearings’ precepts would not become discouraged.

The Nearings’ famous "4-4-4" plan, for example, testified that they generally tried to spend four hours each day laboring for their bread, four hours on intellectual work, and four hours socializing. That was their formula for a full, balanced life.

"We did (manage to make a living), but not on four hours a day," Hay Bright said in a recent interview.

The lack of a steady paycheck meant that many idealistic homesteaders ended up spending most of their time working for bread. The Nearings, however, possessed economic resources that enabled them to live as they wished.

"Although they budgeted carefully, did grow a lot of their food, worked hard and didn’t spend much money, it was banks, stocks, annuities, monetary gifts, inheritances and unearned income from other people’s labor that kept Scott and Helen going …as far back as the early sugaring days in Vermont," writes Hay Bright.

Living off the land wasn’t easy, but Hay Bright, a former steward of the Good Life Center in Harborside, an organization dedicated to perpetuating the Nearings’ philosophy, has no regrets.

"The Nearings were incredibly inspirational. It was an amazing time of my life," she said.

Melissa MacKenzie writes about books and authors for Vermont Sunday Magazine.

Copyright 2003 Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus



Other Book Reviews for "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life"!


WomenWriters.Net,  June 2004

Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, March-May 2004

Maine Sunday Telegram (Portland Press Herald), January 18, 2004

Penobscot Bay Press, Dec. 4, 2003 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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