BROOKSVILLE — Revered as “founding mother” of the back-to-land movement, author and activist Helen Nearing died after a one-car accident near her Harborside home Sunday afternoon. She was 91.
Helen and Scott Nearing published the first of many books on “the good life” in 1953. The books became bibles for people wishing to live simpler lives, and inspired many to abandon jobs and city lifestyles in search of rural satisfactions and greater self-sufficiency.
Helen Nearing’s most recent book, “Light on Aging and Dying,” touts the benefits of death with dignity. Its author said in recent interviews that she would end her own life by starving, as her husband had, when the time was right.
Nearing was headed east on Route 176 in Brooksville around 1 p.m. Sunday when the 1982 Subaru station wagon she was driving failed to negotiate a sharp curve, and struck a tree, said Dan Lawrence, a Maine State Police dispatcher. Nearing was taken by ambulance to Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She was not wearing a seatbelt.
“We were really close, I talked to her every day,” said Nancy Berkowitz of Blue Hill, who was among several people gathered at Helen’s home Sunday evening for consolation, and to make preparations for a memorial service.
“I’m crushed,” said Nearing’s neighbor Eliot Coleman, a renowned author and gardener whose own work was inspired by the couple. “It was wonderful knowing her and having her as a neighbor, and it’s going to be lonely without her.”
“We know she’s happy, and she was ready,” said Nearing’s friend Ellen Laconte of Belfast. “What we all have to deal with is how we will get along without her.”
Daughter of a prominent New York businessman, and trained as a violinist, Helen Knothe met Scott Nearing when he was 45 and she was 24. After he was fired by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toledo because of his radical political views, the couple moved to Vermont, where they farmed, wrote and sold maple syrup from 1932 until the early 1950s.
Longing for greater isolation, they bought 140 acres in Harborside, where they built a farm from the ground up and lived together until Scott Nearing’s death in 1983. He was 100.
During their 30 years on the farm, and even after Scott’s death, countless disciples of the Nearings’ way of life came to visit and learn. Many stayed in the area to build dreams of their own.
“People coming to see her was a little like people going to Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone. She just represented something they wanted to see and touch,” said Coleman, who once made the same pilgrimage himself, as had another neighbor, the late Stanley Joseph, who died last spring.
In his 1991 book “Maine Farm,” Joseph described visiting the Nearings in 1975 as a result of reading “Living the Good Life,” and how the book changed his life.
“The Nearings were practical people as well as philosophers, and in their book they explained how to garden organically, what could be done with all the food one grew, and how to live more in harmony with nature and the community. They didn’t make it sound easy but they did show how to take more responsibility for what one did everyday,” wrote Joseph.
Joseph eventually bought some of the Nearings’ property, including the original house, and established his own Maine farm.
Coleman expressed surprise at the news of Nearing’s death Sunday, describing her as a still vigorous “90-year-old teenager,” who, to his knowledge had no trouble driving or doing anything else.
“There have been times when I’ve been sitting around here wanting to discuss an idea with someone, and the person who had the best mind to discuss the thing has been a 90-year-old woman,” Coleman said.
In recent years, Nearing had spent much of her time making appearances to publicize her books, including “Loving, and Leaving the Good Life,” published in 1992. As years passed, the organic farmer remained true to the vision she and Scott first espoused decades before.
When she addressed a standing-room-only crowd at an Earth Day event in Bangor last April, a single sentence summed up her philosophy: “Live simply and frugally with an eye to the needs of others to come.”
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Brooksville Community Center in South Brooksville, said Laconte.