“The business of procuring the necessities of life has been shifted from the wood lot, the garden, the kitchen and the family to the factory and the large-scale enterprise. In our case, we moved our center back to the land.”
The Back-To-The-Land Movement, rather simply described in this quote by Helen and Scott Nearing, is the central focus of their two works that compose The Good Life. A compilation of their independent works Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life, the Nearing’s documentation of nearly sixty years of self-sufficient living in The Good Life is basically respected as the "instruction manual" for the theory and practice of rural homesteading in New England. Pioneered by activist Bolton Hall, the back-to-the-land movement in which the Nearings were a principal player was at its peak in the 1960s and 70s, following the publication of books prior to the Nearing’s Living the Good Life in 1954. Bradford Angier’s At Home in the Woods, published in 1951, and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, published in 1948, both inspired the Nearings, in addition to the works of Henry David Thoreau.
In The Good Life, both Living the Good Life, and Continuing the Good Life describe in detail the struggles and rewards of returning to the land – in Vermont in 1932 during the deepest part of the Great Depression, and in Maine in 1952, respectively. The Nearings are very clear that they made the choice to leave New York City in order to live a rural life focused on self-reliance and independence, whole health, and limited engagement in a world of [corrupt] politics and capitalism. The Nearings’ plan for the homestead they were to create was based on a 12-point plan, embodying the primary concepts of maximum self-containment and dependency, a “use economy” not based on profits but rather on a cash crop allowing for “cooperative arrangements” with neighbors, sharing surpluses, keeping no animals and observing a strictly vegan diet, and hand-building of natural stone and rock while also refraining from rebuilding old buildings when possible. Above all, the Nearings had a very distinct vision for their self-sufficient life with the land. Naturally, this led to a well-structured and overall successfully functioning homestead.
After all, Helen and Scott Nearing were originally from the city; prior to their first move into the green mountains of Vermont, Scott Nearing was especially active as a radical economist and member of the leftist party. Having taught economics and sociology in several universities, Scott Nearing also spent over two decades of his life speaking publicly and lecturing on socialist ideologies and progressive philosophy. As a member of the Socialist Party, Scott Nearing spoke out against both WWI and later the Cold War and Vietnam War. He published many radical pamphlets and books in his life, and The Good Life has become an institution for those seeking to return to the land, as the Nearings did.
It goes without saying, however, that rural homesteading according to Helen and Scott Nearing’s terms was rather radical, in ways. Primarily, the couple was exhausted from the pressures of capitalism, and after a point, socialism, and so sought to find a balance in which few dependences outside of the land were required for survival. The Nearings emphasized careful planning, budgeting, and record keeping. They wanted no boss, no financial tie-ups or I.O.U’s, nor to be bound by the responsibility that comes with keeping and caring for (and using) animals. They pioneered veganism and remained loyal to a home economy of work as investment and nature’s bounty and subsequent independence as worthy wage. When they had money, it went into building the homestead, buying tools, or updating equipment. When they had finished a day’s work of about four hours, they (and any workers helping them, of which there were many coming and going) had earned four hours of leisure. “Leisure” was time for reading, writing, making music, or making repairs. Mealtime was social time, focused on community and sharing; if visitors arrived at mealtime they pulled up a chair. Many [city] folks admired the lifestyle the Nearings built for themselves in Pikes Falls, Vermont, and Harborside, Maine, and visitors frequently came to learn the ways of homesteading. Of their lifestyles in both Vermont and Maine, the Nearings write:
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. (205)
In reading The Good Life, this is what one will learn: sincere enjoyment can and does come from hard work if one is willing to take the time for it. It’s unlikely that anyone today would endeavor to build nearly a dozen major buildings by hand from stone, like the Nearings. It’s also more difficult than ever to avoid the pull of society and capitalism altogether as the Nearings strived to do. The Nearings certainly express their personal philosophies and values in The Good Life, but by no means do they expect readers to adopt all the same principles. One can take whatever they wish from the book, whether it be inspiration for adopting a vegan diet or gardening tips like planting north-south rows. The Nearings document the challenging, frustrating, sometimes inexplicable experiences of life as a homesteader, and they also share the honest, simple joys of seeing seedlings spring up unexpectedly, witnessing a monster sap harvest, or tasting the first apples of the season. This is what the Nearings were aiming for: balance. The Good Life is an example of how human struggle is balanced by natural bounty, a tribute to the simple life, the good life.
“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.” (14)
Nearing, Scott, and Helen Nearing. The Good Life. New York: Schoken, 1989. Print.
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