Posted by: lornasass | January 28, 2009

MY VISIT WITH HELEN AND SCOTT NEARING

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Over 25 years ago, when I was doing a great deal of newspaper writing, I had the great good fortune of visiting and interviewing the famous, radical, back-to-landers, Helen and Scott Nearing.  The occasion at the time was the publication in 1981 of Helen’s cookbook, Simple Food for the Good Life. The Nearings were locavores nearly a century before the word was invented.

Their philosophy was, in their own words, to ”Live hard not soft; eat hard not soft; seek fiber in foods and in life.”

Back in 1932, when the Nearings had fled to an old farmhouse in the Green Mountains, they considered images-9themselves twentieth-century pioneers. They wrote about the satisfactions and rewards of living off the land in a book called Living the Good Life, first published in 1954. Before long, they became the symbolic leaders of generations of homesteaders in a movement back to the land that in recent years has been once again gaining momentum.  I wonder how many people are still inspired by this book; during the sixties and seventies it had a cult following.

When I drove up the dirt path to the Nearings’ hand-built stone house on Cape Rosier on Penobscot Bay in Maine all those years ago, I remember that it seemed absolutely deserted. Suddenly the stillness was shattered by the 77-year-old but still very spry Mrs. Nearing, who came bounding out of the house with a striped cat cradled in her arms.

images-8”Welcome to Forest Farm,” she said. I could make out the figure of the tall Scott Nearing, then 97 years old, through the living room window.  He was obviously getting up from a nap. It was Sunday and the Nearings were on their once-a-week juice fast and taking it fairly easy.

Guiding me through the kitchen and its century-old wood-burning stove, Mrs. Nearing observed that there was little wood in the box. ”Scotto,” she yelled to her husband, ”how will I cook tomorrow morning if you don’t get me some wood?” Mr. Nearing approached, slightly stooped, with a faint smile that sent ripples along his ruddy, wizened cheeks. As if putting on a little skit for the visitor, Mrs. Nearing added: ”I provide the food, you provide the fire.There, that’s a good division of labor, don’t you think?”

As Scott Nearing headed for the woodshed, Mrs. Nearing led me into the living room, its book-lined wallsimages-51 interrupted only by a panoramic view of rugged Maine coastline. ”Actually, Scott loves splitting wood,” proclaimed Mrs. Nearing, ”but I think cooking is drudgery.”

Indeed, Helen Nearing made no bones about the fact that she would rather be setting stones into mortar than stirring soup. So why did she bother writing a cookbook?

images-121”The idea got its start back in 1970,” she recalled, ”when Scott and I were spending some time in the south of France. Many of the foreign guests we invited to our vegetarian dinners ooh’d and aah’d at the soups, salads and desserts I served them and asked me for the recipes. I was astonished. They were the simplest of foods – vegetables in season, grated apples, rolled oats, raisins and honey.”

Each year, as soon as the frost broke, hundreds of visitors stopped by Forest Farm to find out for themselves what the Nearings’ way of living was like. ”Some of them stayed for months,” said Mrs. Nearing, who, before meeting Scott Nearing in her early 20′s, had studied to be a professional musician in Vienna and Amsterdam.

”They helped us with our building projects in return for room and board. I never knew how many people there would be for dinner and I didn’t want to spend any extra time in the kitchen, so I tossed some beans or vegetables from our garden into the pot and went off to build a wall or play my violin. Everyone always said the food was delicious and asked for the recipes, and I continued to be amazed. They all kept asking, ‘Why don’t you write a cookbook?’ ”

Helen Nearing felt that she should be the last person on earth to write a cookbook, but she also felt intrigued. ”I am a library inebriate,” she told me. ”I began spending long hours in the rare book room of the New York Public Library every time Scott and I were in New York. I made my way through the introductions of 14,000 old cookbooks to discover if I had anything new to say.” (Since she was strictly a salad and potatoes woman, few of the recipes interested her.)

She decided that she did have something to say, and the goal of ”Simple Food for the Good Life” became ”to simplify cooking to such a point that it would take less time to prepare a meal than to eat it.”

images-131Since part of the Nearings’ philosophy was to avoid the use of and dependence upon money, they ate primarily what they grew–vegetables flourished all year in their solar greenhouse. They also believed that the day should be divided into two main four-hour periods — one for ”bread labor” and the other for pursuing other meaningful activities such as playing the violin, reading, and writing. Alone and jointly they wrote 16 books on such diverse subjects as maple sugaring, homesteading, and political economics.  (Mr. Nearing had taught economics in various universities before becoming a homesteader.) Mrs. Nearing told me emphatically that she was unwilling to take up much of her ”breadlabor” time with cooking since she felt that there were more interesting and important things to do.

”Whenever I cook something the least bit fancy,” said Mrs. Nearing, ”I ask Scott if he likes it. ‘It’s O.K.,’ he’d say, ‘but where are the potatoes?’ I’m glad he feels that way, because so do I. We’re perfectly happy with a daily breakfast of horse chow — raw oats and raisins mixed with a little lemon juice and oil. For lunch and dinner, nothing makes us happier than boiled potatoes and salad. And, in general, we prefer raw food to cooked.”

images-102”One thing for sure,” continued Mrs. Nearing, ”is that I never cook from recipes. I just use what’s in the garden and in my healthfood store,” she said, pointing to the large barrels of beans and grains lined up just outside the kitchen. ”I had a very hard time getting all of those recipes down on paper, but I had a simple rule: If a recipe cannot be written on the face of a 3 by 5 card, off with its head.”

And she meant it, as you’ll see from the following recipes adapted from Simple Food for the Good Life, which I am happy to report is still in print.

Creamy Blueberry Soup

1 pint blueberries, washed and picked over

2 cups water

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 pinch cardamom

1 cup sour cream.

1. Place blueberries in a saucepan with water, maple syrup, cinnamon and cardamom.

2. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes; remove from heat and let cool.

3. Stir in sour cream, and chill well before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Horse Chow ”In the early 1930′s, before health foods and granola became household words,” recalled Helen Nearing, ”I made up a dish we called Horse Chow. At that time raw oats were not being eaten by humans. This is the simplest granola of all and perhaps one of the earliest. It was dreamed up in the Austrian Tyrol, where we holed up one winter in a village far from supplies and with a very slim larder of hit-or-miss articles, but with great appetites. We eat it in wooden bowls with wooden spoons.”

4 cups raw oats (old-fashioned, not the quick-cooking kind)

1/2 cup raisins

Juice of 1 lemon

Dash of sea salt

Olive or vegetable oil to moisten (see note).

Mix all ingredients together.

Yield: 6 servings.

NOTE: Two to four tablespoons of oil is an appropriate amount. I would recommend this ”chow” only to people who are patient about chewing their food.

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Responses

  1. I met these people while I was working at The Natural Living Center in Brewer, Maine. I believe Scott was 99 that year. I never forgot them.

  2. I am halfway to finishing the Good Life, and I do not wish for it to end. I am in South Korea and it is the only book by the Nearing’s in the library which I attend. When I come back to the States I wish to travel to see first hand how the Nearing’s built their utopia and then set forth to beginning to live My Good Life- whereever it may be. I love the Nearing’s like family through their words and I will try do do them and the Earth justice, as I do now.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Meeting the Nearings and having the opportunity to interview them and see how they lived was certainly a highlight of my journalistic career. Elliot Coleman now farms the Good Life Center and he shares the Nearings’ values, so I’m sure you will be happy to follow his work there.

  3. I too am familiar with Maui–thanks for dropping into my Ohio-gray world today with your insights on 2 places from my past–Maine and the Nearings and Maui and soft air.

    • You are so welcome! TX for writing in.

  4. Very good article. I think i’ll try to find their book, it sounds very interesting. They also seem to be very nice people who live a simple life as well.

    I do hope I can do their recipes.

    • You will find the recipes very simple!

  5. just a little back ground, i was born and grew up in maine, bath, franklin and bar harbor. i returned to maine in 1985 after spending nearly 50 yrs. in mass. boughl 3,5 a. of land in franklin and started building a p&b log house. i was very much inspired by the nearings and admire their lifestyle thjey were way ahead of the times.they have a wonderful health message and their long and healthly lives. prove that ..i might add i have many of their books and enjoy going through them now and then.. will try the horse chow

    • Lovely to hear from you. Visiting the Nearings remains one of my fondest memories as a food journalist. The Nearings were certainly ahead of the time in recognizing the planet’s finite resources and it sounds like you were way ahead of your time too! TX for commenting.

  6. Hi Lorna,

    This is Renee from Taiwan. I’m writing an article about the Nearings for a local magazine, and was wondering if you had any pictures from your visit with the Nearings? It would be wonderful if you happen to have some pictures! I am in love with their book and was thinking about practicing the good life once I get a chance to. But now I’m just very excited about letting more people know about them here in Taiwan. Thank you for your article, and I look forward to hearing from you!

    - Renee

  7. Me and my partner are about to start our good life in the south of Spain
    we already have a rural house and a garden and we have dropped eating meat
    We have been greatly inspired by the Nearings
    bye

  8. Hi Lorna,
    What a surprise to read your tale of the Nearings. I went to visit Forest Farms several times and Helen was a very kind, warm person during my time there. I too am touched by their teachings and am very lucky to have came across “The Good Life”. The Good Life Center is now opened to the public and provides folks with an opportunity to see for themselves their homestead that is cared for be stewards on a yearly basis. I highly recommend stopping by if one is in that neck of the woods.

    • Thank you for letting me know that the Good Life Center is open to the public. I’d love to visit again. My past visit is one of my most cherished memories and what a beautiful part of the world too!

  9. [...] preceding words, like those of Mencken, resonant with me. They were written by Scott Nearing and published in 1972 in his autobiography, The Making of a Radical. He was 89 years old at the [...]

  10. Hi Lorna
    Travelled from California to the Good Life Center in early June to get a sense of Scott and Helen. Scott and his first wife Nellie were close friends of my grandparents from their early years in Pennsylvania in the early part of the 1900′s until their deaths. Always inspiring for me to know that there are and have been people who decide to live life fully and engaged both physically and intellectually late into life.

    • How lovely to hear about this connection of Scott Nearing and your grandparents and yes, I am also so inspired by the Nearings and how they walked their talk. TX for writing to me as it brings back those wonderful memories! All best, Lorna

  11. Hi Jerold: I love the Nearings message, philosophy and good life and just came upon their book again in my library. I did not get off the floor reading it. I would love to visit maine and wondered if there is a good hostel or home that you recommend for simple travelers to live in. I usually like to do a fair trade or go camping.

  12. Spending three weeks in Maine in 1983 (Mt Desert Island), I asked my Father-In-Law if we could drive down to the Nearing place. I’d read “Our Home Built of Stone” and was intrigued by a photo that contained a small sign which said the Nearings welcomed visitors. Arriving at Forest Farm unannounced, Helen welcomed us like long lost family. She gave us a grand tour of the house and grounds. Of course, I fell in love with the place. My wife and her parents went outside and Helen and I sat and talked for a few minutes at the table in front of the picture window in the ‘living room’ (the table is a main feature in one of the photos in the book). Our short visit made a lasting impression on me and resulted in a poem titled “This House I call my Own”, posted on my website ibnelson.com. My one regret is that Scott had died that year before we traveled to Maine – but you could certainly feel his presence. It seemed to me that they had achieved what I considered to be the best form of life: when one’s work and life and passion are integrated into an organic whole.


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