Helen Nearing (1904-1995) was the life partner of Scott Nearing, and together they set the standard for self-sufficiency and simple living. When I wrote about Scott’s influence on my life in a previous blog post, I didn’t give Helen her due. She was a remarkable person in her own right.
Helen Nearing was an author, farmer, carpenter, house designer, violinist, stone mason, and a gracious host to people seeking wisdom and life direction by visiting her and Scott. In her life, she showed that you can always do more than you think you can.
“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 goes into the project,” she wrote. “Life is enriched by aspiration and effort, rather than by acquisition and accumulation.”
She was born Helen Knothe in Ridgefield, N.J. to a well-to-do family of vegetarian free-thinkers. She was a bookish and introverted girl, and trained as a classical violinist. After high school Helen traveled around the world and became close to Hindu philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. At age 24, she met Scott Nearing, an economics professor who at 45 had made himself unemployable because of his socialist-pacifist views.
In 1932, they left New York City and moved to rural Vermont, buying an old wooden house on 65 acres of poor land for $1,100 (they didn’t marry until 1947 and did not have children). Using a small legacy from Helen’s former suitor who had died, they bought a farm nearby, and she designed the stone house they built there. She had learned no skills for living off the land.
“I matured in Vermont from an inexperienced, naive, dependent girl into a tough and sturdy homesteader with many trades at my fingertips,” she wrote. The Nearings made the small amount of money they needed from making and selling maple syrup.
It wasn’t an easy life. They grew most of their own food, cut their own wood for heat, and fasted one day a week and for 10 days once a year. There was no electricity. They had a truck but didn’t use any farm machinery.
“I came to relish privations,” Helen wrote. “I preferred our sparsely furnished, gaunt, uninsulated farmhouse to the comfortable, cluttered and carpeted, overheated suburban homes I had known.”
In 1953, when skiing entrepreneurs discovered their corner of Vermont, the Nearings moved to the coast of Maine, built a new stone house, and switched their cash crop to blueberries. In 1954 they wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” (from which this blog gets half its name). It didn’t get a lot of attention, but in the early 1970s it struck a chord with baby boomers and sold over 250,000 copies.
Here’s a video about them, made in 1977, that includes footage of their appearance at an Amherst conference on alternative energy. I was there and had the opportunity to meet them.
As many as 2,300 people a year who showed up at their home, usually unannounced. Since Scott was often away lecturing, and was apt to assign chores to visitors when he was there, Helen served as the main host.
She was a prolific cook and food preserver, and in 1980 published “Simple Food for the Good Life: An Alternative Cook Book.” It includes recipes for such delicacies as Miracle Mush (apples, carrots, beets and nuts), Wheaties (flour, margarine, cottage cheese) and Seaweed Pudding (dried seaweed, jam, sour cream). She said their diet consisted of 35 percent fruit, 50 percent vegetables, 10 percent protein and 5 percent fat. Scott, died shortly after his 100th birthday, said he hadn’t seen a doctor in 60 years.
Helen lived alone on the Maine farm for 12 more years, with help from friends and neighbors. She spent some winters in Florida, and reluctantly got a telephone, before she died in an auto accident at age 91. In 1992 she published a memoir of her life with Scott and his death called “Loving and Leaving the Good Life.” She made this video called “Conscious Living, Conscious Dying.”
Helen Nearing sought a higher standard of life, not a higher standard of living. She was a mentor to people who wanted to learn how to grow food organically, live in harmony with nature, and learn the benefits of healthy living.
For readers who are new to this blog, here’s an index/reference guide to more than 100 posts in 12 categories, such as frugality, gardening, cooking, fruits and vegetables, life lessons and climate change.