July 31, 2020

The truth behind the backwoods ‘good life’

MEANWHILE, NEXT DOOR TO THE GOOD LIFE, by Jean Hay Bright, BrightBerry Press, Dixmont, Maine, 2003, $20.

When I came to Maine in 1970, everyone I met talked about buying some land, homesteading and leaving the consumer economy behind. Most of us never had the money to buy a decent car, let alone any land. We all read the back-to-the-earth bible, “Living The Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing, the model of successful homesteading.

Jean Hay Bright did a lot more than talk about homesteading. She actually visited the Nearings (with the book in the car) and, astonishingly, the Nearings offered to sell Hay and her husband 30 acres next to their farm. The Hays actually fashioned a good home and life out of the Maine woods, but never quite measured up to the Nearings, their idols. It was only after the Nearings’ deaths that Hay investigated and found out that the couple were (at least comparatively) quite well off and were able to live “the good life” with the help of trust funds, insurance policies and other windfalls, which were curiously omitted from their writings and lectures.

Bright has chronicled these adventures (and misadventures) in “Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life.” Personally, I found the book to be terribly long on details of every can of beans packed during the homesteading years and woefully short on the details of Bright’s political career.

Perhaps because she was so used to doing without money, Hay ran on a shoestring against Olympia Snowe for the House in 1994. When George Mitchell bowed out of the political life, Snowe left the representatives’ race and a candidate named John Baldacci emerged to beat Hay in the four-way primary and win the seat vacated by Snowe.

Keith and Jean Hay came to Maine around New Year’s in 1971 with a whopping (for the time) $7,000 in savings. They found a possible site in Stetson, but decided on a whim to visit the legendary Nearings before they signed anything. Anyone remotely interested in homesteading has read the Nearings’ “Living The Good Life,” first published in 1954. Scott Nearing had objected to World War I, which gave him legendary credentials in the anti-Vietnam crowd. He was the 1970s poetic version of Paul Bunyan to many young people. Supposedly the Nearings had purchased land in Vermont for $300, cut their own firewood, made maple syrup for a cash crop and lived “the good life” before moving to Maine.

Every year thousands of pilgrims came to the Hancock County village of Harborside arriving “by thumb or Volkswagen van to touch the hems of the Nearing robes, to pick up on their magic,” Bright wrote.

In their VW bus (naturally), Jean and Keith visited the Nearing farm. While Keith chopped wood with Scott, 88, Jean drank tea with Helen, 69, in the famous farmhouse. On their return visit to the farm, the Nearings offered to sell them 30 acres of their land for $2,000. Her neighbor on the other side was the young Eliot Coleman, who would later write the highly popular books “The New Organic Grower” and “Four Season Harvest.”

This was a chance of a lifetime, to get back to the land on a plot next to the guru of homesteading. Of all the thousands of people who made pilgrimages to the Nearing farm, Keith and Jean had been anointed as acceptable neighbors. They never, ever, learned why.

To all of us who dreamed of homesteading and never did, the construction details in “Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life” are fascinating. But the almost daily chronicle of gardening and canning is a bit excessive.

But Bright held out for a few creature comforts. When she made the trek to the outhouse, she brought along toilet paper not the “freshly gathered sphagnum moss,” which the neighbors used and recommended.

After two children were born and raised in backwoods conditions, the “good life” took a toll on the marriage. In July, 1978, the couple decided to divorce. Bright relates she lost her husband to a woman with a trust fund, which was used to buy out her share of the homestead.

Bright took a job with the Bangor Daily News and, sadly, had to write the obituaries of both Helen and Scott Nearing. The obituaries are published in full in the book.

Only after their deaths did Hay fully realize that the Nearings were trust-funders, whose income allowed the Nearings to live their “good life” with such ease.

“It is much easier to be philosophical, dogmatic, eccentric or even radical, when you don’t have to worry where your next dollar is coming from,” Bright said after learning the financial details. One relative estimated that Nearing’s inheritance was at least $1 million, in 1940! Helen Nearing also received a trust fund.

Bright concludes, “It is not that it’s impossible to live the homesteading part of the good life the way the Nearings recommended. We did it and so did hundreds of other young idealists. But now I know why our version of the ‘good life’ didn’t match the pictures in the book.”

In conclusion, she writes, “I do have sympathy for people who believe everything they read in a book and then go out and try to live their lives by it.”

She should.

Emmet Meara is a regular contributor to the Style section. He can be reached at emmetmeara@msn.com. “Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life” is available in local bookstores or directly from BrightBerry Press, 4262 Kennebec Rd., Dixmont, ME. 04932. Visit www.brightberry.com.

Correction: In the Nov. 17 Style section, a review of Jean Hay Bright’s book “Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life” should have said Scott Nearing and his five siblings shared $1 million inherited from their father’s estate.

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