How America Went Back to the Land

And why we’re still going back

Paul Greenberg

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The Nearings captured America’s longing to leave (photo by Paul Greenberg)

Did you ever wake up one morning and declare that from this point forward your life would be radically different? Did you then commit your scheme to paper, structuring your ideal day into constituent ideal parts all aimed at the goal of improving mind, body, and spirit? Did you make strong decisions, vow to give up coffee, alcohol, meat, and your little job, too? If this sounds familiar, then I have an old book for you.

“Living the good life: being a plain practical account of a twenty year project in a self-subsistent homestead in Vermont, together with remarks on how to live sanely & simply in a troubled world,” as the book was titled in its self-published edition over 70 years ago, is a work that never seems to leave us, just as its authors Scott and Helen Nearing, who lived to the ages of 100 and 91 respectively, never seemed to either. It has been through over 30 printings, sold upwards of 300,000 copies, and inspired half a dozen Nearing-authored sequels with titles like “Continuing the Good Life,” “Man’s Search for the Good Life,” “Simple Foods for the Good Life,” “The Good Life Album,” and “Loving and Leaving the Good Life” (not to mention “Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life,” a farm-and-tell memoir by a former neighbor).

But with the exception of a large spike in the early 1970s, sales have largely accumulated in the methodical way Helen and Scott established their homesteads in Vermont and Maine: Put some hay on the compost pile, gather some rocks to build a stone house, hold a weekly meeting on world revolution, repeat precisely and relentlessly for decades, and voila, a legacy.

Ask a veteran of the back-to-the-land movement, and chances are they remember the moment they first encountered “Living the Good Life.” Eliot Coleman, the Nearings’ Maine neighbor and coauthor of the 1989 classic “The New Organic Grower,” had it passed to him samizdat-style at the back of a health food store in 1965 while shopping for a yogurt machine. Vermont homesteader and unofficial Nearing historian Greg Joly happened upon it in its more presentable Schocken edition 20 years later.

“It was the middle of the Reagan administration,” Joly reminisced recently, stroking his long, well-groomed beard and looking out over his…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org