Back-to-the-Land Pioneers Preserve Their Legacy

Seeking a simpler life in 1932, Helen and Scott Nearing founded a movement

'I never accepted life or nature as ordinary," wrote Helen Nearing. "It was always extraordinary. There was in me a sense of wonder at nature and a wonder at life."

And it was wonder that guided Mrs. Nearing through nine decades of life. Not only did she and with her husband, Scott, devote their lives to living simply and giving to the land and their community, she also arranged to continue that giving after her death last September by entrusting her coastal Maine home to the National Trust for Public Land. Under the Trust's stewardship, Forest Farm, where the Nearings led their simple life for more than 40 years, will be established as The Good Life Center, open to anyone who wishes to learn first-hand about the couple's life work, browse in their extensive library, or relax and enjoy the spectacular views of Maine's Penobscot Bay.

"The Nearings taught three generations of people a new ethic about living with and caring for the land," says Peter Forbes, director of the Trust's New England office in Boston. "It is really no surprise that Helen chose a conservation organization to protect her property. Few places mean as much to that segment of people concerned with land conservation; the Nearings are really this century's Thoreau."

"Many of us back-to-the-land types were inspired by and learned a lot from the Nearings," says Ellis Percy, president of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners' Association. "Opportunities to preserve private land like this don't come along very often: Helen had a real vision for the future, to ensure that her property remains as a teaching vehicle."

It was in 1932 that Scott and Helen Nearing left busy Manhattan to pursue a simpler life as homesteaders on a neglected Vermont farm. Crafting their own house stone by stone, they also raised enough organically grown vegetables to satisfy their meatless diet and made a modest income by producing maple syrup and sugar. Not only did they strive to be good stewards of the land, taking only what they absolutely needed and always "repaying" the soil with compost, they also shared their experience with others, welcoming hundreds of visitors each year and lecturing and writing frequently about their alternative lifestyle.

In 1954, the couple published their first of more than 50 books, "Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World." The bestseller became a virtual bible for the 1960s rush of young back-to-the-landers.

When a burgeoning ski industry threatened the Nearings' peaceful existence in the early 1950s, they moved to a second "Forest Farm" near the town of Harborside, Maine. Living first in the old farmhouse and marketing blueberries, in later years they moved into a new stone house which - undeterred by age (Helen was then in her 70s, Scott over 90) - they again built stone by stone.

After Scott died in 1983 at the age of 100, Helen - still healthy and energetic - went on gardening and writing books. Though she enjoyed her solitary life on the farm, which by then consisted of just four acres (she had gradually sold the rest at cost to like-minded young people), she also welcomed a constant stream of visitors because, she said, "people seem to feel something special here." It was in this spirit that Helen signed an agreement with the National Trust.

A NATIONAL nonprofit conservation organization based in San Francisco, the National Trust for Public Land has also assisted in the protection of such sites as Thoreau's Walden Woods, Martin Luther King Jr.'s home, and several landscapes special to naturalist John Muir.

According to Helen's long-time friend Nancy Caudle-Johnson, Helen chose the Trust only after approaching several universities, none of which could guarantee the property would never be sold. "She knew the Trust wouldn't be using Forest Farm to serve its own agenda," Ms. Caudle-Johnson says, "but would always be there to represent all facets of the Nearings."

According to Mr. Forbes, "We want Forest Farm to be an avenue to Helen and Scott to continue to reach even more people than was possible for them."

Through the Nearing Fellowship, the Trust hopes to have someone live and work on the farm each year; they also plan to keep the Nearings' books in print. But most of all they will strive to fulfill Helen's wish, that Forest Farm "continue ... to exemplify simplicity, self-sufficiency, and right livelihood on the land and in the community."

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