Books & Authors: Reconsidering Helen and Scott Nearing
December 13, 2003
BY MELISSA MACKENZIE
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
"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
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.