The Good Life

I recently began re-reading The Good Life, a book I had bought back in high school and never finished.  Mostly forgotten, I picked it up on a trip home and delved in.  A sort of joint autobiography/handbook by Scott and Helen Nearing, it recounts their means and methods for dropping out of society and going back to the land.  The book is really two books under one cover:  Living the Good Life, published in 1951, and Continuing the Good Life, published in 1979, four years before Scott's death at age 100.

The story begins in New York City, 1930.  The Nearings, were, at that time, 26 (Helen), and 47 (Scott).  The text refers to them, collectively, as "approaching fifty."  (I took that at face value, not realizing their age difference until I did some research online.) The age difference is not explained in the text, but Scott had a wife before Helen, Nellie, and a son, John.   Vague intimations are made about them losing their jobs because of radical politics.  Scott, a professor, was an ardent socialist and radical anti-war advocate, and lost his job due to Communist hysteria and perceived treason due to his opposition to American involvement in World War 1.  Looking to drop out of the dominant consumer-industrial culture of the time (funny, as we complain about that now, in an age of TV, the internet, and unprecedented consumer spending) and fashion a self-sufficient lifestyle for themselves, the Nearings moved to rural Vermont, buying an old farm at the foot of Stratton Mountain.  

The second chapter, Our Design for Living, has some fascinating parallels with today's political and fiscal turmoil.  In the following passage, merely replace Great Depression with Great Recession and 1932 with 2008, and it could've been written yesterday.  

"The Great Depression had brought millions of bread-winners face to face with the perils which lurked for those who, in a commodity economy based on wage-paid labor, purchase their livelihood in the open market.  The wage and salary workers did not own their own jobs, nor did they have any part in deciding economic policy nor in selecting those who carried policy into effect.  The many unemployed in 1932 did not lose their jobs through any fault of their own, yet found themselves workless, in an economy based on cash payment for the necessaries and decencies.  Though their income had ceased, their outgo for food, shelter, and clothing ate up their accumulated savings and threw them into debt."  (p. 32.)

So their experiment began.  The basic idea was to drop out of the consumer economy by providing for the majority of their own food -- a largely raw, vegetarian diet -- and fuel from their own land, while living in a house they built with their own hands.  Each chapter details how to tackle these things:  stone building, organic gardening, managing a woodlot, and producing maple sugar to provide what cash they needed for taxes and certain manufactured goods.  They do everything along the way by hand.  "Mankind has worked for ages with hand implements.  Machine tools are a novelty, recently introduced into the realm of human experience . . . there can be no question but that they have watered down or annihilated many of the most ancient, most fascinating, and creative human skills . . ."  (p. 47)  They do without electricity, heat with wood, and, it seems, go about everything with great vigor and enthusiasm.  

The Nearing's Vermont house, courtesy of Vermont Public Radio.  

The Good Life is laid out as more of a guide than a chronological memoir, which makes it a less compelling read, as it comes across as a dry instructional manual.  In general, the tone is  arrogant and preachy.  Describing their neighbors: "They were accustomed to a go-as-you-please existence . . . They got up and went to work, or did not go to work, as a result of accident or whim . . . When they did work, they let inclination determine the object of their efforts.  When they got through with a tool, they dropped it.  When they wanted it again, sometimes half the day was wasted in the effort." (p. 53)  Other passages go on at length about cruelty to animals, the laziness of today's youth, and the apathy of the American public.  At worst, it sounds like this recent tone-deaf, condescending, and ultimately horrifying essay published in Forbes.  

Later, they try to put their socialist ideals into action, but end up frustrated by the locals, who somehow fail to want to join them in some sort of utopian vegetarian childless woodcutting community.  "To the credit of Vermont conservatism it must be said that during the two decades of our stay, after innumerable discussions and long-drawn-out arguments on the subject of white flour, white bread, white sugar, pies and pastries, the necessity for eating raw vegetables, and the revolting practice of consuming decaying animal carcasses, no native Vermont family of our acquaintance made any noticeable change in its food habits."  (p. 167)  The Nearings must've been a helluva lot of fun at a cocktail party.  Other long passages are so humorless, it's a wonder anyone ever voluntarily held a conversation with them at all.

Each chapter opens with a series of quotes, and I couldn't help but to notice that the vast majority of them are Thoreau and before, some dating to the 17th century.  I think their reading list has something to do with the overly formal and somewhat antiquated Victorian tone of their writing.  The Transcendentalist quotes they are so fond of mostly seem to deal with the joys of rigor and asceticism; their writing is curiously devoid of anything but the most banal descriptions of working in the sunshine and enjoying the fruits of their labor.  Mostly, it just sounds exhausting.   

In recent years, some questions about their lifestyle have turned up.  They might've bought their land with an inheritance, or even had a trust fund to subsidize their lifestyle.  They spent much of the winters traveling, giving lectures to make money and avoid their freezing stone houses.  They relied on the free labor of many volunteers, groupies, and passers-by, enthralled by their lifestyle and their writings.  

Eventually, fed up with Vermont and encroaching summer vacationers, they packed up and moved to Maine to start all over again.  This is where the second book picks up.  When they moved, Scott was 68 and Helen 48; he was nearly ninety before they even got a house built.  Perhaps due to their age, or the greater cultural changes occurring in America in the seventies, the second book is softer in tone, and less polemical.  It deals with many of the same subjects, including slip-form masonry, in greater detail.  The story gets somewhat wistful, and a little sad, as one can read between the lines how age encroached on their ability to live the good life, and how they didn't have any children to pass their skills along to.  

The Nearing's Maine homstead, with slipform masonry buildings.  Courtesy of Little House on the Urban Prairie.  
However, dozens upon dozens of hippies and back-to-the-landers made the pilgrimage to the Nearing's homesteads over the years, and, after their deaths, their home in Maine has become a non-profit for carrying on their legacy.  And it's a helluva a legacy -- as critical as I am of their self-mythologizing, lack of humor, and graceless writing, they were way ahead of their time in so many ways.  Sustainable personal economy?  Check.  Locavores?  Started it.  Veganism?  On top of it.  Organic farming?  Composting everything they could get their hands on.  Green building?  Harvested all their own materials and built without electricity or gas.    I mean, for all their (human) faults, the Nearings got it done.  

The Good Life has a lot of lessons for us modern folks, struggling to get it together in some sort of healthy, sustainable fashion.  We can't all move to the woods and make a go of it, but we can implement what we can implement, from windowsill gardens to biking to work.  

Our humble garden . . .