The Wisdom of Helen and Scott Nearing

article image
Scott Nearing at table with a visitor.

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

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 wholistic 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 this regular question and answer column. 

Q: The two of you, through your writing and public
appearances, have had a profound effect on many people in
the “outside world.” However, most homesteaders don’t live
your sort of dual lifestyle. Do you feel that people who
work solely toward their own self-sufficiency are really
turning their backs on political engagement and the serious moral issues of the day
and, instead of speaking out, are “sticking their heads in
organic soil”?

A: In our opinion, homesteaders do not necessarily “cop out”
when they turn to country life. Many such people find that
rural living can leave them with enough free time and
energy to engage in worthwhile social and political
activities. The fact of the matter is that men and women
who are willing to work for serious moral issues will do
so, regardless of where or how they live . . . while those
who do not share such concerns will avoid the issues and
pursue their own pleasures, whether they live in a large
city or on a backwoods farm.

Q: I recently sold my country house — in which I’d lived alone
for three years — and returned to San Francisco . . . a place
where my heart most definitely is not! It seems that my
often enjoyable and always challenging experiences with
rural life have soured me on “civilization.”

I must also admit, however, that I sometimes found living
alone in the country to be painful. My neighbors were all
firmly established in their own family units . . .
and-through no unkindness-weren’t able to offer much
companionship to an unattached individual.

Therefore, though I want very much to lead a
self-sufficient life, I know that I don’t want to try to do
so by myself again! Where and how might a person look to
meet potential spouses/partners who share the homesteading

A: Under the best of circumstances, a solitary life leaves
much to be desired (although there are, of course,
advantages as well as disadvantages to every situation).
We would most certainly advise against trying to homestead
alone . . . since we feel it would be next to impossible
for a single person to deal with the many problems that
come up in the day-to-day course of rural existence.

Keep on looking for the partner you need. (Have you tried
reading through the “Positions and Situations” section in

Q: I have a friend who eats fragments of eggshell (not the
entire shell, but a few chips) every time he dines on an
egg. Furthermore, when he eats fruits or vegetables, he
routinely consumes the skins, seeds, and all (he does not,
however, eat apple seeds . . . since he considers them to
be toxic). My associate also munches on grass from his
lawn. (He claims that it is an exceptionally good source of
vitamin C, and goes on to assert that it is safe to eat
almost all green or yellow flowers and grasses.) In your
opinion, are such dietary practices healthful or

A: Being vegetarians, Scott and I don’t eat eggs . . and
therefore don’t consume eggshells. We do, however, prefer
to eat our fruits and vegetables with the skins on (except
for such thick-peeled varieties as bananas, oranges, and
avocados). We have also eaten grass and made it into a
vitamin-rich juice, although we don’t recommend the
indiscriminate eating of green and yellow flowers and
grasses: After all, buttercups are yellow, and quite

Your friend does sound just a little odd . . . but then,
aren’t we all?

Q: I have a question about mulching that I hope you can answer
for me. Gardener Ruth Stout claims (or so I’ve been told)
that she hasn’t plowed, weeded, or fertilized her gardens
in nearly 14 years! As I understand it, her method involves
simply covering the plot with straw mulch, then planting,
picking, and canning!

Do you folks employ a similar technique? I’d appreciate
your sharing your views on the advantages or disadvantages
of year-round mulching. I’d been under the impression that
it’s best to turn mulch under to help aerate the soil . . .
but am now wondering if the extra work involved is really

I don’t usually get excited about gardening, because of all
the labor involved. Ms. Stout seems to have taken most of
the work out of growing crops, though . . . which means
that I might be able to have a garden and enough spare time
to do what I enjoy most . . . go fishing!

A: Ruth Stout learned her mulch-gardening method from Scott,
who first told her about the No-Diggers Association in
England (to which he had belonged for decades).
Furthermore, we haven’t plowed our garden plot for 26
. Our work does involve turning over the soil — using a
hand cultivator — after every rain or watering, however. This
practice effectively eliminates unwanted plant growth
between the rows, killing the weeds while they’re still

Ruth Stout spreads her garbage on the surface of her
gardens, while Scott and I compost ours with seaweed before
applying it to the beds as a mulch . . . and we do think
that the extra work of composting and hand cultivating is
rewarded by extra garden neatness and efficiency.

We feel that going fishing is a real waste of your time,
however, and that such “sport” is cruel. Why not spend the
same hours on a productive garden?

Q: My husband and I, and our three children, have homesteaded
for the past ten years and managed to make a success of it.
However, despite the fact that we live in a lovely area,
there are times when I feel a strong desire to get away and
experience other places. My husband, on the other hand, is
perfectly happy staying where we are . . . and has no
interest in spending any of our hard-earned money on a
“frivolous vacation.”

I realize that your lectures take you away from your home
on occasion, and thus offer you a change of scene. I think
that travel can be very valuable, even if it serves to do
nothing more than make one appreciate his or her home.
Would you share your opinion on this matter?

A: I can’t say that either of us really ever feels a need to
take a vacation, but when we do travel to speak or conduct
research, we certainly enjoy the varied surroundings and
experiences that are thus made available to us. We rarely
take “frivolous vacations,” of course. When we leave home,
it’s to do a job and then return as quickly as

Naturally, if we ever had to choose between being eternally
banned from the city or forever removed from country life,
we would vastly prefer exile from the city.