Williamstown, Mass. — HELEN NEARING is breezing down the aisle toward the podium, the sequins on her purple smock sparkling. Nearly 700 men, women, and children sit transfixed by her agility and resilience. Many are perched on the edge of their seats hoping to get a better look at the woman they call ``the mother of us all.''
When she reaches the stage, she says, beaming, ``I just got back from a two-week bicycle tour through Holland.'' Her audience applauds enthusiastically. Mrs. Nearing is living the good life.
Speaking at Williams College here for a conference of the National Organic Farmers Association, she describes the philosophy she and her late husband, Scott, lived for over 50 years:
Maintain a clear conscience, live a simple life, and above all else, respect the land.
``Nature is not inexhaustible. We have to work with it not against it,'' she says to her admirers - many of whom, after reading the Nearings' 1972 classic ``Living the Good Life,'' pulled up urban roots to create homesteads in rural areas from Maine to California.
With their hair now flecked with gray - and some with children in their teens - these ``back-to-the-land'' admirers adopted a more entrepreneurial approach to self-sufficiency than their late-'60s predecessors. Many of them own organic seed companies, run large organic farming enterprises, sell organic fertilizers, and work in forest management.
Little has changed for Helen Nearing since her husband died five years ago at the age of 100. Their relationship was ``steady and secure, with never any wavering from either of us. We were remarkably congenial,'' she comments in an interview.
Today, she continues much of the same daily regimen she had when she and Nearing, a college professor and political and social activist, moved to the Vermont countryside in the '30s.
Back then, for $300 down and an $800 mortgage, they bought a farm and set to work. Their goal: to break away from a dependency on technology by carving out a practical program of self-sufficiency.
For them, life included four hours of physical labor outdoors and four hours of mental activities, such as reading or playing music. Their diet consisted mainly of vegetables, fresh fruit, and grains - no alcohol, caffeine, or other stimulants.
Over the course of 19 years, the Nearings designed and built nine stone and three wood buildings by hand, including a stone house set atop a mountain.
As vegetarians, they grew 80 percent of their food in organically composted soil, devising ways to cope with the short growing season. They built a sugaring house and sold their maple sugar.
They spent evenings reading, writing, or playing music. In the winter, they traveled extensively in the United States and abroad, lecturing and visiting friends.
The Vermont period ended in the early 1950s, when the ski industry began to loom too close to the Nearing homestead.
``The old ways were gone. The hills and valleys, heretofore isolated, were filled with city folk and their ways, their money, and their cars,'' Mrs. Nearing later wrote.
They decided to sell their property and move to an isolated farm on the coast of Maine, where they could continue their ``good life'' program. The Nearings called their new homestead, outside Harborside, Maine, Forest Farm.
In 1974, they began work at Forest Farm on the 35-by-53-foot stone house that would take three summers to complete. The house would face west to capture the glorious sunsets over Penobscot Bay.
Mrs. Nearing drew up the blueprints and served as the chief designer and stonemason. A local carpenter helped put in place the rafters, beams, doors, and window frames. Well into his 90s, her husband helped by mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow.
The Nearings then built a 50-foot-square wall to enclose their garden. A stone-based greenhouse adjoined the wall, where vegetable greens were grown year round. A cellar stored potatoes and root vegetables.
They called this latest stone structure the ``70-90 house,'' because it was built in their 70s and 90s. Out of the experience grew Mrs. Nearing's book, ``Our Home Made of Stone,'' in which she writes:
``To gather sticks and stones and build one's own domicile is a task shared by birds, beavers, and men. Whether the birds and animals take joy in their work we cannot tell; they seem to.
``Certainly Scott and I have found that each new undertaking we embarked on became an engrossing and exciting adventure.
``Something new and useful and (we hoped) beautiful being born. We joy in birthing new buildings.''
Mrs. Nearing spent last winter at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire working on a book to be entitled ``Leaving the Good Life.'' In it Nearing will share the love letters from her husband she's been holding for years and also write about their relationship.
It was while at the MacDowell Colony that she discovered a bulletin by Elderhostel Inc., advertising the bicycle tour through the Netherlands. She decided to give it a try.
``When I put my age down, I thought they wouldn't let me go. But they ignored it, and let me do it,'' says Nearing. ``I turned up there the last day in April with 22 other people. I was the oldest by 15 years and hadn't been on a bicycle since I was 20.''
Considering the circumstances, Nearing was doing pretty well by the tour's end - when she was pedaling up to 30 miles a day.
At the conference, a new breed of young homesteaders also swarms around her, seeking advice. Spread out on a table in front of her are the Nearings' 14 books. She points to passages both meaningful and instructive.
``What is the secret to your resilience?'' asks one eager pilgrim. Nearing blushes.
``Oh I don't know.... I guess it's because I've lived a simple life, worked hard, and always had a simple diet. It also helped to spend most of my life with someone who felt the same things I did, politically and spiritually.
``We both had a mission, and we put our whole lives into it. It has been a good life. And if I had to do it over again,'' she says, ``I wouldn't change a thing.''
THE story of the Nearings' romance and subsequent departure from urban to country life began during the depression. Years before, Scott Nearing had established an international reputation for radical economic and political views.
He had become a leading voice in the American Socialist Party, lecturing across the country and abroad. Then he joined the Communist Party and ran for governor of New Jersey on its ticket. But in 1927, after he wrote a book disclaiming Lenin's theory on the origins of imperialism, the party expelled him.
It was at that low point in his life that he met Helen Knothe, a 27-year-old violinist from Ridgewood, N.J.
Earlier, Helen's parents had recognized her musical talents and encouraged her to pursue a career as a concert violinist. At 17, she left for Europe to embark on serious study.
It was in Vienna that she met Jiddu Krishnamurti, who had been chosen by the Theosophists as their spiritual leader. The two soon became friends, and Krishnamurti asked Helen to give up her professional studies to pursue the spiritual life.
Leaving Vienna, Helen lived in India and Australia, but at her father's insistence, she returned to America to resume her violin studies. Her studies were again short-lived when Helen's father, the head of the men's club at the local Unitarian church, asked her to find a speaker for a forthcoming social event. At his request, she contacted Scott Nearing.
That meeting began what would evolve into an extraordinary 53-year partnership.