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The Nearings

03/04/04 12:00AM By C.B. Johnson
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(Host) Every so often someone comes along and leaves his or her unmistakable mark on a style of architecture and commentator C.B. Johnson says that happened in Vermont in the 1930's.


(Johnson) This time of year when I'm out breaking trail in the snowy woods of my neighborhood, sometimes I like to think about how a couple cross-country skiing almost seventy years ago changed Vermont architecture.

The couple were Helen and Scott Nearing, who at the bottom of the Great Depression purchased a worn out hill farm in Andover, where they planned to live without paid employment or consumer goods. Helen later summarized why, "We desired to liberate and dissociate ourselves, 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..."

From the start they disliked the drafty, mid-nineteenth century farmhouse that came with their farm, and while cross country skiing on their property, they discovered a massive sheared boulder on their property where they ate lunch and promptly decided that it would be one wall of their new house. With the help of several locals they built in Scott's words "a rambling, sturdy, balconied chalet with stone floors, hand hewn timbers and panelled walls." And in 1936 they moved into the predecessor of a house-type that now fills up wooded lots from one end of the state to the other: the idiosyncratic owner-built home.

Unlike the old-home enthusiasts of the earlier 20th century, who moved to Vermont to fix up a piece of history and take inspiration from rural life, the Nearings were "drop-outs," individuals who moved here to escape society elsewhere. In 1954 the Nearings wrote Living the Good Life a book about their experiences in Vermont, but it wasn't until the early 1970s that it became wildly popular and went through multiple printings.

Vegetarians, socialists, pacifists, cooperative organizers, skiers but opposed to ski area development, do Helen and Scott sound familiar? How about the unique owner-built house in the woods with hand-hewn timbers and other natural wooden and stone finishes? The difference between the Nearings and those later inspired by their book is that when in 1952 new ski development was announced nearby, the Nearings moved to Maine. However, those who moved to Vermont in the 70s and 80s built their houses and stayed, and Vermont architecture (not to mention politics) has never been the same. The Nearings of course had no clue that their book would inspire imitators throughout the country, and in Vermont help create a sub-rural landscape of owner-builts on 10-acre lots chewing up much more land than those house-farms in Williston.

But the Nearings did walk their walk; in Scott's words "we raised food and ate it, cut fuel and burned it, constructed buildings and lived in them ..." and on summer Sundays they shed most of their clothes, climbed atop the sun-warmed boulder that forms one wall of their home, and played recorders to enjoy the good life. With me, that speaks volumes about the personal fulfillment that these architectural pioneers, as well as many who followed, have found among the old hill farms of Vermont.

This is C.B. Johnson on the Vermont vernacular.

C.B. Johnson is a photographer and cultural resource consultant living in Calais, Vermont.
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