A Jug of Carrot Juice, a Loaf of Bread and One Another in the Wilderness Give the Nearings Paradise Now

updated 08/23/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1982 01:00AM

Their day begins at dawn with a breakfast of fruit (watermelon is a favorite) and herb tea; stalwart vegetarians, they eat nothing that walks or wiggles and eschew the "three white evils": salt, sugar and flour. Then he goes out to the woodpile to saw and stack the birch and cedar logs that will warm them through the winter. She settles down at a picture window looking out on the Maine coast to answer a boxload of letters addressed to the advice column they write for Mother Earth News. After a lunch of vegetable soup they may putter in their abundant garden or trek to the shore to fetch seaweed for the compost heap. Visitors start trickling in about 3 o'clock and sometimes linger for dinner—leafy salad and grain washed down with rose hip juice—and on Sundays, they fast. Nothing very remarkable about any of that in this age of rediscovered simplicity, except for one thing. He is 99, she is 78, and they have lived that way for five decades.

Scott and Helen Nearing are America's foremost contemporary pioneers. They have built their homes of stone, lived off what they could grow, and scorned most modern conveniences except the light bulb, which they admire. No noisy Cuisinart whirs in their kitchen, their laundry blows dry on a clothesline, and they own neither radio nor television. Their life-style may seem Spartan to some, but not to the Nearings. "We have found a simple, satisfying way to live in the midst of a troubled world," says Helen. Moreover, their book Living the Good Life has become a bible for homesteaders, and they have written five more volumes laying down the Nearing philosophy. "The good life," says Scott, "is one which advances man's control over nature, control over himself and his place in the universe."

Ironically, when they met back in 1928, Scott didn't seem to have a place in this world, let alone the universe, and was hardly a catch. "He was married but separated, a member of the Communist Party and 21 years older," Helen recalls. "My poor family!" He was blacklisted from teaching and publishing for his leftist views. "He was kicked out of everything," says Helen. "But I was impressed with his integrity. He stuck to what he believed in no matter who jeered at him. For a young girl, I guessed right." In 1930, to her well-to-do parents' dismay, she moved into his cold-water flat in lower Manhattan. "We weren't destitute, but we had very little between us," she recalls. "One day Scott said why be poor and hungry in the city when we could grow our own radishes in the country?"

With $300 down and an $800 mortgage, they bought a 65-acre Vermont farm and taught themselves homesteading. "Scott knew how to handle wood and to garden," says Helen. "I knew nothing. I had only been to swell country places, and here was this gaunt, run-down farm, but I took to it immediately." When a former fiancé died leaving Helen a small income, she bought the adjacent maple tree farm and they eked out enough from sugaring to travel abroad each year. "The old-timers thought we were strange and never accepted us," she says. "It was not difficult for me because I was always an odd duck." They didn't marry until 1949, after the death of Scott's first wife, who had opposed divorce. "People say isn't it a shame I never had children," says Helen, "but I believe in reincarnation and have had lots of children in other lives, so I don't feel unfulfilled."

After Living the Good Life first appeared in 1954—it was reissued in 1970 and translated into six languages—the Nearings suddenly became chic radicals. Acolytes flocked to their farm and Scott put them to work draining swamps, felling trees and planting crops. "We wanted to be self-sufficient, not to form a commune, though we had the space," she says. "Of the hundreds that came, not one wanted to stay. They said we worked too hard. They wanted to lie in a hammock and discuss the good life." When developers discovered Vermont, the Nearings simply gave their farm to the town and in 1952 bought 140 acres on Penobscot Bay.

Helen did not seem destined for such an austere life. She was one of three children born to a prosperous salesman and a Dutch beauty in Ridge-wood, N.J. "Our house was full of books and music," she says, "and we had everything we wanted." After high school she went to Vienna to study violin but quit in 1923 to follow philosopher J. Krishnamurti to India and immerse herself in theosophy. "When I gave up my music, my father said it turned his hair white, but Krishna persuaded me that there was more to life than the violin," she explains. Indeed there was. She spent two and a half years in an Australian commune, met Scott when he lectured in Ridgewood, but fell in love with a wealthy Dutchman whom she followed to Holland. "He was tall, good-looking and intellectual," she muses. "I could have married him just for his beautiful house on a canal, but Scott sent me a cable saying, 'I've got some money to write a book on war, will you come back and help me?' I left all my pretty clothes, my powders and paint and I cut off my long, beautiful hair to get rid of the old life, and I went back."

By contrast, Scott, the oldest of six children born to a produce storekeeper, had been raised in a sleepy Appalachian town in Pennsylvania. His Yankee mother nurtured his interest in homesteading and reading and in 1901 he won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he later taught economics until he was sacked for his public opposition to child labor. By the time he joined the Communist Party in 1927, he had left his wife and two sons, been indicted and acquitted for writing an antiwar pamphlet, and lost another teaching job as a result of his views. Shortly after meeting Helen, even the CP booted him out when he published a treatise on imperialism that conflicted with Lenin's theories.

Since homesteading became popular in the '70s, the Nearings have arrived at celebrityhood. They've chopped wood on the Dinah show, let Roger Mudd into their home, and gone to New York for an interview with David Frost. "He was a real frost," notes Helen, "treating us like a couple of old people from the country. When I told him my age he said to the audience, 'Give the little lady a hand.' "

Age has diminished Scott's hearing and sight but not his flinty opinions. "The U.S. is suffering from the disintegration of a monopoly-capitalist system," he snorts. "Our current President is of no greater significance than the president of a garden club." "But the thing people find most queer about us is that we have no television," she observes. "Our neighbors say come look at ours if you want." She (alone) has accepted on three occasions: Richard Nixon's resignation ("I wanted to see the son of a bitch go"), Jimmy Carter's inaugural family walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the royal wedding. Her favorite recent film is Reds, in which Scott played himself. The Nearings recently sold all but four acres—for the price they paid in 1952, so as not to profit—and built a chalet closer to the water. They support themselves on income from sales of their books—a soft-cover edition of Helen's Simple Food for the Good Life was published by Delta last month—and peddling wild blueberries and from two life insurance policies Scott bought long ago. When they get sick, she says, they stop eating, "like animals do. Food stuffs you up." They still greet some 2,000 visitors a year, including Scott's six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, though she confides, "If it weren't part of our social service, we'd be happy never to talk to another stranger. The other night we had supper on the balcony together and I looked at him and said, 'Scotto, we're alone.' It was very nice." She adds, "To live quietly, plainly, simply, fully, with friendship, love and a little music please, that is the good life."

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