I enjoyed Jean Hay Bright’s “The Good Life Revisited” [January 2005] about back-to-the-land pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing. The excerpt tells us not only to “question authority,” as the bumper sticker says, but to question idealism. Sometimes we believe what we would prefer to be the case, as opposed to what actually is the case.
Reading Jean Hay Bright’s piece brought back my own memories of Helen and Scott Nearing.
In 1982, my wife and I made a pilgrimage to Forest Farm, the Nearings’ homestead on the Maine coast. Scott was ninety-nine. Helen, close to eighty herself, took us on a whirlwind tour of the homestead. The experience was memorable. I saw that these legendary counterculture icons were flesh — Scott wrinkled like a dried pepper and Helen with slight wattles and liver spots on her face.
In 2001 I was invited to Forest Farm on business, and my wife and I spent a night in Helen’s bedroom. (Helen had died a few years earlier.) The books, furniture, quilts, and stoves in the stone house all carried the scent, so to speak, of Helen and Scott. I loved getting the chance to be with them indirectly, by spending time in their home.
My wife and I ate meals with the two young stewards of Forest Farm, and the four of us spent a good hour digging up Helen and Scott’s inconsistencies, like pigs after truffles. An actual hypocrisy counted as a prizewinning truffle. Mere philosophical disconnects were just little snacks.
Our pleasure at this curious sport — my wife and I don’t ordinarily engage in gossip — demonstrated the hold the Nearings had on our imaginations. Something elevated Helen and Scott to titans in our minds, and neither their wrinkles nor the placement of their light switches could alter it. I suppose all this digging in the relatively scant dirt of their lives was just another way to humanize them, to discover that these icons were flesh.
Give in to the temptation. We love getting mail.
(Of course, we reserve the right to edit.)