Good Life

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Unexpected events caused a hiccup in my blogging. First, the election addled my brain. Fueled by middle-of-the-night insomnia, it has been struggling to reconcile our good life with twilight-zone flashes of disbelief and helplessness over an increasingly bizarre new reality. I had no heart to blog about puppies and bees.

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While I grappled with strategies for moving forward (hunker down? become militant? Rip Van Winkle?) my camera gave up the ghost. It just died. No photos, no blog. I had not realized how much a part of my life my camera had become. I felt as though I had lost an appendage.

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I have a new camera and am trying to develop a new perspective. As I imagine the parade of horribles challenging our more-fragile-than-I-thought system of goverment, I remind myself that we have been through dark periods before.

I have been thinking particularly of Scott Nearing, likely because this summer we visited his final home, Forest Farm, about an hour-and-a-half drive from here on Cape Rosier. I have been meaning to write about that trip, which we took in August after Zoe died. Now is as good a time as any.

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Scott Nearing was a pot-stirrer extraordinaire–a radical, outspoken pacifist and socialist from the time he was a young man until his death in 1983 at the age of 100. Interestingly, like Trump, he attended Wharton School of Business. The similarities end there. If you imagine Donald Trump and then imagine his polar opposite, you might come up with someone like Nearing.

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The Nearings’ stone-built barn at Forest Farm.

There was no flip-flopping with Nearing. He was passionate and uncompromising–believing that the wealth of the rich was founded on the misery of the poor. After graduation with a PhD, Nearing was hired as an assistant professor of Economics at Wharton. But, in 1915, the school abruptly dismissed him for his outspoken activism and stance against child labor. He fared no better in his next teaching position, fired for his active opposition to WWI, in a fiercely nationalistic climate. Nearing’s 1917 pamphlet, “The Great Madness,” criticized the war as arising from commercial interests, rather than idealism. As a result, he was indicted under the Espionage Act for alleged interference with troop recruitment. He won at trial, but was blackballed from any further university teaching. He eventually joined the Communist Party, and apparently was ejected from it, as well. Non-conformist to the core.

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The alpine-style home at Forest Farm.

In the 1920s, after separating from his wife and children, he became involved with Helen Knothe, a woman some twenty years his junior (maybe he had something else in common with Trump). Helen was a non-conformist in her own right, with theosophist (some sort of mystical philosophy) leanings, and a previous romance with another strong personality–philosopher Krishnamurti.

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A view of the walled garden, fruit trees, and the back of the house.

Scott and Helen moved to rural Vermont during the Depression in an attempt to build a self-sufficient, “simple” life. They gardened, built stone buildings, wrote, and produced maple syrup as a cash crop. In the 1950s, as ski areas increasingly encroached, in search of a more remote area, they moved to coastal Maine–beautiful Cape Rosier off of the Blue Hill Peninsula.

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I fell in love with the walled garden.

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The caretakers had the garden in immaculate shape, despite the drought.

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By the 1970s, the Nearings had became guru-like parent figures to many in the back-to-the-land movement. Their books, especially “Living the Good Life,” inspired mostly youthful baby boomers to attempt (some successfully, some not) to live a simpler, more self-sufficient lifestyle.

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It’s hard to say how many moved to Maine because of the Nearings, but the back-to-the landers’ influence can still be felt here in Maine’s rich culture of small organic farms, small support businesses, food co-ops, seed co-ops, and farm-to-table restaurants. Eliot Coleman, now well-known for his books on four season and small-scale organic farming, was a Nearing disciple, buying land from and working with them. His daughter Melissa’s memoir of her childhood growing up in the Nearings’ sphere, poked some serious holes in the picture of the Nearings’ idyllic simple life.

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We took a long look at the greenhouse.  We intend to build something similar (only better).

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I attended two small college-campus talks that the Nearings gave in the 1970s.  Scott was about 90 years old then. He seemed small, spry, deeply wrinkled, and utterly committed to his beliefs–a hard knot of a man. I remember Helen as having spiky gray hair, baggy clothes, a lapful of knitting, and a sharp tongue. I was drawn to the idea of having a small somewhat self-sufficient farm, but was not particularly attracted by the Nearings themselves. I am wary of anything approaching zealotry, and found the Nearing’s strict (and, to me, bland) vegetarian diet, structured hours, ascetic approach, and unyielding ideology off-putting. And the lifestyle they promoted was not realistic for most people, especially those with children.

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Scott died in 1983 and Helen in 1995, but the non-profit Good Life Center keeps their house and garden alive and open to visitors. I wanted to go there primarily to see the stonework in their buildings. The Nearings used a slipform method of building with concrete and stone that can be done by hand and we are thinking of doing something similar for a greenhouse wall.

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A form for building the stone walls.

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The stonework up close.

Forest Farm was the Nearings’ last house. They lived in an old wooden farmhouse during their first decades in Maine. The stone-built Forest Farm was their retirement home–so to speak–with a smallish walled-in garden, a few fruit trees, a greenhouse, and an incredible view over the water. The farm’s caretakers were a young, earnest couple who answered our questions and then let us wander around and take pictures.

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Every farm needs a yurt.

After we returned from the trip to Forest Farm, I read “Loving and Leaving the Good Life,” a book Helen wrote after Scott’s death. My view of the Nearings remained unchanged after reading the book–admiration, undermined by a nagging feeling that I did not really like them very much. Nevertheless, Scott’s life is a good reminder of some very ugly truths about this country’s history. We have recurrent cycles of nationalism, scapegoating, increasing economic inequality, and a dismal record when it comes to protecting dissent and free speech. Perhaps the cycles are inevitable. If so, the question is how to best react to keep them from becoming permanent.

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Nearing paid dearly for his activist reactions and eventually chose to refuse to participate in the larger economic system by living on a small, relatively self-sufficient scale. A solution for him, but not helpful on a larger scale. I do not have any neat lessons learned from Nearing’s life. But I am working on it.

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Meanwhile, back at our little farm, Capp is blissfully unfazed by politics, growing at an alarming rate, and immeasurably sweetening our good life. Back to writing about puppies.

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43 thoughts on “Good Life

  1. I spoke with a friend this past weekend who has lost one adult son to suicide and a younger adult son who conquered cancer once but now is fighting it on two other fronts while trying to enjoying his eight week old daughter. As far as politics go, I’ve found myself thinking about the Serenity Prayer. When it comes to blogging, let’s face it, your gardening adventures are always informative and a photo of Capp just makes us all swoon and smile anyway. 🙂

    • How devastating for your friend. Suicide and cancer wreak havoc on so many families, but to lose both sons …. my heart goes out to them. Good life–any life–can shatter in a beat, it is so fragile. As to politics, we will have to see how things unfold, and do the best we can, I guess. We likely will be pulling out all the serenity, courage, and wisdom we can muster! A sense of humor will help, too. And Capp–well, I could just blog about Capp and all would be good. Thanks for your comments, Judy.

  2. I really appreciate this post, Brenda…we certainly read and believed in some of the ideals of the Nearings, having lived the back-to-the-land lifestyle of the 60s and 70s for the past 40 years (though my old body is now rebelling over the physical work). Thank you for sharing the photos of their homestead.
    What kind of camera did you wind up buying? I am looking into a mirrorless one…perhaps the Olympus.
    And Capp is always photogenic.
    BTW, we are also trying to figure out how to live in this country, post DJT “win”…

    • I’m glad that this post resonated with you, Arlene. “Living the Good Life” stoked my imagination when I was a teenager. I seemed to have a genetic bent towards farming and a self-sufficient, nature-infused lifestyle was very appealing. But Alaska and travel was even more appealing and it’s only now, in retirement, that I’ve come full circle to the little farm I dreamed about for so many years.
      My new camera is a Canon PowerShot SX530 HS. It is basically a mirrorless point-and-shoot (with some manual features that I don’t use) with a sweet 50X zoom. It’s inexpensive, lightweight (although it doesn’t fit in my pocket like my previous camera), and I love it. It can be difficult to focus on macro shots (takes patience) and the monitor screen is hard to see in really bright light. But it’s so easy to use and the zoom capacity is just amazing.
      Capp is a lovely boy, but doesn’t stay still long enough for good shots!
      If you figure out how to navigate these next years, let me know.

  3. I recognise your feelings from the situation back here in the summer! It takes a while to sink in, At a recent literary festival we listened to a past politician who expressed concerns that there were many similarities to the 1930’s. One hope is the majority of the younger generation on both sides of the Atlantic did not vote for the change. It was interesting reading about the Nearings I have never heard of them before. Capp has grown so much, he is so cute! Sarah x

    • Well, Brexit was a precursor to our election and it all appears to be part of a growing nationalist surge. History is illuminating–periods of rapid change breed backlash and fear. Change is painful, difficult, and absolutely inevitable. I agree that the younger generation ultimately will straighten things out. Let’s hope we don’t muck things up too much in the meantime. I doubt that the Nearings’ influence reached past this country. But you had a similar back-to-the-land movement in the 70s, didn’t you? Did you have counterparts to the Nearings in England?

  4. Great post. I also visited the Nearing homestead many, many years ago. Though I can align with many of the same princibles the Nearings had….a commitment to organic gardening, self- sustainability, simplicity, I am certain their ‘gospel to farming’ was a bit too rigid for my taste. The vegetarian diet, their 1/2 day philosophy to a work day, and though I understand how being meticulous about tools and buildings and straight garden rows helps to keep things ‘ship shape’, I wonder if they ever had fun…you know, the roll in the grass belly laugh fun? Can’t quite picture Scott nearing pulling this off…a waste of good energy, no doubt. All said, they inspired a lot of folks to live a more simple and enriching life and hopefully each person they influenced found their own way of doing so. That dog of yours is pretty dang cute!!!

    • Denise, you hit the nail right on its fat head. The fun is missing. Such a serious life they lived. Neat woodpiles and sharp tools have their place, but–like you–I cannot imagine the Nearings just letting go–dropping the mud-encrusted hoe in the garden, having a few drinks, cooking some spicy pork and peaches on the grill, and then a little slow-dancing on the beach in the moonlight (with a dog dancing too–stick in mouth). In “Loving and Leaving the Good Life,” Helen wrote that when she said she was having fun working on a cookbook of her own, Scott replied,”That’s too bad you’re having fun with it. Life is not about fun. Do a serious job at it.” (page 165).

  5. My older sister was a back-to-the-lander in Maine in the late 60s-70s. So the Nearings are familiar. I like your honest assessment! 😉
    I’ve been thinking about cycles lately, too. Humans do seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, but I’ve got to keep my head and heart in order, hoping for the best possible outcome. Faith, not fear.
    🙂 Capp is growing so fast and must be a delight to have around. I reckon he keeps you on your toes!

    • I’m curious as to whether your sister stayed on the land in Maine, or moved on to other things. It’s interesting to me to see the various paths that the back-to-the-landers took here in Maine.
      History does run in cycles, but we do learn and make progress. I had a history professor once who drew the picture of history as pendulum swings–a series of reactions, back and forth, but with the pendulum, as it swings, itself progressing forward, slowly, but surely. I’ve always liked that image. Maybe sometimes the pendulum drops a little, but we do progress. Just think, we burned witches not so long ago.
      Capp is growing up too fast. His big boy teeth are coming in and everything goes in his mouth. He keeps us on our toes for sure. He is a bundle of joy and curiosity. And he is a leaner–brushing by the leg, sitting on the foot, always seeking touch with us. There is nothing quite like seeing a pup grow up.

      • My sister lasted about 10 years ‘on the farm.’ She divorced and moved back to MA with her kids in tow, went to college and married again. But she still gardens and preserves, some things don’t change. 😉

  6. Brenda, I confess that I’ve had Living the Good Life on my bookshelf for years, but have just never been able to get into it. I didn’t realize that their homestead was open to the public — something to add to my Maine travel list.

    • It’s not exactly a scintillating read, Jean! I found it interesting when I read it in the 70s, but never read it again. I struggled a little to get through “Living and Leaving the Good Life.” There’s a certain grimness to their books that make them more hard-going than they should be. But I do recommend a trip to Cape Rosier. It’s lovely and Forest Farm is worth a visit.

  7. I think many among us have some of the same feeling you have! Your take on the Nearing’s is interesting. I too am wary of zealots. Life usually requires more agility than they allow for. And it’s good to see Capp!!

    • It’s a surreal feeling, no? I find the Nearings fascinating, if not particularly likable. They were so committed to their beliefs that it was both compelling and off-putting. I prefer people with some give–some compromise–to them. But, I suppose we need people on the edges to keep us challenged and thinking.

  8. Again, what a great post and hasn’t it done well to stir us into thought. I am going to continue my ponderings on the Nearings. I imagine when we explore the examples of a life lived with intention, one that has had its time on center stage, we can see it through ‘rose colored glasses’. I can’t expect to know if the Nearings themselves felt they left out certain aspects of their life…like play and fun and whimsy, maybe they didn’t miss this? Who knows. I love hard work. I love the order of things. Plans and lists are a part of my everyday. But so is a twinkle in my eye, a tendency toward spontaneous fun, and laughter at its best. I like being ” cracked up by life”, it certainly helps to temper my serious and worrisome side. Have a delight of a day, Brenda !!!

    • On the same page as the previous quote, Helen wrote, “There were many times we were considered too serious … What do you do for recreation, for fun? we were often asked. ‘Everything we do is recreation, is enjoyable, otherwise we wouldn’t do it,’ we answered. As for ‘fun,’ it was not a word Scott used.” I suspect that fun and lightheartedness just wasn’t a part of Scott’s makeup.
      I am like you–I love hard work, I’m a planner, and a worrier, but must have my fun. You know, looking back on friendships, the friends I remember most vividly and with the most fondness were the ones who really understood how to have fun.
      Have a cozy day, yourself! It’s spitting frozen sleety stuff here.

  9. I think your take on the Nearings is spot on. As for the election…I skipped past anger, denial, and bargaining and went straight to depression. Now I have arrived at acceptance. It’s going to be bad. The question is, how bad? And, on a personal level, will I lose my health insurance? But it is sheer joy to see pictures of the not-so-little Capp. What a handsome dog he is becoming! And one last thing, which goes back to the Nearings. I come from an ethnic group—Franco-American—that certainly values hard work but also knows how to have fun. Just the right balance, and I’m so glad to have that legacy. After all, all work and no play makes Jack (or Scott) a dull boy 😉

    • Yes, yes, balancing hard work and good fun is an art of sorts. You are fortunate to have that strong Franco-American legacy. I wonder if an appreciation of fun is partly in the genes and partly cultural? By the way, didn’t the Nearings eat their food without any salt? Work with no fun, food with no salt. Dull is right. Ha.

      As for the election, what can I say? Now it looks as though Medicare is under fire. We may all have to go back to work until we die.

      • I have also heard that the Nearings had family money to help them live their simple life. Well, we can admire the bits they got right, and diverge when we need to do so. As for the election—sigh, sigh, and sigh.

  10. I was very interested to read about the Nearings. I admit I hadn’t heard of them, so I enjoyed learning about them. Britain had a back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, too. A man called John Seymour was the leading figure in self-sufficient living; I know people who have been inspired by him and his books sold very well. (I have a copy of the most famous one – parts of it are a bit too macho for me but it does make the reader feel that a completely self-sufficient and simple lifestyle is possible)
    I know what you mean about the camera – I would be very lost without mine, too (I have a canon powershot and am very pleased with it).
    Lovely Capp is growing up fast!

    • Apparently the Nearings’ influence didn’t spread much, if at all, beyond this country. I had never heard of John Seymour, so looked him up. It’s interesting how movements take hold in different countries at the same time, with similar–but different–influences. The thing that interests me most now about Scott Nearing is his early radicalism and the repressive response to it. He was a walking illustration, rolled into one person, of some very repressive times and tactics–not so very long ago–in this country. Aah, the good old days.
      It feels wonderful to have a camera again. Actually, we have another camera–a very nice DSLR. But I have become so used to the ease and zoom of the Powershot that I don’t like to use the “good” camera anymore. The Powershots are wonderful little inventions.
      Capp is over 40 lbs now. Yikes.

  11. What an interesting post, much to think about! Being self sufficient or as self sufficient as possible is the way to go for sure. As for Trump, what can I say, it has to be the shock of the century. Turn off the news and enjoy your land, family and that adorable Capp….glad you have a new camera, it’s awfulbeing without one.xxx

    • We have some self-sufficiency already, and intend to work towards more in the next few years. Maybe just in time, who knows? I have had to turn off the news, at least for a while. But I need to figure out how to balance sanity and the joy of everyday life with becoming more involved in protecting what is vulnerable right now.

      • Yes, that’s exactly where I’m at. Being as prepared as possible and riding the storm, Trump could affect the entire planet, let’s hope his aides reign him in!xxx

  12. I enjoyed your post…. the world is really changing in terms of voting and values. We have really noticed this in Australia too. My mother’s favourite post, (which I quoted on another blog) is ”When the world wearies, and society does not satisfy…there is always the garden.”‘ Happy gardening and looking after that gorgeous dog.

  13. Such a thoughtful post, Brenda, and equally thoughtful comments. My son (who is 17 and studying history) regularly points out that humans have short memories and don’t learn from history. Regardless of his ideology, Nearing’s place looks fascinating. I love the look of that yurt. Back to good things – Capp has grown so much!

    • Haven’t the comments been wonderful? I seem to have found a pretty nice blogging community. Your son is spot on. We just seem to bumble about as if no one ever existed before us. Such a silly and arrogant species. The Nearings’ home was fascinating on a number of levels. A glimpse into their lives and it had such a orderly, simple beauty set alongside a magnificent seascape. I loved the yurt, too. I have a fondness for round, octagonal, hexagonal, whatever structures. And Capp is all good things. Growing, growing, growing. I already miss his wee puppiness.

  14. Thanks for this post, I learned a lot. I have heard of Nearing’s book. Sounds like his commitment to principle was admirable, but that he and his wife would have been hard to be around. Dropping out of society is not a realistic option for most people. Certainly not for me – I am a hopeless city slicker. I share your anxiety about today’s situation. I just tell myself there is no point in obsessing about things I cannot control. It does make sense to look for opportunities to make a positive difference (volunteering for candidates or organizations we believe in, etc.), but as individuals we cannot control the flow of history. In the meantime, we should take pleasure in all the things in life that we enjoy.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Jason. You are absolutely right that we cannot control the flow of history and it’s a waste of time to obsess over things we cannot control. I do feel that we are witnessing an unstoppable flow of history that will undulate around the world until eventually–at some point–it will expire. There is very little as individuals we can do about it. But it’s painful to witness. So, while I tend my own garden and try to make it something lovely that will outlast me, I do so with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I just cannot shake. Maybe I’ll feel more hopeful in the spring.

  15. I popped over to say G’day, my withdrawal from the blogging community has been extended much longer than I anticipated. I was saddened to note that dear old Zoe has passed away, how sad that must’ve been, I will scroll back as I’m sure you will have a post in remembrance of her. Your new fur baby looks a delight. What a tumultuous time your country has been through. We watched in horror from over here and now can only watch in trepidation, and wonder how it will all pan out. An interesting post about an obsessive man. I have never heard of him but I can see he has influenced many baby boomers to live the “good” life. Keep warm over there, I guess your garden, bees and plants are all going into winter hibernation as we slowly melt in our summer heat and all the tropical flowers burst into bloom. Peace and goodwill to you and George for Christmas.

    • It is so good to hear from you, Pauline. I have been wondering how you have been doing. I hope all is well. Losing Zoe was terribly difficult. She was so smart and tuned into us that it was like having a small child in the house. Capp is very much like her, but with his own distinct, sweet personality. We are fortunate to have found him. As to our country, tumultuous is right. It feels as though we are helpless observers to a tidal wave and can only hope that everything won’t be destroyed in its path. On that note, merry Christmas to you and Jack. Keep in touch!

      • It is a sad loss. I still remember with such fond memories my 13 year old cocker spaniel that died 36 years ago. You never forget them. Best wishes for 2017 and many adventures with Capp.

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