Scott and Helen Nearing: The Simple Life Made Manifest

I was made aware of Scott Nearing and his wife Helen when I started reading and researching on the theme of active socialism in America. Their committed living philosophy soon became apparent to me and so I started to delve more deeply into their numerous writings, especially those related to simple living. Their approach here seemed very pragmatic and this inspired me immensely, as indeed it did many others, so I had to find out more about their lives and ideas….

Scott Nearing ( 1883 – 1983 ) an American radical economist, activist, writer and promoter of simple living was born into a prosperous middle class family in Pennsylvania. Despite all the benefits and trappings of a bourgeois life – or perhaps because of them – Scott started to develop a radical social and later, political conscience. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study economics under Simon Nelson Patten who was something of a pioneering educator who opening challenged his students to put aside their received dogmas and open themselves up to innovative, creative thought. Nearing flourished in this hotbed college culture graduating with a BSc in 1905 and then going on to complete a PhD in economics in 1909. During his time at university he constantly involved himself in student politics.

Scott started teaching at Pennsylvania University soon after but his radical activism was getting him into trouble – eventually he was dismissed from his post of Assistant Professor of Economics. Nearing was now being recognized as a radical, a ‘ rebel rouser ‘ disseminating controversial ideas that didn’t fit in with the conservative culture of his department. The writer Upton Sinclair, who had similar socialist values as Nearing told him that his time was better served away from a privileged university campus and spent in direct, active politicking. In 1916 he joined The American Union Against Militarism and became a founding member of the People’s Council of America for Democracy and Peace, soon after he joined the Socialist Party of America. For the next six years he lectured at the Rand School of Social Science in New York which was set up by the party. Nearing authored a number of works including one which challenged American militarization. For this he was indicted on the allegations that he had obstructed the recruitment and enlistment of military personnel. Nearing escaped prosecution and carried on with his work. In 1926 he went to Russia for two months researching educational philosophies and methodologies and on his return wrote a book on the Soviet educational system. Later he made a journey to China, where he stayed for a similar three month period. On his return he published his book on economic developments in China.

MEETING HELEN

In 1928 Nearing met his future wife Helen Knothe ( 1904 – 1995 ) who very much shared his values. In 1932 they bought a small farm in Vermont and started growing their own food becoming, eventually self –sufficient. Around 1954, they published: Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World which drew on their experiences of living on this small holding. However, their political engagement still continued for they soon toured South East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Canada which gave them impotence to co-author another book: “ Socialist Around the World.”
Because of unwelcomed development projects unfolding near their farm ( logging and skiing ) they decided to move to another quieter, rural location in Maine. Their intention, when they finally settled down, was to form a co-operative community based on their farm land. But unfortunately, for a number of complex reasons this never fully took off.

With the advent of the 1960’s and the growing counter culture, Scott and Helen started becoming ‘ famous, ‘ the visitors to the farm, who largely came to learn and admire their strategies for living, came every year in their thousands. Their normal routine consisted of four hours of physical labour, four hours of reading and writing and four hours in some form of activity that benefited their neighbours and wider community. Their working model of self-reliance consisted of constructing their own buildings, tending their own land, growing their own organic food, growing and chopping up indigenous wood for fuel, making and repairing everything that they possibly could and practising basic bartering techniques for other items. Their philosophy was one of ‘making a living, ‘ not making money. Because they were vegetarians they didn’t hunt or fish, neither did they keep livestock because of the responsibly involved and the expense. One of the Nearing’s ‘ role models ‘ who they read extensively and tried to honour in their own lifestyle was Leo Tolstoy who, earlier, had trod a similar path to them. One of their best books, which is still widely read today is: “The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living ” which combine elements of two earlier books.

Not long after his hundredth birthday Scott felt that he had lived a good, nourishing life, full of purposeful activity and now was the time, he thought, to surrender to the inevitable so he started fasting and within six weeks he was dead from self-starvation.

“ As to myself and my old age: I try to follow in his footsteps. It is not so easy homesteading alone, but I carry on. A few more years and I also will experience the great Transition. May I live halfway as good a life and die as good a death.”
Helen Nearing

Helen carried on in her own indomitable style although the range of her activities, late in life, was obviously curtailed. She continued writing and undertaking the essential work around the homestead until, twelve years later she passed away.

A LIFE WELL SPENT

The Nearing were the real thing, authentic, committed, voting with their lives, an inspiring pair of rugged individuals who broke the mould of conventional society. They spent their lives committed to noble ideals – political radicalism, social, political and economic justice, pacifism, vegetarianism and simplicity. In their own lifetime they came to be respected and revered by so many people who came to recognize the inherent truth and steadfastness of their value system which shone out like a bright, burning beacon for all to see. Today we talk much about ‘ downsizing, ‘ ‘self–reliance, ‘
‘ back to the land, ‘ organic farming, ‘ ‘ recycling,’ etc, but the Nearing’s, those rugged agrarian individuals, embraced them all and pursued them all with full determined effort. They were pioneers of self-sufficiency which was underpinned by a basic belief in the value, indeed the nobility of labour, especially their own.

They undoubtedly still have contemporary relevance today, indeed it could be argued that their simple life philosophy – ironically in all its rich diversity and complexity – still plays a central part in the current American debate about what constitutes the good life. From this debate one pertinent, all embracing question has surfaced: what lifestyles should Americans pursue given climate change issues, health issues ( both mental and physical ), depleting natural resources and the rising tide of global inequality which undoubtedly threatens American stability and indeed other governments around the world?

The Nearing’s strident hostility and fight against environmental exploitation, political social and economic injustice, and the ever growing spectre of militarism are still relevant today. We must recognize and honour the fact that a better life is still in the waiting for everyone – a more ethically based value system that puts people first and not profit. A system that respects the natural environment, that can pull back on its over-burdened appetite for mass and unequal consumerism and materialism, to serve all. A system that Scott, Helen, ourselves and indeed the future generation could be proud of…

SCOTT NEARING QUOTES

“That is one of the symptoms of war fever. Those who tell the truth or try to tell the truth are among the first victims of any war.”

“….that the economists part company with the ominous pictures of an overpopulated, starving world, prostrate before the throne of ‘competition,’ ‘individual initiative,’ ‘private property,’ or some other pseudo-god, and tell men in simple, straightforward language how they may combine, re-shape, or overcome the laws and utilize them as a blessing instead of enduring them as a burden and a curse.”

” I came with an assignment; to seek out the truth, to teach the truth, to help weave justice, and mercy into the fabric of human society.”

” We left the city with three objectives in mind. The first was economic. We sought to make a depression-free living, as independent as possible of the commodity and labour markets, which could npot be interfered with by employers, whether businessmen, politicians or educational administrators. Our second aim was hygienic. We wanted to maintain and improve our health. We knew that the pressures of city life were exacting, and we sought a simple basis of well-being where contact with the earth, and home-grown organic food, would play a large part. Our third objective was social and ethical. We decided to liberate and disassociate, 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.”

” I became a pacifist because I respect life. I believe that life is an important part of the manifested universe. I am one expression of life as I am also part of the universe. As I respect the universe in all its parts, so I respect myself and all the other living beings who inhabit it.”
” I became a vegetarian because I was persuaded that life is as valid for other creatures as it is for humans. I do not need dead animal bodies to keep me alive, strong and healthy. Therefore, I will not kill for food.”

” I assume that my fellow creatures have as much right to live as I. I would like to help them to live and develop, not hinder, or harm them. Armed with weapons I am stronger than they are and therefore responsible to help them. As a vegetarian I do the least possible harm to the least numbers of other living entities. Recognizing that all forms of life are worthy of respect, I disturb the life process as little as I can.”

HELEN NEARING QUOTES

” Doctors practice medicine. Scott and I intended to write a book together, We Practice Health, which never eventuated, though we wrote much on the subject in various chapters of our homesteading books Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life. We rarely if ever used doctors, pills, or hospitals. Yet Scott lived to a hale and hearty 100 and died when he decided to – by fasting for a month and a half at the very end.”

“ He ( Scott ) had always been physically active, in the woods, in the garden, in building construction. He was also active mentally, having written 40 or more books from his 20?s to his 90?s, including an autobiography, The Making of a Radical.”

“ So I put Scott on juices: carrot juice, apple juice, banana juice, pineapple, grape – any kind. I kept him full of liquids as often as he was thirsty. He got weaker, of course, and he was as gaunt and thin as Gandhi. Came a day he said, “I think I’ll go on water. Nothing more.” From then on, for about ten days, he only had water. He was bed-ridden and had little strength but spoke with me daily. In the morning of August 24, 1983, two weeks after his 100th birthday, when it seemed he was slipping away, I sat beside him on his bed. “

“ Satisfaction in life seems to come from living in tune with your beliefs, in tune with other humans and animals you encounter, and in tune with your environment. Scott and I worked together at this for over 50 years, with some measure of success.”

“ If we thought it a good idea to live in the country and breathe fresh air and grow our own clean fresh food and cut our own wood and build our own houses, we did it. If we thought it was wrong and unnecessary to consume animals for food, we ate only vegetables, fruits and nuts. Live and let live was our motto. We tried not to exploit humans or animals and looked on all as our brothers. We neither poisoned nor polluted the earth, and tried to leave the earth a better place than we found it. If this appears bombastic and self-congratulatory it’s not meant that way and we didn’t feel that way. We merely looked on life as a welcome opportunity to put certain ideas into practice – ideas we believed in and did not want to leave on the shelf. We tried to make our lives meaningful and live according to our ideals.”

“When you are faced with food that has been sterilized, fumigated, hydrogenated, hydrolyzed, homogenized, colored, bleached, puffed, exploded, defatted, degermed, texturized, or if you don’t know what has been done to it, the safest rule is not to eat it.”

“The store customer, who comes home with a package under his arm has learned nothing, except that a ten dollar bill is a source of power in the market place. The man or woman who has converted material into needed products via tools and skills has matured in the process.”

“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.”

“There are several ways to perform almost any act – an efficient, workable, artistic way and a careless, indifferent, sloppy way. Care and artistry are worth the trouble. They can be a satisfaction to the practitioner and a joy to all beholders.”