We went through the three trailer loads of composted manure that the Ellises so kindly gave us and put it on half the garden ground that needed it (carrot and sweet potato areas didn’t need any). Jerome has been purchasing some high quality compost made from race horse manure that is delivered from Lexington, and so we arranged to buy a small portion of that from him. He brought part of it over on Tuesday after lunch, and we covered about a third of the remaining area; Chris and I will fetch the rest later. We also planted the first row of carrots in the carrot patch; we’ll add a row every three weeks or so.
As we worked we talked about a book I had lent him, called Meanwhile Next Door to the Good Life, written by a woman who homesteaded next door to Scott and Helen Nearing for about ten years starting in the 70s. The Nearings were major figures in the back-to-the-land movement at the time. They had begun homesteading in Vermont in the 1930s, worked at it for twenty years, self-published a book about the experience called Living the Good LIfe, then pulled up stakes and moved to Maine to do it all over again. The book sold poorly in the 1950s, but in 1970 they reprinted it and it took off, eventually selling 200,000 copies.
The Nearings’ farm in Maine became a magnet for all kinds of free-spirited people who were interested in various aspects of simple living. Two of them were Jean and Keith Heavrin, who had read Living the Good Life and decided to homestead for themselves. While looking for land in Maine, they decided to drop in on the Nearings, who took a liking to the Heavrins and decided to sell them a thirty-acre piece of their farm.
The good news is that the Heavrins really made a go of it, establishing a thriving homestead that required only $2500 or so in cash income to operate (maybe $10,000 in post-Jimmy Carter dollars). Many other people came and did the same thing, organic farming guru Eliot Coleman and his wife being two of them (they lived on the other side of the Heavrins). The bad news is that they were all deeply infected with the free-spiritness of the times. At one point the families are thriving and growing, much to their own amusement, since they were the types who not long before had told themselves they could never bring children into such a troubled world. A few years later nearly all of the marriages/relationships had broken up and the participants had wandered off.
Jean Heavrin did not escape. Keith informs her one day that his outdoorsy woman pal (a lesbian) has become much more than just a pal. What shocked me at this point in the story is that, after a couple of months of coming to grips with the situation, Jean decides that as much as she enjoyed it homesteading didn’t really mean all that much to her, and so she leaves the place in Keith’s hands and moves into a house in town. A small house, granted—but homesteading is over, and she never even thinks of going back to it.
When I read the book I knew I had to give it to Jerome, not just because it had information about his hero Eliot Coleman, but also because Jerome was part of the same back-to-the-land movement, albeit in a remote part of Washington state. And it certainly gave us something to talk about. We compared his experience to hers, and talked about the importance of a solid Christian marriage to such an enterprise.
We also talked about how the movement failed because it attracted a sort of person who was drawn to the benefits but not much interested in working to obtain them. Jean Heavrin (now Jean Hay Bright) makes the same point in the book, pointing out a fundamental lie at the heart of the Nearings’ claims about homesteading, namely that it could be done with fairly little labor; the Nearings’ formula was four hours for “bread labor”, four hours for individual pursuits, and four hours for socializing. Jean Hay Bright says that she and Keith proved that what the Nearings proposed could in fact be done—but only by devoting themselves totally to the homestead. Other folks were attracted by the eight non-labor hours in the Nearings’ formula, and tended to reduce further the time spent on “bread labor” by substituting welfare and food stamps; all of them failed. Jerome told the exact same story about his own experience.
Just for completeness I am now reading the Nearings’ two books Living the Good Life, about Vermont, and Continuing the Good Life, about Maine. The Nearings were ardent Communists, which makes their writing ponderous and quirky and arrogant. Many of their pronouncements you can hardly believe they could make with a straight face. Some of them are sheer hypocrisy, as Jean Hay Bright explains. It’s hard to believe that this stuff inspired a generation of free spirits. But even so, there is a lot of useful information in them. The Nearings were hypocrites in some things but far from frauds. They really accomplished most of what they claimed to have accomplished, and much can be learned from their experiences, if not from their example.