The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living

A wonderful book about living on the land with concrete suggestions. The Nearings went to the woods to live deliberately in 1932, refugees from New York City, first spending 20 years homesteading in Vermont before the region changed due to a ski slope opening up nearby, then heading to Maine near Penobscot Bay for the remainder of their days. Scott is 95 in the last book in this collection, hearty and hale, chopping away and building and thriving on their near-vegan diet. Probably worth buying this book for the bibliography alone, pages and pages of recommended future reading.

The books (Living the Good Life, pub’d 1954, and Continuing the Good Life, pub’d 1979) give heaps of practical advice to anyone headed out to build their own stone house, wrest their entire food source from an organic garden, make their own compost, raise cash crops of blueberries (Maine) or tap maple trees for syrup (Vermont). For those of us not willing or able to shift our lives to the wilderness, there are plenty of tips on focusing on health by eating right and living simply.

It’s easy to see why the 1954 book was picked up by the Whole Earth Catalog as a recommendation, especially with representative samples like this one: “What we did feel and what we still assert is that it is worthwhile for the individual who is rejected by a disintegrating urban community to formulate a theory of conduct and to put into practise a program of action which will enable him or her to live as decently as possible under existing circumstances.” They call life in cities a “dying acquisitive culture” and suggest that the power resides in all of us to make the best, creative, purposeful life that we can, living outside a cash-flow society as much as possible.

The effect of the Whole Earth Catalog recommendation is clear—the trickle of visitors they had in Vermont turned into a flood in Maine. Occasionally it brought them lasting friends, like the guy who biked there from Ohio having read Living the Good Life and wanting to know what they were up to in Maine. Bretton Brubaker, a cabinetmaker, ended up being the master carpenter on their Maine house. They sold parts of their land off to other promising couples, but for the most part it sounds like the invasion was annoying, no matter how politely they write about it. “Never before in our lives have we met so many unattached, uncommitted, insecure, uncertain human beings.” By 1976 they had to put a sign up saying they were only open for visitors between 3-5pm and in 1978 they declared a sabbatical so they had time to work on the book and other projects. “As we near the century mark of our lives we find we must limit our contribution to part-time.”

Sample meal: their own herb teas and fruit for breakfast, soup and grains for lunch, salad and a cooked vegetable and applesauce for supper, sometimes adding seeds or nuts to breakfast or tofu/cottage cheese to supper. Meals at 7, noon, and 6 o’clock.