Self-reliance has been linked with democracy in the American mind since Thomas Jefferson extolled the small farmer as the cornerstone of a free society. Thoreau sang of similar values. In our day, Scott and Helen Nearing have epitomized the best of that tradition.
Born in 1883 into a prosperous and politically conservative Pennsylvania family, Scott studied and taught economics until his increasingly radical views and his outspokenness about child labor got him fired from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
As a leading spokesman for the Socialist Party, he opposed America’s entrance into World War I. By 1920, his political views had cost him another professorship, and he had been prosecuted (unsuccessfully) under the Espionage Act for giving encouragement to draft resisters. For a short time in the late 1920’s he was a member of the American Communist Party, but was soon expelled for being too outspoken and not submitting to party discipline. Thus, by 1930, his free thinking had made him unacceptable to orthodox capitalists and Communists alike.
Around that time Scott met Helen Knothe, daughter of a prominent New Jersey manufacturer, and soon they were married. Twenty years younger than Scott, Helen was a gifted student of the violin, had traveled widely in Europe and Asia, and as an active member of the Theosophical Society was an occasional companion of religious thinkers J. Krishnamurti and Anne Besant. With Scott unable to get his writings published and often being refused permission to speak at public forums, Helen and he decided that “we would rather be poor in the country than poor in the city.” They left their cold-water flat in New York City to begin a new way of life.
In the Depression economy of the mid-1930’s they found a run-down, 73-acre farm in rural Vermont which they purchased for $300 down and an $800 mortgage. They drew up a plan, described in Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Safely in a Troubled World:
We wish to set up a semi-self-contained household unit, based largely on a use economy, and as far as possible, independent of the price-profit economy which surrounds us. . . . We would attempt to carry on this self-subsistent economy by the following steps: (1) raising as much of our own food as local soil and climatic conditions would permit; (2) bartering our products for those which we could not or did not produce; (3) using wood for fuel and cutting it ourselves; (4) putting up our own buildings with stone and wood from the place, doing the work ourselves. . . .
The Nearings sought out literature, some of which dated back several hundred years, on land care and on such nearly forgotten skills as building stone walls. They tilled the soil using only organic materials for fertilizer and developed simple but effective composting techniques. Soon they had a thriving garden which provided them with an assortment of fresh vegetables, including greens which they learned to grow virtually throughout the harsh New England Winters. They brought to life the tired old farm, developed maple syruping as a cash crop, and over the years build a number of impressive buildings, primarily from the native stone on the land.
Helen and Scott organized their daily lives so they had time not only for “bread labor” but also to pursue their intellectual, artistic, and recreational interests. They viewed their physical work not as toil but as a pleasurable and creative means to earn an honest livelihood. They preferred wherever possible to use hand tools which they felt were an extension of themselves. Well before the energy crisis, they confined their use of non-renewable fossil fuels to an occasional drive in an old truck. Their keys to good health were basic and straightforward: eating a simple vegetarian diet, breathing plenty of fresh air, doing lots of productive labor for exercise, getting to bed by 9 p.m. and awakening before sunrise, and maintaining a positive mental attitude. Their overall health improved considerably as they adapted to the rigors of homesteading. Over a half-century they scarcely had the need to call upon a doctor. Once, when asked if he had life insurance, Scott replied with a chuckle, “No, I practice it.” Only when Scott’s body literally wore down from old age and he was confined to a wheelchair at the age of 98 did he reluctantly give up his yearly chore of cutting six cords of firewood.
While living in Vermont and later in Maine, Scott continued to do research and to write, and over the years he and Helen published about fifty books and pamphlets themselves, as no academic or commercial press would publish his writings. He was also a regular contributor for several decades to the Monthly Review, an independent socialist journal based in New York City. During the Winters they often traveled and lectured in the United States and abroad. Over the years they visited all fifty states. Scott continued to see himself as a teacher. While denied a formal classroom, he was not constricted, for he defined a teacher as “one who seeks the truth, spreads the truth, and tries to incorporate the truth into the life of the human community.” As well as writing his political and economic treatises, Scott collaborated with Helen on a series of accounts about their homesteading experiences, beginning with the Maple Syrup Book (1951).
The Nearings learned some basic skills from their neighbors in the early years and made barter arrangements for work and produce. Attempts at other forms of cooperative endeavor did not work out. Scott eventually came to realize that most old-time Vermonters were not receptive, to put it mildly, to his leftist political thinking. The Sunday afternoon musical sessions at their home, which Helen initiated, were more successful.
In 1951, when nearby Stratton Mountain was turned into a ski resort, the Nearings moved from Vermont to Maine. They paid $7,500 for 140 acres of an overgrown farm on the central Maine coast at Harborside, overlooking Penobscot Bay. With the help of friends and neighbors, they eventually built a handsome stone house (on which Helen did all the masonry). Their home is simply furnished and has such innovative features as a “clivus multrum,” a composting toilet to recycle both human and kitchen organic waste material. The old house on the property was turned into a center for the Small Farms Research Organization which offers short courses on organic gardening.
In Maine the Nearings concentrated on learning more about soils and plant life, and finding ways for people to live more harmoniously in their natural surroundings. They continued to share their practical experiences. Scott, for example, wrote a book about greenhouse farming in the Winter without the use of artificial heating. Helen is working on a cookbook which draws upon the couple’s philosophy of eating good, healthy food — food which is “as unprocessed as possible, as fresh from the garden as possible, as little cooked as possible, and non-flesh.” The couple took on various speaking engagements, and attended conferences sponsored by such groups as the Maine Organic Farmers. At a time in their lives when most Americans are well past retirement age, they continued to be actively engaged in meaningful work. For more than 25 years they worked to convert a swampy acre on their land into a pond. They carted away more than 16,000 wheelbarrow loads of silt from the area, which they used for mulching fruit trees, for composting, and in the greenhouse. For Helen and Scott, the “tiny postage-stamp pond is a miniature reclamation project which offers us exercise in its construction, irrigation, sods, topsoil, ice to skate on in Winter and a major asset in case of fire. We began our work on the pond in 1953. Twenty-five years later we are still excavating, deepening, enlarging.”
To hear a person in his nineties talk about an ongoing 25-year project done patiently by hand is not commonplace in a society which too often renders its older people obsolete while they are still capable of productive activity.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Forest Farm, as their Maine home is called, was visited by thousands of people who read the Nearings’ books. It wasn’t always easy for the Nearings to accomodate the visitors and still maintain their daily activities. Their visitors were soon put to work. At mealtimes or around the fireplace in the evening there was time to respond to questions and sometimes a good-natured exchange of anecdotes and stories. The Nearings sold some of their land at a minimal price to several young families who had come to live and work with them.
Living the Good Life, which the Nearings first published and distributed in 1954 through their Social Science Institute Press, at best sold a few thousand copies a year. The fact that it became a best seller (more than a half-million copies) since being republished by Schocken Press in 1970 was an encouraging sign of the new interests in alternative ways of life. Scott’s political autobiography, The Making of a Radical, also sold well after being reissued by Harper and Row in 1972.
In 1973, Scott’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, which had ousted him from its faculty fifty-eight years earlier, named him honorary Professor of Economics. The citation praised him “for adhering to a belief that to seek out and to teach the truth is life’s highest aim.” Scott was also sought out for television and magazine interviews; he joked that perhaps all the attention indicated he was getting too soft in his social criticism. In any event, he claimed that some nationally prominent newspapers still refused to carry ads for his self-published Civilization and Beyond (1975).
Among those most critical of the Nearings are some political activists who say that someone committed to radical change should not have removed himself to a pastoral, rural area. Then there are lifestyle purists who say the Nearings were not completely self-sufficient; they bought some items in the store and even had an electric freezer in the cellar of their Maine home. It is also accurately pointed out that the Nearings could not have had so much personal freedom and time to travel if they had children or raised animals.
But while the Nearings sought to be as self-sufficient as possible, they did not make it a fetish. They recognized that people are interdependent and that it is appropriate to exchange some goods and services. They also recognized that their lifestyle is obviously not for everyone, and that reasonably-priced land is not nearly as available as it once was. But the principles to which they adhered — using time resourcefully, earning an honest livelihood, working cooperatively, living simple — can be applied by people anywhere.
The Nearings were perfectionists who over time learned to accept their limitation. Essentially serious-minded, they developed a sense of humor and playfulness with each other which served them well in their later years.
In the summer of 1983, at the age of 100, Scott Nearing died peacefully at his home in Maine.
From Scott Nearing’s
The Making Of A Radical: A Political Autobiography
(New York, Harper Colophon, 1972):
© Copyright Harper Colophon
Reprinted by Permission
Besides bearing and rearing her children, my mother undertook to educate them, as mining camp schools did not measure up to her standards. Having two servants who cooked, washed and cleaned, and a part-time ex-school teacher who taught us our ABC’s, my mother, instead of sending us to school, put much time into reading regularly to us — from nature books, travel and adventure stories, history, biography, novels, poetry. She read to us in the late afternoons and early evenings. Every member of the family circle had his say about what book should be read next; when there were differences of opinion a priority list was set up. We children were urged but not forced to listen. Max, the youngest, barely understood, but always joined the group. We older ones got a liberal education, with Dickens, Balzac, Scott, and Hugo. The long-time favorites of all, I remember, were Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe.
I well remember a reprimand from my father which I undoubtedly deserved: “Son, you talk too much.” And there was one memorable episode with him when I had taken part in trials for a high school debating team and was given a prize for the best three-minute speech. The next day I said to my father: “Last night I got twenty-five dollars for a three-minute talk. That is eight dollars a minute. Does your business bring you eight dollars a minute?” “No,” he replied dryly to my impudent question but added, “Your eight dollars a minute comes only once in a lifetime. While my income per minute may be less, it comes regularly.” It was at about that time that he said, “When Scott was born he opened his eyes and mouth at the same time and hasn’t closed either since.”
Tolstoy spent half a century (1860-1910) in questing, questioning, protesting, and resisting. Despite a successful and generally satisfying family life and a brilliantly successful literary career he continued asking these questions: What is truth? What must I do to get the truth across to my fellow humans? How can I live the truth?
Tolstoy approached his problem from various points of view. First on his priority list was the reduction of hardship and the prevention of suffering. Second, and equally urgent, as to end war and make peace for mankind. Third was his basic moral precept: to do no harm, to love one another. Fourth was the admonition to act decisively, to put out the fire and to do it immediately. Fifth was his technique of nonviolent resistance.
Leo Tolstoy attempted to live a good life, in and with his family, and as a good citizen of his village, town, city, state, nation and of the world. To live a good life, he felt, one must keep the commandments, the most important of which was harmlessness: thou shalt not kill. In obedience to this primary commandment Tolstoy came to believe that killing of humans should cease; that slavery should be abolished; that killing for food was not necessary; that animal slavery, like human slavery, should be ended. He was therefore a pacifist and a vegetarian.
Socially, Tolstoy’s good life involved the abolition of class and caste distinctions, education for all youth, the sharing of necessary labor, the end of exploitation, with social contacts on the broadest scale. In the course of every day the good life should consist of bread labor, of professional or technical service, and association with his fellows. By these means Tolstoy proposed to simplify his life and enrich it through an all-pervasive common touch.
His writings and his urgent motto: “Make peace, love one another,” became a guiding light to me in a darkening world. When the leaders of the major civilized western European powers directed their citizens to invade frontiers, overrun villages, desolate cities, and destroy, burn, and murder, I turned more and more to Tolstoy as my counsellor and guide. I read his works and publicized his ideas as best I could. I also endeavored to simplify my life, and eventually became like him a vegetarian, a pacifist, and a socialist.
John Ruskin best sums up what I learned from Tolstoy: “I will not kill or hurt any living creature needlessly, nor destroy any beautiful thing, but strive to save and comfort all gentle life, and guard and protect all natural beauty and order upon the earth.”
Granted that one must live, one should never cease to ask the question: live where, live how, by what means, and for what purpose? If the means or the objectives of life are sordid and base, life is not worth living nor can one maintain self respect. Knowledge must be acquired and used with right motives, and applied to speech, action, and the means of livelihood. This last is one of the tenets of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to Righteousness: “Right livelihood consists in following a trade or occupation compatible with harmlessness, and help to all living creatures.”
Book publishers and magazine editors were members of the American Oligarchy. They were not top-flight members; they held their jobs so long as they built readership, got advertising and showed profits on the investment. When I went a few years ago to a well-known publisher with a manuscript he asked me, “Will this book sell fifteen thousand copies?” He did not ask whether the statements were true or whether they would add to the happiness and well-being of the readers: his criterion was profits, and my ideas expressed on paper had no commercial values in terms of subject matter or literary workmanship; the prime criteria had become financial: “Will it pay?”
From Living The Good Life
(self-published by the Nearings in 1954 and reprinted by Schocken in 1970):
© Copyright Schocken Books
Reprinted by Permission
The value of doing something does not lie in the ease or difficulty, the probability or improbability of its achievement, but in the vision, the plan, the determination and the perseverance, the effort and the struggle which go into the project. Life is enriched by aspiration and effort, rather than by acquisition and accumulation.
Ideas of “making money” or “getting rich” have given people a perverted view of economic principles. The object of economic effort is not money, but livelihood. Money cannot feed, clothe or shelter. Money is a medium of exchange —a means of securing the items that make up livelihood. It is the necessaries and decencies which are important, not the money which may be exchanged for them. And money must be paid for, like anything else. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in Men and Books, “Money is a commodity to be bought or not to be bought, a luxury in which we may either indulge or stint ourselves, like any other.”
Our ways amused the neighbors, baffled them or annoyed them. Perhaps the most consistent and emphatic disapproval was directed against our diet. We could more easily have been accepted if we had eaten in the approved way. We ate from wooden bowls, with chopsticks, not from china plates, with forks and spoons; we ate food raw that, according to Vermont practices, should have been cooked, and we cooked weeds and outlandish things that never should be eaten at all. That we ate no meat was in itself strange; but during our entire twenty years in Vermont we never baked a pie, we seldom ate cake or cookies and almost never doughnuts. In a community which serves pie, cake and doughnuts for two if not three meals a day, conduct such as ours was not only unbelievable but reprehensible. We simply failed to live up to the accepted Vermont pattern.
To the credit of Vermont conservatism it must be said that during the two decades of our stay, after innumerable discussions and long-drawn-out arguments on the subject of white flour, white bread, white sugar, pies and pastries, the necessity for eating raw vegetables, and the revolting practice of consuming decaying animal carcasses, no native Vermont family of our acquaintance made any noticeable change in its food habits.
We desired to get on with our neighbors, but we were not willing to conform to their patterns of living and they would not adopt ours. So we agreed to differ and made allowances for each other’s idiosyncrasies. They abode by their traditions and we planned and lived our lives un-Vermontishly.
Economically the successes achieved in the working out of the Vermont project far outweighed the failures. First and foremost, our idea of a subsistence homestead economy proved easy of realization. In exchange for a few months per year of carefully planned bread labor, we were able to provide ourselves with the bulk of our year’s food. A few weeks of work furnished our house fuel. Another few weeks provided the needed repairs and replacements on buildings, tools and equipment. Capital replacement of housing (new stone buildings for old wooden ones) was a more extensive task, involving considerable outlays of planning, time, energy, persistence, materials and capital. Once a stone building was in place, however, the yearly cost of repairs and replacements fell almost to zero.
With this provision of necessaries went an unbelievable degree of good health, which is a matter of primary importance to people aiming at economic self-sufficiency on the one hand and social reconstruction on the other. Literally, we were always well, and on the rare occasions when the approaches of a cold appeared temporarily to lower our vitality, we followed the accepted practice of the cats and dogs of the neighborhood, and stopped eating until we felt fit. It is unnecessary for us to say that the difference between good health and bad is the difference between the success and failure of almost any long-term human project.
As a means of providing a subsistence household with the cash necessary to buy out the market, to shop from one end of a mail order catalog to another or to provide the family with endless comforts, conveniences, labor-saving gadgets, trinkets and habit-forming drugs, our project was a dismal failure. It could not compete with the big show in the big tent of western culture. But if treated as a venture in economic self-containment and an experiment in economy, frugality, self-discipline and day-to-day training for a new way of life, our project was a real success. In that respect, we dare say that during the twenty years we spent on our Vermont enterprise we learned more things and more important things than we could have found out during twenty years in Harvard, Columbia and the University of California all rolled into one.
We would have preferred the cooperative or communal alternative, but our experience, inquiries and investigations convinced us that there were none available or functioning into which we could happily and effectively fit.
Finally, we decided on the third alternative, a self-sufficient household economy, in the country, which we would try to make solvent, efficient and satisfying. Having made this decision, our next task was to define our purposes and adjust them to the possibilities of our situation.
We were seeking an affirmation — a way of conducting ourselves, of looking at the world and taking part in its activities that would provide at least a minimum of those values which we considered essential to the good life. As we saw it, such values must include: simplicity, freedom from anxiety or tension, an opportunity to be useful and to live harmoniously. Simplicity, serenity, utility and harmony are not the only values in life, but they are among the important ideals, objectives and concepts which a seeker after the good life might reasonably expect to develop in a satisfactory natural and social environment.
Our second purpose was to make a living under conditions that would preserve and enlarge joy in workmanship, would give a sense of achievement, thereby promoting integrity and self-respect; would assure a large measure of self-sufficiency and thus make it more difficult for civilization to impose restrictive and coercive economic pressures, and make it easier to guarantee the solvency of the enterprise.
Our third aim was leisure during a considerable portion of each day, month or year, which might be devoted to avocational pursuits free from the exacting demands of bread labor, to satisfying and fruitful association with one’s fellows, and to individual and group efforts directed toward social improvement.
Our search for the good life brought us face to face with several immediate questions: Where to live the good life? How to finance the enterprise? And finally there was the central problem of how to live the good life once we had found the place and the economic means.
When we moved to Vermont we left a society gripped by depression and unemployment, falling a prey to fascism, and on the verge of another worldwide military free-for-all; and entered a pre-industrial, rural community. The society from which we moved had rejected in practice and in principle our pacifism, our vegetarianism and our collectivism. So thorough was this rejection that, holding such views, we could not teach in the schools, write in the press or speak over the radio, and were thus denied our part in public education. Under these circumstances, where could outcasts from a dying social order live frugally and decently, and at the same time have sufficient leisure and energy to assist in the speedy liquidation of the disintegrating society and to help replace it with a more workable social system?
We left the city with three objectives in mind. The first was economic. We sought to make a depression-free living, as independent as possible of the commodity and labor markets, which could not be interfered with by employers, whether businessmen, politicians or educational administrators. Our second aim was hygienic. We wanted to maintain and improve our health. We knew that the pressures of city life were exacting, and we sought a simple basis of well-being where contact with the earth, and home-grown organic food, would play a large part. Our third objective was social and ethical. We desired to liberate and dissociate ourselves, as much as possible, from the cruder forms of exploitation: the plunder of the planet; the slavery of man and beast; the slaughter of men in war, and of animals for food.
We were against the accumulation of profit and unearned income by non-producers, and we wanted to make our living with our own hands, yet with time and leisure for avocational pursuits. We wanted to replace regimentation and coercion with respect for life. Instead of exploitation, we wanted a use economy. Simplicity should take the place of multiplicity, complexity and confusion. Instead of the hectic mad rush of busyness we intended a quiet pace, with time to wonder, ponder and observe. We hoped to replace worry, fear and hate with serenity, purpose and at-one-ness.
From Helen and Scott Nearing’s
Continuing The Good Life: Half A Century Of Homesteading
(New York, Schocken Books, 1979):
© Copyright Schocken Books
Reprinted by Permission
Immediate needs for a good life are food and shelter, as a basis for survival. Beyond these basic necessaries are amenities like education, recreation and travel, which make life more satisfying and rewarding for individuals and small local groups such as families and other collectives.
We begin our listing of good life attributes with our four-four-four formula: four hours of bread labor; four hours of professional activity; and four hours dedicated to fulfilling our obligations and responsibilities as members of the human race and as participants in various local, regional, national and world civic activities.
Bread labor provides the basic essentials of living normal, healthful, serviceful lives. The work of the world must be done and we should all share in it. Professional activities enable us to specialize and contribute our mite to the world’s sum total of skills and competencies. Association enables us to share experience and knowledge with our fellow beings.
The four-four-four formula should be specific as well as general. Everyone, rich or poor, young or old, can contribute somewhat to the world’s physical work. Bread labor can and should be performed by every able-bodied human being from age 7 to 77 (though Scott at 95 is still carrying his end of the load). Bread labor should be an obligatory and honorable phase of the daily routine in which everyone can take an active part as a matter of course. This daily contribution to the work of the world will make a vigorous, self-supporting society.
The essence of life consists in living. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is to labor.”
From earliest childhood to the final insecure steps of old age, those who put the most into life get the most out of life. This applies to quantity of life and quantity of output. Theory guides; practice determines. The uniting of theory with practice provides a higher degree of assurance and promotes a more rewarding body of dependable guidance for individual and group living.
Muscles grow strong and responsive with exercise. Muscles of the spectator go flabby and shrink. This rule is equally applicable to the problems of physical function and social action.
Personally, we in our entire homesteading venture have endeavored to keep our social as well as physical muscles in shape. We tried, as a couple, and insofar as we could in groups, to set up and continue a life pattern to maintain health and sanity in a period of social insecurity, conflict, disruption and disintegration.