Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life”

Arise, come, hasten, let us abandon the city to merchants, attorneys, brokers, usurers, tax-gatherers, scriveners, doctors, perfumers, butchers, cooks, bakers and tailors, alchemists, painters, mimes, dancers, lute-players, quacks, panderers, thieves, criminals, adulterers, parasites, foreigners, swindlers and jesters, gluttons who with scent alert catch the odor of the market place, for whom that is the only bliss, whose mouths are agape for that alone.

Francesco Petrarch, De Vita Solitaria,

How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.

Edward Abbey, Vox Clamantis in Deserto,

I recently finished Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World (the edition of a book originally copyrighted in ).

The Nearings were New York City sophisticates — he was a Marxist professor, she a Theosophist who’d had a fling with Krishnamurti — who decided to chuck it all and go Back To The Land when Scott’s Marxism and pacifism made him unemployable (his pamphlet The Great Madness: A Victory for the American Plutocracy, which argued against the United States entry into World War Ⅰ, had gotten him prosecuted under the Espionage Act).

They bought a small plot of land in the Green Mountans area of Vermont and aimed for a life of self-sufficiency. They combined spartan habits (they were teetotalers, and abstained as well from meat, caffeine, and tobacco — not really the brew your own and piss off the porch sorts) with do-it-yourselfism (they built their own house and various other buildings mostly from stone and wood gathered on-site) and eccentric economic ideals (opposition to debt, usury, and profit, and a preference for barter exchange) to make a go at it. In a place where the frost season might extend into August, they grew their own produce, and, if you believe their take on it, did quite well.

As the Petrarch quote above shows, the anti-urban back-to-the-land impulse has been with us for a long time. It seems to get rediscovered every few years and represented as though it were an exciting new discovery. I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a while back, and enjoyed it, but I wonder whether such books will keep getting written generation after generation or whether we’ll finally decide we’ve written The Book and can go on to take it or leave it.

The Nearings are well aware of the history they’re participating in. They seem extraordinarily well-read, and pepper their book with quotes harvested from centuries of literature. And their attention to practical detail in this book and others compares favorably with the more gushy and episodic sorts of books on the subject that are popular now. Their book became a bible of sorts for the 1960s-era back-to-the-landers.

They explained their rationale for going back to the land rather than continuing to fight the good fight for socialism in urban America this way:

We are opposed to the theories of a competitive, acquisitive, aggressive, war-making social order, which butchers for food and murders for sport and power. The closer we have to come to this social order the more completely we are a part of it. Since we reject it in theory, we should, as far as possible, reject it also in practice. On no other basis can theory and practice be unified. At the same time, and to the utmost extent, we should live as decently, kindly, justly, orderly and efficiently as possible. Human beings, under any set of circumstances, can behave well or badly. Whatever the circumstances, it is better to love, create and construct than to hate, undermine and destroy, or, what may be even worse at times, ignore and laissez passer.

Life’s necessaries are easily come by if people are willing to adjust their consumption to the quantity and variety of their products. Difficulties begin when the subsistence advocate enters the market with its lures and wiles for separating the unwary and the dullwitted from their medium of exchange. Never forget that from the private ownership of the means of production, through the monopoly of natural resources and patents, the control over money, the imposition of the tribute called “interest”, the gambling centers which trade in commodities and “securities”, to price control and the domination by the wealthlords of the agencies which shape men’s minds and the machinery of government, the entire apparatus of a competitive, acquisitive, exploitative, coercive social order is rigged and manipulated for the rich and the powerful against the poor and the weak. Keep out of the system’s clutches and you have a chance of subsistence, even if the oligarchs disapprove of what you think and say and do. Accept the system, with its implications and ramifications, and you become a helpless cog in an impersonal, implacable, merciless machine operated to make rich men richer and powerful men more powerful.