I arrived in Putney, Vermont in the fall of 1966 to attend the Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education. I had been teaching in a one-room school house in the coal mining region of Eastern, Kentucky. This was my first time in New England. Like many imports, I fell in love with the landscape and the reds and yellows of the maples. I also remember reading a book called, Living the Good Life, by Helen and Scott Nearing. I called it my back to the land bible. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nearings arrival in southern Vermont.
They began their homesteading adventure in 1932. The Nearings documented their flight from the stresses of life in New York City and their efforts to establish a self-sufficient life on a rocky piece of southern Vermont farmland in two books: Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World (1954) and The Maple Sugar Book (1950). Today, they still serve as gurus to many who seek a simpler, back-to-the-land lifestyle, even though some know it’s not so simple.
After looking at a dozen southern Vermont farms, they chose a typical run-down farm, with a wooden house in poor repair, a good sized barn with bad sills and a leaky roof and 65 acres, located in Winhall’s Pike’s Falls Valley. Scott had some carpentry skills but he spent most of life as a teacher. Helen was adept with the violin but not with tools.
Living the Good Life includes lots of details including some amusing ones of the Nearings Vermont experiment. They made typical newcomer mistakes. For example, they picked what looked like a good garden spot, only to discover that- come spring, it turned into a quagmire. They also cut soft wood like poplars for firewood, not knowing that-unlike hardwood- it wouldn’t provide much heat.
Their whole lifestyle was based on conscious action. Soon after they arrived, they developed a ten-year plan, vowing to be as self sufficient as possible. Scott and Helen grew most of their food and were vegetarians. The Nearings made only enough money to live on- mostly from Maple syrup. They avoided credit. And over time, they replaced the old, drafty farmhouse with one made of native stone.
This month, in honor of this 70th anniversary, the Stratton Foundation is organizing a symposium on the Vermont years of Helen and Scott Nearing, with guest speakers, a video and events at the original Nearing homestead. There will also be a dramatic reading adapted from a collection of Nearing writings, photographs and correspondence. The title of the reading is a line taken from a letter Scott wrote to Helen that seems to sum up both the couple and the Vermont years especially well. He closed by declaring, “A Love Greater than 70 Bushels of Baked Potatoes.
This is Ron Krupp, the northern gardener.
Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.
To learn more about the Nearing celebration, visit the Stratton Foundation online.