“In Heaven’s name, Hollingsworth,” cried I, getting angry, and glad to be angry, because so only was it possible to oppose his tremendous concentrativeness and indomitable will, “cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours?” “Be with me,” said Hollingsworth, “or be against me! There is no third choice for you.”—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)
Scott Nearing lived to be 100 years old. One would be hard pressed to find a single progressive twentieth-century cause that he did not advocate at one time or another. Nearing participated in the labor movement, pacifism, socialism, the woman’s liberation movement, civil rights, communism, and, for the second half of his life, environmentalism, organic farming, and the natural health movement. He also found time to write over fifty books, hundreds of pamphlets and articles, and a novel. He was a religious virtuoso who had a habit of getting himself kicked out of institutions. In 1915, Scott Nearing, then a professor of Economics, was fired from the University of Pennsylvania for protesting against child labor; in 1917, he was fired from the University of Toledo for protesting against the First World War; and in 1930, he was expelled from the Communist Party for writing a book contradicting Lenin and suggesting that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic power.
Making Scott Nearing toe the party line, any party line, was a difficult task. “Although collectivism is part of his creed,” one journalist observed, “try as he will to cooperate with his fellow men, he cannot play the party man. Neither the Right nor the Left has been able to make him conform.” It is likely that Scott Nearing’s first marriage to feminist and woman’s rights activist, Nellie Seeds, ended in large part because he could not compromise his ideals for anyone. When he found their lifestyle too opulent he gave away almost all his clothes, began dressing very simply and eating a Spartan vegetarian diet out of nothing but the same wooden bowl and spoon—this, in protest against his own family. Not surprisingly, Scott Nearing’s single-mindedness made him awkward socially. “He abhorred gossip and small talk, avoiding commonplace trivia,” wrote Helen; “he was not an easy or avid conversationalist.” Scott saw most friendliness as a form of affectation, which he disapproved of as much as “dancing and dress clothes.” Although Helen had religious virtuoso tendencies, it took a while for Scott to convert her to radicalism. “There were times,” she later wrote in her memoir, “when he had to poke or pull me along toward his own rare intense level of dedication.”
Like Scott Nearing, Helen Knothe came from a wealthy northeastern family. As a young woman, she looked forward to a career as a concert violinist. Knothe was, as she said, artistic and musical. She had lived in Europe for years, spoke several languages, and was well versed in Eastern mysticism and the occult. She had studied for a number of years under the Indian guru Jiddu Krishnamurti. Helen Knothe had a serious side, but she was for the most part a fun-loving, spontaneous, free spirit. She once, on impulse, flung herself off to Australia to join a commune. By contrast, Scott Nearing’s obsessive-compulsive personality was legendary. He told his friend Upton Sinclair that he could stay in his summer cottage for as long as he wanted, but he could not touch any of his tools as they “might be mislaid.” Helen once jokingly exclaimed, “I bet you even fold up your toilet paper neat and square.” He confessed that he did. Scott Nearing had a lifelong love affair with order. Carefree Helen Knothe nevertheless fell in love with him. She was in her mid-twenties. He was in his mid-forties. “For more than fifty years,” she remembered, “my life was Scott-centered.” They were not officially married until 1948, however, when Nellie Seeds died, leaving Scott Nearing a widower.
To say that Scott Nearing was at a low point in his life in 1928 would be an understatement. He had recently separated from his first wife, his professional career was over (he had now been fired by two universities), journals declined his articles, and he was broke. Knothe and Nearing’s first years together were tough, made worse by the onset of the Great Depression. After living in a cold-water flat in New York’s Lower East Side for a few years, they became thoroughly disillusioned with American society. They concluded that they were living in a social order based upon perverse values: competition, acquisition, conspicuous consumption, aggression, and war-making. Theirs was a society that butchered for food and murdered “for sport and power.” They resolved to emancipate themselves from American society on ethical grounds: “The closer we have to come to this social order the more completely are we a part of it. Since we reject it in theory, we should, as far as possible, reject it also in practice. On no other basis can theory and practice be unified.” They fixed upon moving back to the land as the only viable solution. Thus, in 1932, Helen Knothe and Scott Nearing moved to rural Vermont, purchased a derelict farm with what little money they had left, and began the herculean task of creating a self-sufficient homestead out of a patch of tired New England soil.
“Sentiment without action,” Edward Abbey once said, “is the ruin of the soul.” The Nearings could not have agreed more. In their manifesto, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World (1954), they contended that as long as theory was divorced from practice it did violence to the soul by dividing “the personality against itself.” “The most harmonious life,” they argued, “is one in which theory and practice are unified.” “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.”
Since they disapproved of all these “forms of exploitation” they could not in good conscience enjoy any of the spoils. The Nearings claimed that they had tried to live an ethical life in an urban setting and found it impossible. Invariably they encountered the same obstacles: “complexity, tension, strain, artificiality, and heavy overhead costs.” It was, they maintained, “virtually impossible to counter city pressures and preserve physical health, mental balance and social sanity through long periods of city dwelling.” More importantly, the costs of living in the city “were payable only in cash, which had to be earned under conditions imposed upon one by the city—for its benefit and advantage.” As long as they remained in the city they would be more or less in “the system’s clutches,” helpless cogs in an “impersonal, implacable, merciless machine operated to make rich men richer and powerful men more powerful.”
The Nearings insisted that they were doing more than merely saving their own souls when they left the city; they were not “shirking obligations” or “seeking to escape.” They adamantly maintained that their errand into the wilderness was a political act; life on Forest Farm was an argument: the personal was altogether political. “We believed that we could make our contribution to the good life more effectively in a pre-industrial, rural community than in one of the great urban centers.” As the Nearings saw it, their first major contribution was to stop adding to the problem; their second was to prove that it was possible to live a harmless life, by creating a viable alternative to America’s wasteful lifestyle.
The Nearings argued that people could save the planet by living simply and conscientiously. Many of those who had become disillusioned with political change in the early 1970s found this message empowering. “I read, in 1976, Living the Good Life,” wrote one follower, “and then saw you shortly thereafter speaking in Boston. It was during this time, and directly due to you, that I became absolutely clear that I as a single individual . . . could accomplish whatever I set out to do. And what I set out to do was to participate in the healing of the planet.” “Up to this time,” she added, “I had thought that I hadn’t nearly enough of the ‘stuff’ it would take to achieve this. I made it too lofty a goal for myself by placing it only in the hands of those who apparently had large amounts of ‘power and influence.’” “You have shown,” enthused another, “that actions speak louder than words. Doing is more important than knowing and knowledge which cannot be translated into action is of little worth.” By removing themselves to the wilderness and teaching by example the Nearings were perhaps unknowingly continuing a long New England tradition—they were building a city on a hill. But this city on a hill was adamantly anti-city.
The Nearings raised a stone house with their own hands and named their Vermont homestead Forest Farm. “We were not young,” they would later write, “but we were adventurous.” Within a couple of years, they were almost completely self-sufficient, living off of the vegetables and fruits they grew on the farm and describing outsiders as “visitors from the outside world.” When nearby Stratton Mountain developed into a popular ski resort virtually overnight in the early 1950s, the Nearings relocated to Maine. Tellingly, however, the Maine homestead was also called Forest Farm, highlighting the fact that “Forest Farm” was an idea and not a specific place; it was an ecologically conscious way of life that unified theory and practice.
Living the Good Life (1954) was the memoir of Helen and Scott’s two-decade-long (1932-1952) Vermont project, a manifesto published on the centenary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). Comparisons were made almost immediately, with journalists often referring to the Nearings’ book as the Walden of the twentieth century. Although sometimes resenting the comparison, the Nearings did much to encourage it. They quoted from Walden at length in Living the Good Life and had clearly been inspired by Thoreau. Regardless, the Nearings had no pretensions to originality. “We were trying out a life style,” they wrote in 1979, “that was not new in history, but was new in our generation.”
The Nearings’ commitment to the ecological logic of individual responsibility was not born full-grown; they grew into it. Over the years the gulf between their private lives and public lives narrowed, as every aspect of their existence succumbed to the gravitational pull of their ideals. They eventually, for instance, boycotted all of the food-oriented holidays. On Christmas and Thanksgiving, when most Americans made merry, the Nearings fasted. “We do it,” Helen Nearing wrote in 1980, “as a protest against the folly of feasting, against the national gluttony of overfed people overeating.” Feast days were obscene in “a world where there are people who are starving”—“in a world where there is enough to go around, but it is not shared equally.”
Life at Forest Farm became a spectacle, a political act, from the food the Nearings ate to the house they lived in; even their lithe physically fit bodies became prooftexts and arguments for their way of life. “The whole of our lives so far has been our message,” Helen Nearing wrote in 1995. The rural utopia described in Living the Good Life (1954) became a veritable new frontier in the minds of many of the environmentally conscious youth that came of age in the 1970s. Much like the frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner envisioned a century ago, homesteading came to be seen as an ever-present possibility, a comforting thought; a potential escape route from the complexities of modern life; something to fantasize about on a bad day. It was a pressure valve that provided for the safe and largely apolitical release of the socially disaffected. Rather than mobilize politically in the urban centers to push for structural change, idealists were encouraged to withdraw from politics, remove to the country, and live a self-sufficient existence. Even if most of those who entertained the homesteading fantasy never actually moved back to the land, the idea that they could had a powerful effect on the imagination of a generation of ecologically-conscious North Americans.
The Nearings became countercultural celebrities in the 1970s. Forest Farm, in turn, became a sacred place. A trip to Forest Farm became de rigueur for many young homesteaders. World Forum claimed in 1973 that “visiting them” was “like a pilgrimage.” Forest Farm became “a shrine for the faithful;” “a Mecca for people attracted to living a sane and simple life close to the land.” “Every year,” declared Booklegger magazine, “hundreds of young people, long-haired and knap-sacked, make the journey to the Nearings’ Forest Farm at Harborside. They leave with renewed vision.” Advertisements appeared in hippie homesteading magazines such as: “Leaving for the Nearings on the 25th. Have room for two.”
The Nearings’ fame was at least partly due to the popular press. Journalists regularly constructed antecedents for the counterculture. In 1970, the Buffalo Evening News declared that Scott “was a dropout from society 40 years before it was ‘in,’” while The Nation said of the Nearings—“Whether they know it or not, they are by way of becoming an ‘in’ couple.” About a half a year later, the New York Times ran an article on the Nearings entitled, “They Lived Today’s Ideas Yesterday.” They would eventually be touted as “the elder statesmen” of the homesteading movement and “The Counter Culture’s Pioneers.” Establishing their credentials as the bona fide forerunners of the homesteading movement, the Boston Herald American wrote, “Scott and Helen Nearing [had] already had their fill of a fledgling rat race . . . long before the world heard of ‘hippies,’ when Timothy Leary was still in knee pants.” Harold Henderson was blunter: “they left the city well before doing so became fashionable.” Thus, after years of obscurity, Helen and Scott Nearing became countercultural celebrities; as People magazine put it, “the Nearings suddenly became chic radicals.”
Pilgrims to Forest Farm regularly employed explicitly religious language to describe their experience at the seaside homestead. As if they had just returned from a visit to Machu Picchu or Chartres Cathedral, Mark Jackson and Karen Roberts recalled their demeanor: “Speaking in guarded whispers, we felt as if we were on sacred ground, blessed to be there.” “Art in twentieth-century America has many forms,” declared another, “and I view the Nearing homestead as one of them.”
The Nearings were personally revered just as much as (if not more than) their work of art, Forest Farm. In an article chronicling the activities of a homesteading conference, Jack Aley claimed that many homesteaders “worship Scott Nearing as a living folk hero” and refer to him colloquially as “the seer.” He noted that a solemn silence prevailed when Scott addressed the crowd of 2,000 young people at the conference, and that “several young women close to the speaker’s platform had beatific smiles on their faces.”
Ellie Thurston believed that she was in the presence of a holy woman when she met Helen Nearing for the first time: “I began to feel a little shy,” she confessed, “or maybe awe-struck is the word, as we followed the famous Helen Nearing into her very simple, wood-heated kitchen.” “I just couldn’t help but feel somewhat humble,” averred Thurston, “in the presence of the very Mother of the homesteading movement.” She maintained that the Nearings were “practically the founders of today’s ever-growing back-to-the-land movement.” “The name Nearing,” Thurston observed, “is a household word among young back-to-the-landers, with the significance that the name Sigmund Freud would have in psychological circles.” “They’ve been referred to,” she added, “as the “senior gurus” of the homesteading movement.”
Visitors reported feeling spiritually transformed after spending time at Forest Farm. Mary Beth Fielder and her companion were filled with something akin to religious ecstasy after a day with the Nearings. Fielder described the experience in a letter to Helen. “After saying goodbye we stopped at a beach a few miles down the road and as the clouds changed color over the ocean we cried, laughed and prayed that we, like you, would have the courage and perseverance to bring our inner visions into reality.”
For Alice Ellison, visiting Forest Farm was a redemptive experience and an important catalyst for personal growth: “meeting you and seeing your beautiful home have helped me to make some solid changes in my own life. . . . You have touched me profoundly.” Likewise, Sharon Watson wrote, “Since being with you I have been rethinking my garden, diet and general way of life . . . . It is wonderful to see a place where life is in such harmony and that feels so true and balanced. This is what I want in my life.” If mankind is “to work harmoniously together” for a better future, averred Robert Brown, we must all take heed of “your living example.” What is striking about these sentiments is how thoroughly apolitical they are. A pilgrimage to Forest Farm led to introspection and guilt-ridden repentance, not political action.
The Nearing homestead was at times so overrun with long-haired onlookers that it took on the appearance of a countercultural theme park for the ecologically conscious. On these days organic farming was transformed into a spectator sport. Ellie Thurston described one of these particularly crowded days: “300 people crowded in and around the garden, cameras flashing, movie film rolling, tape recorders humming,” while “Scott leaned on his hoe” and preached the gospel of homesteading. Commenting on the pilgrimage phenomenon at the end of the decade, the Nearings remarked, “Before we moved from Vermont to Maine, the trickle of visitors had become a stream. During the next years in Maine it became a flood.
By the 1970s the number of visitors, by head count, has ranged between 2,000 and 2,500 in the course of a year. It often reached dozens in a day.” Most pilgrims arrived, like Sheila and Richard Garrett, “uninvited and unannounced,” counting upon the Nearings’ open-house policy. They were “come-seers,” and like everyone else, they were welcomed, fed, and invited to join in the work of the day or do nothing—provided that they did not get in the way of those who were working, especially the Nearings. Irrespective of these restrictions, the number of visitors continued to grow and the situation became so overwhelming that in 1976 they were forced to put up a sign which indicated that they would only receive guests from three to five o’clock in the afternoon. Even this arrangement became too much to bear, and so, in 1978, they forbade any visitors from showing up without prior notice via the mail (the Nearings, of course, did not have a telephone). They even declared 1978 a “sabbatical” year. The Nearing Edict of 1978 was not altogether successful. Many of the faithful continued to show up unannounced. The decree did, however, significantly curtail the exhausting ritual.
The Nearings worried that the lax cultural values of the 1970s might be fundamentally incompatible with the austerity of the homesteading life. They admired the pilgrims’ idealism, but found their work ethic wanting. As Helen Nearing once put it, many came to Forest Farm, but few stayed: “They said we worked too hard. They wanted to lie in a hammock and discuss the Good Life.” Most homesteaders refused to submit to the Nearings’ highly regimented lifestyle, preferring a more relaxed pace. They also dissented from the Nearings’ tee-totaling ways as well as their aversion to swearing. Scott Nearing actually resigned from the advisory board of the War Resisters League when the word “shit” appeared in the League’s magazine. The Nearings abhorred “dances and beer parties.” They were exactly the sort of “puritanical, sour, righteous” Old Left radicals that Charles A. Reich contrasted with the free-spirited radicals of the counterculture in The Greening of America (1970).
To the young people who visited them, many of the Nearings’ pet peeves seemed old-fashioned, dated relics from a bygone era. The Nearings’ moralism vis-à-vis health and the body, however, made them positively au courant. “It is unnecessary for us to say,” the Nearings once declared, “that the difference between good health and bad is the difference between the success and failure of almost any long-term human project.” In Living the Good Life, the Nearings quoted (favorably) an English medical doctor named G. T. Wrench who likened disease to a “censor” that “pointed out” those errant individuals whose lifestyles were “faulty.” Ellie Thurston found this attitude to be widespread among the leaders of the homesteading movement. At one homesteading convention, she wrote, “I couldn’t help but speak up in defense of falling ill occasionally—some of the diehards honestly seem to think homesteaders are immune to any kind of disease because of our ‘healthful’ way of life.”
The analogies used to differentiate The Good Life from its opposite frequently revolved around notions of purity, hygiene and cleanliness. One follower tellingly described the Nearings as “a clear stream in a polluted river.” In the emerging moral economy of health and wellness of the 1970s, to be a vegetarian and a nonsmoker, to eat organic food and drink water from a spring, was not simply to be living a healthful life, it was to be pure, clean, undefiled, unpolluted, and in a certain important sense, righteous and good. Much of this moralism comes through in Helen Nearing’s cookbook, Simple Food for the Good Life (1980), which Food & Wine magazine described as, “The funniest, crankiest, most ambivalent cookbook you’ll ever read.” In the book’s lengthy diatribe against the eating of meat, Helen Nearing describes the “savage” and “repulsive” custom of consuming “putrefying corpses” as “unethical” and “unhygienic,” and expresses disgust at “the ghoulish practice of making . . . stomachs the burial ground for dead bodies.” It was this holier-than-thou tone that most bothered socialist critic Jigs Gardner about the Nearings: “They make people feel like sinners by endowing what one would think of as neutral acts—eating, for instance—with a strongly moral tone.” “Without directly saying so,” Scott Nearing “makes you feel like an epicene degenerate for enjoying [white] bread.” “Moralism,” averred Gardner, “lurks everywhere in the militant Simple Liver’s world: I’m better than you are because I’m a vegetarian . . . or because I wear old clothes, and so on and so on . . . . Using a woodstove, growing a vegetable garden . . . entitle one to a feeling of sanctimonious superiority to the mass of yahoos out there in suburban Consumerland.” What Gardner grasped was that the Nearings saw all of these personal lifestyle choices in explicitly moral terms. Consider, for instance, how Scott Nearing dealt with the death of his son, John Scott. In 1976, John Scott died of a heart attack. He was 71 years old. Though he was asked, Scott refused to attend his son’s funeral. Sitting out the funeral was, he claimed, a protest against his son’s unhealthy lifestyle. He went so far as to write a nasty letter to his dead son’s daughter, which, in essence, maintained that her father got what he deserved.
The Nearings’ intolerance toward physical weakness grew more marked with age as they began to take full credit for their undeniably impressive vitality. Continuing the Good Life (1979) was full of references to their health: “We homesteaded in Vermont for nineteen years without having a family doctor. We have homesteaded in Maine for more than twenty-five years equally free of permanent medical advice because we have been chronically well.”
The Nearings came to view their “abounding health” as an act of the will, a conscious choice, rather than as a fortuitous byproduct of both their healthy lifestyle and their ample good fortune. When a doctor friend proposed that Scott Nearing begin receiving monthly vitamin B12 injections, he responded curtly: “If I did this I would be trying to prolong my life under medical supervision for the rest of my life. Thank you, but I would rather die much earlier than follow such a course. . . . If I cannot stay well by a normal diet and temperate living, the sooner I die the better for me and the society of which I am a member.” There is in this statement—and most of the Nearings’ thoughts on health and wellness—an echo of Scott Nearing’s onetime interest in eugenics. In The Super Race: An American Problem (1912), he declared that the “perpetuation of hereditary defect [was] infinitely worse than murder.” “The murderer,” he argued, “robs society; the mentally defective parent curses society, both in the present and in the future, with the taint of degeneracy. The murderer takes away a life; but the feeble-minded parent passes on to the future the seeds of racial decay.” We must, Scott Nearing concluded, do everything in our power to ensure that the “scum of society” do not have children.
For most of the 1970s, when the homesteading movement was in full bloom, Scott Nearing was in his nineties and Helen Nearing was in her seventies. Yet they continued to build houses out of stone with their bare hands, dig sizable ponds with shovels, maintain a massive garden virtually all year round, cut and split all their own firewood, and do physical work on a daily basis that regularly exhausted young people in their twenties. The Nearings’ vitality granted legitimacy to their way of life among the health conscious. “Your health,” one homesteader declared, “is evidence of how successful your outlook on life can make you physically as well as mentally.” Their bodies had with age become arguments and prooftexts for their way of life.
The Nearings used their age and remarkable health to browbeat and belittle homesteaders (usually ex-homesteaders) who publicly pointed out the difficulties and physical discomfort associated with moving back to the land. For instance, the March 1979 issue of Country Journal contained a number of letters to the editor from crestfallen homesteaders who had tried their best, failed, given up, and moved back to the city. Helen Nearing responded to these letters in the following edition with derision: “Scott and I know it is hard work subsisting by your own sweat on a homestead. We’ve done it for half a century, but who’s crying?” “Not we,” she crowed. “If we oldsters can stand it, what’s wrong with your various authors that they should creep back to the protection of the city? What’s all this grousing about hard work . . . .? Scott, at ninety-six, enjoys it. ‘Good exercise,’ he says. ‘Keeps the blood boiling.’”
The Nearings responded with anything but sympathy when homesteaders complained that being back to the land in the middle of a bitterly cold winter could be miserable. One homesteader, suffering from chronically cold feet, wrote to the Nearings quite clearly looking for consolation and advice. Helen Nearing responded callously, practically blaming the woman for her condition: “It seems to us that your circulation is probably inadequate. We’ve lived in New England through more than 40 years’ worth of subzero winters, and neither Scott nor I have ever suffered from chronically cold feet. In fact, I often pad around on our stone floors—in the dead of winter—barefoot!”
There was something almost monstrous about Helen and Scott Nearing. Their idealism was all-consuming. This was especially true of Scott Nearing. He loved teaching: yet he engaged in activities that led to his dismissal from two different universities. He thought child labor and the First World War were wrong—and he was going to protest against them, come what will. Scott Nearing loved Communism: yet he wrote a book contradicting Vladimir Lenin and suggesting that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic power. That book resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party. He thought, at the time, that certain aspects of Soviet foreign policy were wrong, and he was going to say so, come what will. The Communist Left turned its back on Nearing in the 1930s; but he did not turn his back on the Soviet Union. Scott Nearing defended Stalin well into the 1950s, long after the American Left had repudiated him. One can only assume that he loved his son John: yet he was willing to sacrifice even this love on the altar of his idealism. Scott Nearing disowned his own son because he disapproved of his politics and his eating habits.
How are we, who are not consumed by similar passions, to make sense of people like Helen and Scott Nearing? How are we to make sense of these lovers of discomfort and discord? The Nearings took the logic of individual responsibility to many of its more radical conclusions. In their personal lives and in their little City on a Hill, Forest Farm, we can see so much of the beauty and ugliness of the purpose driven life.
—John Faithful Hamer