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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series/Obituary: Helen Nearing

Air Date: Week of

Back-to-the-land movement pioneer Helen Nearing died September 17th at age 91 from injuries sustained in a car accident. Best known for the book she wrote with her late husband Scott Nearing titled Living the Good Life, the book has been in continuous print for decades. The Nearings were also known for opening their homestead and sharing ideas with many curious visitors. Helen's legacy continues with two recent volumes of her writing. Andrea DeLeon from Maine Public Radio has this profile.


CURWOOD: On September 17th, Helen Nearing, coauthor of Living the Good Life, died at the age of 91 in a car accident near the Maine homestead that she and her late husband Scott Nearing had made famous in their writings. Perhaps more than anyone else in these times, the Nearings personified the back to the land movement. Maine Public Radio's Andrea DeLeon has more.

DeLEON: The sign at the end of Nearing's driveway says, "We will see visitors from 3 to 5 to help us live the good life." Though Helen Nearing and her late husband Scott loved solitude, Helen admitted that they opened the door to visitors at all hours. Over the past 3 decades, thousands of people found their way down the narrow, rutted road to Cape Brozier to meet the authors of the book that became a sort of back to the lander's bible: Living the Good Life. Once there, visitors helped in the garden and chatted with Helen, looking for practical homesteading tips and soaking up the essence of the simple way of life she represented.

NEARING: Look at them there. This is just a volunteer that just came from nobody knows where. And three years ago I thought it was a dandelion here that stuck its nose up...

DeLEON: The flower that captured Helen Nearing's attention on the spring day 4 years ago was a vivid poppy the size of a dinner plate, pushing its way to life in an idle greenhouse constructed of fieldstone and old storm windows. The unlikely poppy might be a suitable metaphor for Nearing, who spoke fearlessly of death as a momentary break in the action.

NEARING: What I feel is a continuity of life, that you don't flicker out like a candle. That something goes on.

DeLEON: So you're "

NEARING: That I look forward to.

DeLEON: Scott and Helen Nearing built their first homestead in Vermont at the height of the Depression, leaving the city for a rural farm life not by choice but by necessity when Scott lost his job as a professor.

NEARING: We were merely living in a very simple way, and because we had no money and we grew our own food, cut our own wood and built our own houses, made our own clothes, that sort of thing. Not from any great idealistic purpose but because that was the way things were with us.

DeLEON: But Nearing says they saw themselves merely as poor farmers until Pearl Buck paid them a visit and urged them to write their story. The result, Living the Good Life, has been in print ever since. The Nearings left Vermont for the Penobscot Bay hamlet of Harborside in the 1950s. There, they continued to practice their own recipe for simple living on another run-down farm, eventually building a house from stone they collected on their own beach, and always eating primarily what they could produce themselves, a diet that never included animal flesh.

NEARING: I can't imagine nice people eating animals, but they do. But at least we can stop eating, we can stop killing humans, we can stop killing the animals, and we can live on the produce of the garden and of trees and of orchards, of nut trees. There's plenty to eat, whereby you don't have to kill animals.

DeLEON: Scott Nearing died more than a decade ago when at the age of 100 he announced that he was going to stop eating. Helen said she supported him in that decision and would make the same choice herself when she felt ready to. She continued to live their version of the good life after Scott's death, accepting daily visitors, traveling, and doing the work they had learned together. She said she didn't miss Scott much because she felt the was still with her as a daily presence, and she looked forward to seeing him again. Helen Nearing's thoughts turned more toward death as she approached her 90s, and she wrote 2 books on the subject, Loving and Leaving the Good Life and a collection of quotations called Light on Age and Dying that is just being released. In a Maine Public Radio call-in last year, she discussed her own expectation that she would be reincarnated. She said she worried a lot about the near future, but that the far future would be gorgeous.

NEARING: I mean it: we finally will realize what we can make of our lives and what there is ahead. The important thing is to be brotherly and to help when we can and to learn all we can and to help all we can. And I think that is coming. I hope the human race will finally learn to do that, and I think that's our future.

DeLEON: The future of Nearing's 4-acre shorefront homestead is secure. She recently signed the papers to ensure that it will remain much as it is, a sort of a good life center dedicated to the simple ways of living with which she and Scott became synonymous. Helen Nearing will be remembered at a memorial service October 1st. She died September 17th when her car went off the road and hit a tree near her Harborside home. She was 91. For Living on Earth, this is Andrea DeLeon in Portland, Maine.



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