Outdoors & Environment

Scott Nearing

by Jessica Hundley December 10, 2009
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‘The good life is never stable, never secure, never easy and never ended. It is a series of steps or stages, one leading into the other and all, in their outcome, adding, not subtracting; augmenting, not diminishing; building, not destroying; creating, not annihilating.’ – Scott Nearing, 1965

Scott Nearing (1883-1983) was an anti-war activist, radical leftist, college professor, frequently published author and well-respected economist when he left cosmopolitan life to seek out redemption through the working of the land. With his wife Helen, Scott fled from bustling New York to the fields and mountains of Vermont – searching for “the good life”, a simple way of living where self-reliance and frugality were key.

One might think the Nearings abandoned the city and went “back to the land” amid the great 1960s agrarian boom, when hippie kids everywhere were deserting suburbs and urban streets to raise goats and make cheese and cultivate organic crops  – embracing the farm as revolutionary statement.

Publication by Scott Nearing, 1914-1916

But Scott and Helen departed Manhattan intellectual circles for the green hills in the darkest days of the Great Depression, effectively pioneering a culture to come. The War Scott had protested was the First and the society he and Helen were abandoning in 1932 was one of food lines and anti-Communist propaganda. The Nearings would settle in and settle down for a few long, cold years, managing to eek out a meager living amid the brutal New England winters.

Helen and Scott Nearing in 1950. (Image by Rebecca Lefkoff)

Almost entirely self-taught, the Nearings eventually evolved into productive farmers. Their subsequent experiments would pave the way for a new way of looking at both the land and at ourselves. In an era where the use of chemical pesticides were first being put into wide practice, the Nearings turned to ancient organic growth methods. They pioneered the use of greenhouse/cold frame growing, defying New England temperatures to produce crops year round. They abandoned Western medicine in favor of holistic health. They also, in the days of steak and potatoes, embraced a low impact, raw and vegetarian diet – based around whole grains and fresh, home-grown vegetables.

In 1952 the Nearings left Vermont, escaping ski resort development, and settled in the wilds of Maine. It was soon after, in 1954, that the duo wrote their well-known book, ‘Living The Good Life‘. It documented their first 20 years of defiant outsider farming techniques and the philosophies behind their work. Part homesteader guide, part political manifesto, the book would become a Bible for a new generation of young people looking to find their own bit of freedom on the land.

Nearing gives a speech at the World Vegetarian Congress, 1975.

In the following years, the Nearings continued to farm, as well as becoming avid lecturers and authors (their nearly twenty book output cover topics such as making maple sugar, greenhouses and radicalism).

Scott, who had made living the good, low impact, low consumption, peaceful life his philosophy, went out with his belief system intact. At age 100, he made the decision to commit suicide by voluntary fasting, making his death as politically resonant as his life. “He was gone out of his body as easily as a leaf drops from the tree in autumn”, wrote Helen, “slowly twisting and falling to the ground”. Helen herself would live until 91, homesteading alone and setting up a foundation, The Good Life, which still carries on their revolutionary way of living today.

Kitchen at the Good Life Center.

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