Exhibit recalls Nearing's homestead experience

08/24/09 2:50PM By Steve Zind
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(Host) More than a half century has passed since Helen and Scott Nearing pulled up stakes and left Jamaica, Vermont for Maine to continue their experiment in rural self-reliance. 

But it was their homesteading experience in Vermont, which they described in the book, "Living the Good Life" that captured the imagination of a generation of urban youth wanting to get back to the land, and brought them fame.   

This summer an exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury recalls the Nearings' time here - and shows why, after so many years, their example still resonates.   

VPR's Steve Zind has more.

(Zind)  To explain their reasons for moving to Vermont, the Nearings write in the introduction to "Living the Good Life":  "The society from which we moved had rejected in practice and in principle our pacifism, our vegetarianism and our collectivism." 

What the Nearings called their ‘Vermont Project' began in 1932.  Scott Nearing had been fired from his job as an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania for his social activism and anti-war beliefsHelen Nearing was a musician whose interests tended to the spiritual and metaphysical.

Click here for Steve Zind's photos from the Nearing Homestead

Living the Good Life was published in 1954.  But it wasn't until the 1960s and 70s that it found its mark. 

A generation of people young enough to be the Nearings' grandchildren was looking for alternatives in an era of affluence, urbanization and the Vietnam War.  The book served as a guide for those who wanted to move to the country and live off the land. The Nearings described step by step how they carved out a seemingly self-sufficient existence on their Vermont homestead.

Brent Bjorkman, the Executive Director of the Folklife Center, says the exhibit about the Nearings has brought back memories for people of a certain age. 

(Brent) "People would say,'I was in college in '67, '68 and I read that and that really was one of the things that made me want to move to Vermont, want to study at UVM, want to come up here and see what Vermont was all about'."

(Zind)  Middlebury College Professor Rebecca Kneale Gould has written about homesteading and the Nearings.   She says conversion stories are common among people she's interviewed who had read "Living the Good Life" in their youth.  

(Gould) "And so many people said, ‘oh, I was visiting some friend of mine and I crawled into bed and picked up Living the Good Life'  and my life completely changed!  There are so many testaments of that kind. I have one in my book that starts, ‘I used to be a dancer in New York City and now I raise leeks'." 

(Zind) Greg Joly was one of those converts.  He was attending Boston University on a scholarship - majoring in history and English - when he came across a copy of "Living the Good Life".

(Joly)  "I found the Nearings' book in a used bookstore on Newbury Street, and I brought it back, read it overnight and within a month gave up my scholarship and dug up the back yard of my parents."

(Zind) Joly has been researching and writing about the Nearings' life in Vermont and the community of radical thinkers that gathered in the area of Jamaica and Winhall where the North Branch Brook tumbles over a ledge at Pike's Falls.

(Joly) "This is where Pike built his mills back in here; back in the 1840s and 1850s."

(Zind)  Joly says the Nearings had taken a long time to decide where they wanted to live and they came to Vermont for a variety of reasons.

(Joly at falls nearings5) "It was really the isolation and the independence that they could get from it.  And also the cheap land prices at the time.  You could buy an acre up here for two or three dollars."

(Zind)  The Nearings found that isolation on the hardscrabble farmland in the hills above Pike's Falls.  The road to their former homestead is paved now and dotted with camps and homes.  It's hard to imagine how out-of-the-way it was in the 1930s and 40s.

(Joly) "In the ‘30s there was a federal project that wanted to remove all the farmers off all the hill farms in Vermont above, I think it was 1500 feet.  So that would have taken everybody out of this valley.  There were the natives and there were what I call the transplants, which would be Scott and Helen and the other families."

(Zind)  The handsome stone house and the surrounding buildings that the Nearings erected are privately owned now.  But once a year the place is opened to the public.

On a Sunday this month people arrived there for the annual potluck supper - and a talk by Joly. 

(Joly) "Hello folks, can I take that for you?"

(Zind) Visitors wander among the buildings which look much as they did when the Nearings were here 60 years ago.

(Joly) "The Nearings were so enamored with stone that they even built stone outhouses."

(Zind)  Joly says Scott Nearing wasn't a luddite.  He saw the value in science - even as he decried many of the consequences of technology.  He put his background as an economist to work on his large sugaring operation, where he made maple candy which generated more income than syrup.  And he put visitors to work helping out with the chores.

Photographer Rebecca Lepkoff came to Vermont on a vacation in 1950.   In an interview with the Folklife Center, she recalled how she went to visit the Nearings.

(Lepkoff)  "And they were very cordial.  We actually spent night there and had supper. With cabbage salad (laughs)."

(Zind)  Lepkoff fell in with the people who were part of the Pike's Falls community. 

She says there was plenty of hard work, but there was also hiking, swimming at the falls, potlucks and folk dancing at the community center.

She was fascinated by the people she met.  All had somewhat different approaches to politics, living off the land and diet. But what brought them together was a shared rejection of modern American life.

(Lepkoff) "They didn't have 9 to 5 jobs, they had their own way of living.  And their kids were growing up."

(Zind)  Peter Wendland was one of those kids.  Wendland was 14 years old when his family emigrated from Holland after World War Two.  The Nearings sponsored them and Wendland and his father worked for them. 

In the Folklife Center exhibit, Wendland talks about how the Nearings and their friends stood out.

(Wendland) "They were radicals. They were strong individuals.  They were maybe idealists."  

(Zind) Wendland says people might imagine they can live like the Nearings, but few have the self discipline needed to pull it off. 

There was a military precision to Scott Nearing's approach to homesteading. He had a five year plan...and a ten year plan. 

The day was divided into four hour parts:  there was time for labor, time for personal activities and a daily period for what the Nearings called, ‘fulfilling our obligations...as members of the human race." 

The Nearings weren't simply trying to convince themselves that their experiment could work - they were trying to build a community around them based on their beliefs and practices.

Scott Nearing went on speaking tours, promoting homesteading and inviting people to Vermont visit him and try it.

But the Nearings also had resources other people didn't enjoy.  They had money.  Greg Joly says they glossed over some of the challenges of the way they lived.     

(Joly) "He wanted so much for people to try this, to do this, to find the discipline in themselves, he would, I would say at time candy-coat how difficult it was."

(Zind) Native Vermonters who lived around them were suspicious of the Nearings.  That was partly because of their radical politics - at that time Vermont was still very conservative.  Scott Nearing sang the praises of the Soviet Union's communist system even after Stalin's brutality was clear to everyone.

Middlebury College professor Rebecca Gould says the difference between the locals and the Nearings wasn't lost on either.

(Gould) "The Nearings tended to insult, not to their faces, but in their writing, Vermonters-  as being kind of dim-witted, carnivore eaters and they sort of portrayed Vermonters as sitting around lazy, rusty tools, eating pie and donuts all the time."

(Zind)  Neither, says Greg Joly, did Scott Nearing care for many of the young people from the cities and suburbs who fell under the spell of "Living the Good Life" in the 1960s and 70s and joined the back-to-the-land movement.

(Joly) "Scott couldn't stomach long hairs.  He could not stand the drug culture at all.  This was a man who was a raw- fooder who felt that tea and coffee were stimulants that were bad for the system.  So there was a real friction there.  Yet, at the same time it was this culture that was looking for an alternative way out of what they felt was this confining militarized society and they turned to the Nearings.  If it wasn't for the back-to-the-land movement, he would be a footnote of a footnote of a footnote."

(Zind)  Scott Nearing could be rigid in his ways and severe in his views, but Rebecca Gould says he was an essentially happy person who got a lot of pleasure from the hard work and intellectual challenges of the life he and his wife chose.

(Gould)  "There's this great film, I think it was made in the 1970s - it has sort of an age old look.  But you see Scott sawing wood and responding to an interviewer and just laughing and laughing and laughing.  And I think that's the Scott that I want people to understand was also there."

(Zind) Nearing was one hundred years old when he died in 1983.  Helen died some years later in her 90s.

Gould says the continued interest in the Nearings is not all nostalgia.  The message of "Living the Good Life" resonates still in an era when there's so much emphasis on conservation, alternative energy and environmental issues. 

But perhaps what endures most about the Nearings' description of their time in Vermont is that it speaks to the universal longing for a simpler, better life. 

For VPR news, I'm Steve Zind.

Note:  The Vermont Folklife Center exhibit "Almost Utopia: In Search of the Good Life in Mid-Century America" continues until September 5th at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.  

A book with photos by Rebecca Lepkoff and text by Greg Joly (pron. ‘Jolly') about the  residents of the Pikes Falls area in the early 1950s is available through the Vermont Historical Society.

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Vermont Folklife Center Good Life Center at Forest Farm
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