Helen and Scoot Nearing described how to transition from city to country living.

WINHALL, Vt. (AP) – A half-century after Helen and Scott Nearing left their stone house in Vermont behind because of encroaching civilization, a biographer who lives in a nearby town is sketching a revisionist picture of the pair.

Greg Joly is a writer and historian who is transcribing Helen Nearings’ personal papers and correspondence.

In doing so, he’s learning about another dimension of the Nearings – one that has led him to rethink his idea of the pioneering couple whose popular 1954 book, “Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World,” helped prompt a huge back-to-the-land movement.

“The way they presented it in “Living the Good Life” is different than how they lived it,” Joly said. “They had a lot more help than they give credit to.”

Helen and Scott Nearing moved from New York City to an untended farm in Winhall in 1932. She was in her 20s, he in his 40s. There, they built a small complex of stone buildings and lived for 20 years. After they left, they wrote in “Living the Good Life” of frugal, subsistence living and organic gardening; of making money from their large maple sugaring operation; and of taking equal time – in four-hour chunks every day – for “bread work,” for personal time, and for social or community activism.

They weren’t the only back-to-the-landers who wrote of the era, but that book – the first of many they wrote – stood out because it provided instructions for leaving city life behind and striking out in the wilderness, said Joly.

“It was a very pragmatic, step-by-step process, as opposed to simply a purely narrative one,” he said.

Joly, 40, discovered the Nearings in his parents’ bookshelves while he was growing up in Southampton, Mass. For a while, he said, he tried to live by their example – through farming and building a homestead.

“I liked the combination of hand labor with mental labor,” said Joly, who was first trained as a pipe organ technician and later graduated from Goddard College.

And he enjoyed living according to nature’s calendar.

“There is a lot of variety,” he said. “You’re cutting wood at a certain time of year, doing your garden at a certain time of year.”

But as he studied the Nearings, Joly said he found that their portrayal of an ascetic life failed to take into account the fact that their meager earnings were supplemented by family money on both sides.

For example, he said, Helen Nearing’s papers show that the couple spent three or four months a year for a decade at their small cold-water flat in New York City – something he said wasn’t made clear in earlier writings.

And Helen Nearing bought a new truck every year.

“I’d heard that from some of the natives up here, and I thought it was sour grapes,” Joly said. “But in Helen’s diary she lists the new trucks.”

Joly said the Nearings also gave the impression they made a living growing blueberries after they moved from Vermont to Maine in 1952 to start another homestead. But Scott Nearing’s gardening notebook made Joly doubt that.

“According to Scott’s records… only in one year did they make money off blueberries in 20 years,” Joly said. “To say one thing, and have the statistics say another, I find interesting.”

Joly was disillusioned at first to learn that his mentors weren’t as perfect as they seemed. But that didn’t stop him from studying and writing about them.

The Nearings did work very hard, Joly said. He appreciates that their books, and Scott Nearing’s frequent lectures and talks around the country, inspired many people – including him – to try eking out a simple life in the wild.

“I’m disillusioned with the Nearings, but I’m not disillusioned with homesteading, per se,” he said.

Nobody disputes that the Nearings had a huge impact. Their legacy can be seen all over New England.

“They inspired me,” said David Carris, 43, a Marshfield resident whose daily life as a financial planner who commutes to work is far removed from the austere existence the Nearings espoused.

Carris read “Living the Good Life” while growing up in Lake Forest, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

“It presented a vision of a totally different way of living from the suburban view I was raised on, and that was presented by the media,” Carris said.

Carl Benson, an organic farmer in Sheffield, read “Living the Good Life” while he was in high school in Littleton, N.H. After getting an ecology degree in college and working for a while in Alaska, he bought land in Vermont and started growing his own vegetables.

“That was my original inspiration,” said Benson, 42, of the book. “It got me thinking more about homesteading, growing my own food, living close to the land, and living a more intentional life – as opposed to the things I was into at the time, like rock climbing, skiing, and having a good time as a high schooler.”

Joly and his wife live on 20 acres in the town of Jamaica, near Winhall. They aren’t connected to the electrical grid. They heat their home with wood and grow much of their food.

But like Benson, Joly has a wife who works full-time as a teacher. He thinks one income is almost a requirement for a Vermont homesteader nowadays.

“The thing is, it is possible,” Joly said of homesteading. “It isn’t possible in the template the Nearings presented, because they didn’t address the issue of making money, of income.”

Joly – who is working on a biography of Helen Nearing – isn’t the first writer to debunk some of the Nearings’ claims. But he says he’s the first one able to back up his findings with Helen Nearing’s personal papers.

His findings aren’t always welcomed by the Nearings’ followers.

“When I talk about these things, some people are upset,” he said.

But “other people are very thankful to find out that the Nearings had the same paradoxes in their lives that they’ve had to face,” he added.

Even followers of the Nearings know the picture wasn’t perfect.

“I don’t think they laid out the full complexity of the finances of homesteading,” said John Saltmarsh, 46.

Saltmarsh, a Wayland, Mass., educator, is on the governing group of the Good Life Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to perpetuating the Nearings’ philosophies, which ranged far beyond organic gardening into areas like social justice and arcane religions.

For example, Saltmarsh said, homesteading with children would be completely different from the Nearings’ experience (Scott Nearing had children from an earlier marriage, but the couple didn’t have any together).

Darlene Palola, who lives in what used to be the Nearings’ house, agreed.

“You have to live someplace where you don’t need a lot of money to live” if you want to homestead, she said. But it’s still possible to live somewhat self-sufficiently, she added.

“The movement is evolving,” she said. “It’s difficult for people to go back to the land, so they’re finding other ways to live more simply.”

Scott Nearing died at 100 in 1983, and Helen Nearing died at 85 in 1995.

Their legacy continues formally at the homestead they built in Brooksville, Maine, after they left Vermont. The property, which they called Forest Farm, is now owned and operated by The Good Life Center.

Saltmarsh, who wrote a biography of Scott Nearing, notes the couple wasn’t trying to tell others to do things their way.

“There is an instructive tone to what they do, that’s clear, but at the same time they say very clearly in the book it’s not meant to be instructive,” he said. “It worked for them, but it’s not meant to work for everybody. What they hoped to do was offer others the sense there was possibility for changing their own lives.”

They changed Benson’s life. He wasn’t disappointed to hear that the Nearings had had outside financial help in making their simple lifestyle work. He still takes inspiration from their willingness to work hard and their discipline in setting aside time for themselves and for community service.

“If they truly lived that way, that’s an amazing thing,” Benson said.



On the Net:

http://www.goodlife.org

AP-ES-04-19-03 1318EDT



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