The Good Life, perhaps the all-time classic on self-sufficient living, actually includes two books: Living the Good Life, first published in 1954, and Continuing the Good Life, first published in 1979. Long billed as a Bible for the would-be self-sufficient, this book tells the story of Helen and Scott Nearings’ move from New York City to homestead in the Green Mountains of Vermont, in 1932—the deepest part of the Great Depression. They tell the story of how they “left a society gripped by depression and unemployment, falling a prey to fascism, and on the verge of another world-wide military free-for-all; and entered a pre-industrial, rural community.” This was a dark and desperate time. The Nearings’ own employment prospects appear to have been grim: They were barred from teaching in the schools, writing in the press, or speaking on the radio, because of their political views. But for tens of thousands of others. there was simply no work to be had. For the Nearings, the escape into self-sufficient subsistence farming seems to have been both a practical solution and the realization of a long-held dream.Many people today feel the same desire to escape a system that grows increasingly dehumanizing, whose injustices and indignities are offensive. Yet few people do more than dream of such a lifestyle. The reasons are fairly obvious: Such a life demands physical vigor, a demanding skill set, and a willingness to live an austere life. The ideals and values that are presented in The Good Life provide a fascinating glimpse into the philosophy of the social idealists of the 1930s. The Nearings’ sweeping rejection of the whole social and economic apparatus of modern society is an indictment that the modern reader may find breathtaking, since the voices of the socialists of the last century have, for all practical purposes, been silenced for many decades. “We look upon profits and the profit system as iniquitous,” the Nearings state. They rejected the idea of “making money or profits,” were determined to avoid debt, and were strict vegetarians. They felt that material needs could and should be met in a four-hour work day, and allotted the remaining four hours to “personally directed activities”: reading, writing, music, or just loafing. With these principles in mind, the Nearings moved into a drafty and run-down farmhouse. Modern readers will also need to be reminded that farmhouses in that era featured no electricity; no running water other than a hand-pump in the kitchen, no indoor plumbing, no central heat, and virtually no insulation. The Nearings’ bathing facilities were better than those most enjoyed in the l930s; there was a “Finnish bath”—a sauna—since the farmhouse had been purchased from a Finnish family.Their first objective was to establish a productive garden and, equally essential, to cut firewood for cooking and heating.
They were also acutely aware of the need for a source of cash income. They discovered they could meet their cash needs for by producing maple syrup and maple sugar from the sugarbush included on their land—a stroke of good luck. The chief value of The Good Life is that it provides so much practical detail for meeting material needs—even prospering—in such a setting. The Nearings gardened organically, built a comfortable house made of local stone, and undertook many other building projects. Their vegetable gardening success is particularly impressive, considering the harsh Vermont climate, with its short growing season of just a little less than three frost-free months. To produce food self-sufficiently, year-round, without refrigeration, is clearly quite a challenge even in a more moderate climate, and many of the methods they used have been largely forgotten by more recent generations: Overwintering vegetables that could be dug from the ground all winter, or which would begin producing even before seed-planting time, is one of these methods. Root cellaring is another. One of their guiding principles was the simplification of life to minimize labor and maximize leisure. They did little canning, and even minimized cooking and dishwashing. Modern readers may find such minimalist practices surprising, but it is hard for the modern reader to realize how labor requirements are magnified by the lack of mechanization in general—and running water in particular. The Nearings’ experience is inspirational, but not without caveats. Reading between the lines, it is clear that the Nearings were not without capital resources to purchase land, tools, seeds, and infrastructure. It’s also clear that they had a thorough knowledge of the practical skills involved. Dreamers of self-sufficiency seldom have much awareness of the necessary skills, nor a very precise idea about financial requirements. Vegetarianism is also a distinct advantage, both from the labor standpoint and from the standpoint of capital needs. Another caveat: The Nearings were a childless couple—a great advantage to anyone undertaking an austere—and isolated—lifestyle.