The Wisdom of Helen and Scott Nearing

Dedicated lifelong homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing answer questions from MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers about pets, herbal remedies, safe cleaning products, and work opportunities with organic farmers.


Scott Nearing seated at the kitchen table with his interviewer.


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As we've noted several times in these pages, Helen and Scott Nearing are light years ahead of most of us when it comes to getting back to the land and living a life of voluntary simplicity. As well they should be, since they originally homesteaded a run-down farm in Vermont's Green Mountains away back in the autumn of 1932.  

Life was good for the Nearings on that mini-farm . . . until the slopes around them exploded into ski resorts in the early 50's, forcing Helen and Scott to move on to a rocky inlet on the coast of Maine and start all over again.  

And that's where you'll find the Nearings today: still clearing brush, still building honest stone houses (Helen and Scott are famous for their stone houses), and still raising most of their vegetarian diet themselves in unbelievably productive holistic gardens . . . just as they've been doing for nearly 50 years.  

Naturally (in more ways than one), the Nearings have learned a few things about homesteading and getting back to basics over the years. And, lucky for all of us, they've agreed to share some of that knowledge with MOTHER EARTH NEWS' readers in a regular question and answer column. Don't expect personal replies to your queries. The most important and most frequently asked questions will be answered here—and here only—where we all can read what the Nearings have to say.  

Q: I've cleared 1 1/2 acres of alder bottom for my gardens, but now I'm faced with the task of removing the deep-rooted stumps. Is there a way to get rid of them without bringing in heavy equipment? I've seen bulldozers at work, and they absolutely destroy the soil.  

A: Twenty-odd years ago, we faced the same problem that you describe: a piece of cut-over land filled with tree and brush stumps. We simply cut all growth on the plot to ground level and then mulched heavily with rotted hay. In the course of a few years, the stumps had rotted out and the land was clear. This technique provided us with an alternative to bulldozers, and prepared raw land for a successful blueberry plantation. You'll find a full description of how we did it in Chapter 8 of our book. Continuing the Good Life.

Q: I was very disappointed by MOTHER EARTH NEWS' advice concerning pets. I've been a vegetarian for 11 years . . . but I have two cats. I don't see animals as higher or lower than I, though I'm happy to care for them. (Actually, it's in the realm of probability that we could reincarnate on a planet where our existence will depend on whether or not other beings choose to feed and shelter us!)  

Besides giving me more love than do many of the humans I know, my pets make me laugh . . . and laughter is, I think, one of life's great gifts. I know that you're in a position to reach a lot of people. So please, won't you help encourage others to provide homes for some of our abandoned animal friends?  

As a last note ... I share your concern about feeding meat to any living thing. There are, however, recipes available for several vegetarian pet foods: Mother's Bookshelf offers The Healthy Cat and Dog Cookbook by Joan Harper . . . which includes a number of such healthful formulas for this purpose.  

A: It's not that we don't enjoy or love animals . . . domestic and wild. In fact, we find all beasts interesting, lovable, and often exciting to have around. But we don't think they should be subservient hangers-on . . . nor should humans be their nursemaids. If a sheepdog assists the shepherd to perform his daily round of duties, it earns its keep and can be a self-respecting being.

But a pet that exists to be fondled and fed is a parasite, not a social asset. Parasitism is a highly questionable and socially disadvantageous practice . . . both to the host and to the obsequious dependent.

Q: What is your opinion about "herbal" remedies, such as medicinal teas? If you use them, what are your favorites?  

A: We apply crushed comfrey root as a poultice on wounds or blemishes, and the juice from Aloe vera leaves for the same purpose. We drink chamomile, equisetum, and rose-hip teas for their health-giving properties.

Our friend Juliette de Bairacli Levy, in her Herbal Handbook for Everyone, covered the subject in great detail. Unfortunately, the book has gone out of print, but—should you be able to find a copy at a library or used book shop—I'm certain you'd find it very helpful (as are other volumes by Juliette).

Q: I'd like to know what kind of household products you use for everyday cleaning. All the brands in the stores carry "warning" and "caution" labels. I'm interested in finding some natural alternatives to such poisonous chemicals, which would be safe for our environment and for the people who use them. Do you have any suggestions?  

A: We use Shaklee's organic products, which are biodegradable and phosphate-free. A gallon of the firm's highly-concentrated basic cleaner, for example, lasts for years. One teaspoon in a gallon of water can be used for dishes and pots and pans . . . while one teaspoon in a quart of water is good for kitchen and bathroom appliances, tiles, enamel surfaces, floors, and woodwork.

Q: I became acquainted with you by means of articles in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, books, and word-of-mouth. I would really like to come and work with you ... as I want so much to learn more about organic, low technology gardening.  

I have, in the past, apprenticed at Sonnewald with the LeFevers, who were very helpful to the many they reached. However, I found that the learning process—in that situation—was often interrupted because we would frequently have to stop what we were doing to let someone else work on the same project for a while.  

Of course, I don't know whether you're in need of help. If not, perhaps you could tell me of other East Coast organic gardeners who would like to have apprentices. I love to work hard and would be a willing helper.  

A: After thousands of people dropped in on us each year wanting to learn or "to help" ... we had to get out a form letter that reads something like this: "We're glad that you're interested in our way of life. Since the publication of our book Living the Good Life , hundreds have asked whether they could visit our farm for a summer, month, week, day, or hour. We would like to see you all, but this creates problems. If we turn from self-sufficient homesteading to operating a school, a guesthouse, a restaurant—or any such institution—we'll be giving up our good life and going into business!

"We prefer to continue to live in our simple homestead way, allowing time for our writing. . . which we tackle in the mornings. We might see visitors—by arrangement—between 3:00pm and 5:00pm in the afternoon, but our mornings are wholly our own.

"We're sorry not to be more hospitable, but too many visitors would keep us from necessary consecutive work at several new books, which we're determined to finish. Thank you for your consideration in helping us continue to live the good life."