In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Helen and Scott Nearing packed up their life in New York City and settled on a 65-acre farm in the Green Mountains hamlet of Winhall, Vt., where they set out to establish a “self-sufficient household economy.” Over the course of the subsequent 20 years, the Nearings converted a deteriorating farm into a materially productive and spiritually rewarding homestead, a story encapsulated in their now classic 1954 work, Living the Good Life.
It seems historically appropriate to be discussing the Nearings’ story once again, on the precipice of an economic downturn that may very well rival the severity of the Great Depression, one impetus of the Nearings’ urban emigration. Along with the protracted depression, the Nearings’ outspoken socialist politics resulted in their rejection of — and also by — a staunchly capitalist status quo. Over the previous three decades, government and business forces had responded with intimidation and violence against a burgeoning labor and Socialist movement. The Nearings found themselves unable to teach or publish. This was the era of Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and the Wobblies; at no other time in American history had capitalism been so pushed back on its heels.
In establishing their homestead, the Nearings had three main goals: to remain solvent and as independent as possible from the larger economy; to cultivate and adhere to those values they saw as being healthy and essential to the good life, namely simplicity, freedom from anxiety, harmony, and purposefulness; and to schedule leisure time into every day so as to encourage social and personal improvement.
Further, they laid out a 12-point, ten-year plan that functioned, in their words, as the “Constitution of our household organization.” Its most notable principles were a rejection of an exchange-value economy premised on profiteering and an embrace of a use-value one, and a commitment to carry out operations on a “cash and carry basis” independent from a capitalist banking system.
After outlining the principles of the good life, the Nearings walk readers through their day-to-day practices of homesteading that allowed those principles to be met. On home construction, they advocate building from stone, as stone homes are more harmonious with their natural surroundings, materials can easily be sourced locally, and they are naturally cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
In food production, three obstacles faced the Nearings. The mountain valley in which they settled had only 85 reliably frost-free days a year. In response, vegetables and fruits were divided between two gardens: one located close to the home, where frost-tolerant plants were placed, and a second “insurance garden” planted on higher ground, where temperatures were slightly warmer. The pitch of their land was quite steep, so the Nearings built a complex system of terraces. Finally, the soil was depleted of nutrients, which they reversed over years of tilling in homemade compost.
When it came time to eat the literal fruits of their labor, the Nearings followed a strict vegan mono-diet: “to eat little and of few things is a good guide for health and for simplicity.” By building cellars to store root crops, making sauces and juices from fruits, and drying herbs, they extended their supply of vegetables and fruits. All in all, the Nearings were able to provide themselves with about 80% of their food.
Their lives were hardly defined by constant work, though. In fact, they ran the homestead each working a mere four hours a day. The remainder of the day was reserved for reading, playing music, perhaps going for a stroll. The Nearings were able to finance their homestead entirely from the production and sale of maple syrup, as well as relying on traditional bartering.
Toward the end of Living the Good Life, the Nearings cite as the overarching reason for their move a desire to align their personal theories on how best to carry out an ethical and purposeful life with the actual practice of living. In New York, for them there was a disjuncture between the theory and the practice of living.
In this sense, what the Nearings set out to do in a mountain valley in Vermont was nothing new per se; rather, they fit neatly along a continuum of historical figures who have abandoned a perceived corrupt “civilization” in exchange for a simpler, rural existence, including Henry David Thoreau and Christopher McCandless (made famous in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild).
Another strain in American history, originating in the Jeffersonian era, is a disdain for the perceived corrupting tendencies of urban centers and the idealization of a rural, agricultural existence. Mark Twain once wryly quipped, “Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessaries.”
The conversation contained in Living the Good Life can also be found in contemporary works such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.
At the root of this centuries-old conversation is the predicament of how best to lead an ethical, purposeful life within an economic system that some of us consider unworkable in its present state. Do we attempt to carve out sustainable spaces within the system, reforming incrementally from within, or do we remove ourselves entirely and practice our theories on living the good life elsewhere?
The Nearings would answer, “Under any and all conditions one is responsible for living as well as possible within the complex of circumstances which constitutes the day-to-day environment.” Perhaps this advice is a good starting point for all of us to consider what might constitute our own Good Life, and then to act accordingly.