Minimalists in History: Scott and Helen Nearing

helen nearing

“People say, “What a lot of hard work you’ve done in your life.” Wasn’t hard. It was interesting and worthwhile, and I’m glad we did it.”

– Helen Nearing, in Mother Earth News interview

Scott and Helen Nearing wrote extensively about simple living. Their most well-known book is Living the Good Life, published in 1954. Living the Good Life chronicles their experiences in self-sufficiency after they moved from Manhattan to rural Vermont in 1932.

There, with four hours of work a day, they rebuilt the soil with compost, built several buildings from native stone, grew their own food, and heated their home with wood they cut by hand.

In 1952, they moved to rural Maine and built a new homestead, with a cash crop of blueberries. The Nearings tell this story in Continuing the Good Life.

“We were planning a functioning homestead, not a business; nevertheless we tried to be a systematic as though we were handling a large-scale economic project.”

– Scott and Helen Nearing, Living the Good Life

As you might imagine, to do this, the Nearings had to be incredibly organized. They maintained a card index of activities that included “clear weather jobs” and “rainy day jobs.” They kept meticulous records of all their work, whether construction or gardening.

They handled every problem by following a process, beginning with a survey of the situation, continuing with discussion, writing the decision down, and then creating a written plan. Each element was then fitted into the Nearings’ 10-year plan.

“Then by agreement we decided which of these blocks of time should be devoted to bread labor and which to personally determined activities.”

– Scott and Helen Nearing, Living the Good Life

The Nearings acknowledge that not everyone likes the idea of planning everything down to the last detail. In fact, their neighbors said things like, “Why, they go on a schedule like a train or a bus!”

Perhaps this level of planning sounds unpleasant to you, too. When you read about the benefits of this lifestyle, though, you may change your opinion.

The Nearings spent only four hours a day in what they call “bread labor,” work such as building, tending the garden, chopping wood and canning.

Another four hours a day were set aside for creative and mental pursuits (such as writing and playing music) and recreation.

The Nearings also dedicated four hours a day to “fulfilling our obligations and responsibilities as members of the human race and as participants in various local, regional, national and world civic activities.”

This video offers a quick introduction to the Nearings. To learn more, see if your library has Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life, or a combination of the two called The Good Life.

5 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Scott and Helen Nearing

  1. I have been wanting to read these two books for a very long time but haven’t found them yet. Scott’s comment wishing the bankers to find something to do and leave the people alone was perfect.

    • I’d be surprised if your library system doesn’t have the book – I find my library often doesn’t have books I’ve read about, yet this was there. I read both books many years ago, probably 20-25. It’s always interesting to reread books after a long time to see the shift in perspective. I enjoyed them both times, and came away inspired both times, but in different ways.

  2. That was a fascinating bit of film, Christy. I love how she continued knitting during her husband’s speech, and there was a shirtless guy in the audience. They remind me very much of Thoreau, which of course is a good thing. I will look up the book. Thanks!

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.