Living the Good Life: An Interview with Helen Nearing

When we talk about the “good life,”: most of us talk about a way of living that is more dream than reality. The good life of Helen Nearing, however, is very real. With her husband Scott, this legendary figure has championed human rights, vegetarianism, meditation, and the joys of simple living for over 60 years. Their book Living the Good Life (Schocken Books 1970) sparked what was perhaps the last great “back to the land”: movement in our country's history. A talented violinist who had studied Eastern philosophy with Krishnamurti, Helen was 24 when she met Scott Nearing in 1930. He was in his mid-40s, a former University of Pennsylvania instructor who had been arrested for anti-war activity during WWI, and later blacklisted from the academic world. Together, Scott and Helen Nearing would start a new life as pioneers of the land and spirit. How they built two homesteads—the first in Vermont, the second on Maine's rocky coastline—has been chronicled in several books. In 1983, when he reached his 100th year on this earth, Scott Nearing made the decision to consciously end his life by fasting. Now 89, Helen lives alone in the house of Maine fieldstone hand-built by the Nearings. She farms, writes, reads and meets with visitors who come to learn about “the good life.”

Sounds True: Helen, it's hard to imagine that you are taking care of this house and farm by yourself.

Helen Nearing: There are friends who come and lend a hand sometimes. There's a girl who works in the garden with me once a week. And another friend helps me with paperwork and things of that kind. But I could carry it on alone. I'd have to pull in my horns a bit. Perhaps have a smaller garden and can less food. Life would be a bit tighter and sparer. But I like a tight and spare life.

Sounds True: The thought of someone almost ninety years old being completely self-sufficient like this seems to go against our cultural conception of “old age.”:

Helen Nearing: I like to go against people's conceptions. That's OK with me. I'm the same person inside as when I was young, but the body is aging. Scott lived to be 100, and even in his last years, he wasn't sick. He had no illness, no aches or pains. His body was just wearing out. I'm feeling the same way.

Sounds True: You have shown a special “vision”: in the way you live your life. Do you have any advice for people who want to develop this?

Helen Nearing: Live. Adapt to other people. Breathe in and breathe out in an aware fashion. Be aware of where you are, what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Live day to day. That's what we're here for: to find our way through the fog.

Sounds True: What is your personal definition of “integrity?”:

Helen Nearing: To be true to the best that you can conceive of. Scott had a nice phrase that he often used: “Do the best you can in the place where you are, and be kind.”: Not a bad motto to live by. Aldous Huxley said that it was embarrassing to him to realize in his seventies that the really important thing in life—quite aside from all his studies and research—was to be a little kinder. And Bertrand Russell said that love was the basis of all life. I feel that, too. You can just be a farmer in the woods and never really get out into the world at all, but if you've lived a life of kindness and simpleness, you've probably accomplished what you came for and made a contribution in that way.

Sounds True: You and Scott were lifelong vegetarians who also practiced fasting.

Helen Nearing: I think people eat too much. One tends to glut on what one likes. But there was something austere in both Scott and myself—I think that less is better than more. That applies generally in housing, clothing and in diet. When we heard about fasting, I tried it first ... I fasted for 10 days on just water, and Scott went on eating and taking care of the house and visitors and things. I enjoyed it so much that he decided to do it, too. From then on, we fasted together. In a world where there is enough food to go around, but it is not shared equally, I think it's important to show that one can do without.

Sounds True: What led Scott to decide to die by fasting?

Helen Nearing: The fullness of his life. And his realization that he cold no longer help out as much on the farm. Scott didn't want to decay. He was never feeble, but he felt that, if he could no longer do his tasks, like carrying firewood, he might as well just go. A few weeks before he was 100, we were having dinner, and he said, “I think I'll stop eating, and go.”: And go he did. Scott lived for a month and a half on juices, then just water, and then he went. He had no pain. I'll do exactly the same thing myself when I get to that point. It's the way animals do it. They go off in the woods and subsist on water and quietly finish. It's a natural way to go. I'm going to avoid a nursing home or hospital experience at all costs. None of that for me.

Sounds True: Were you with Scott the moment he passed on?

Helen Nearing: Yep. He was on a cot right here in this room. When I realized he was going, I urged him on and said, “Go on. You've done what you could here now. You're lucky. Go on and see what's over there.”: He just breathed less and less, and then he left. It was a good way to go. There was a feeling of great quietude and great certitude. I felt that death was just another opportunity for him. It was an opportunity for me, too—a chance to help him.

Have you ever watched the sky on a bright starlit night, when there's not an inch of sky that isn't full of stars?

Sounds True: On occasion, yes.

Helen Nearing: It's simply astounding. The Universe is immense and gorgeous and magnificent. I salute it. Every speck, every little fly on the window salutes the Universe. Every leaf has its meaning. I think the Universe is expanding—it is experiencing and accomplishing. And we have the opportunity to add to its glow. Everybody can love, in the place where they are. In the physical body in which they are. In the life in which they are involved. We can all add our share of love without leaving the room.

Helen Nearing

Helen Nearing Return to top of page

Helen Nearing (1904–1995) was a champion of human rights, vegetarianism, meditation, and the joys of simple living. With her husband, Scott, she coauthored the book Living the Good Life, which spark...

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