Scott Nearing’s
"Horse Chow"
(Part 1)

Dateline: 25 March 2008

Scott & Helen Nearing in the early years

Scott & Helen Nearing were icons of the 1970s back-to-the-land movement. They fled the rat race of New York City in 1932, during the deepest part of the Great Depression, and moved to a run-down 65 acre farmstead in the rural wilderness of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Twenty years later, they wrote and self-published the book that would make them famous: Living The Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. The book was a chronicle of Helen and Scott’s countercultural quest. Since then, “Living The Good Life” has been through more than 30 printings and sold more than 300,000 copies. In the Preface of the book, the Nearings write:

At the outset we thought of the venture as a personal search for a simple, satisfying life on the land, to be devoted to mutual aid and harmlessness, with an ample margin of leisure in which to do personally constructive and creative work.

The Preface further states:

When we moved to Vermont we 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.

What exactly motivated the Nearings to make their life-changing move? Surely the depression was a factor. But there was much more to it. The book hints of the deeper reasons when it says that because of their “pacifism, vegetarianism, and collectivism," they were denied "their part in public education.” Knowing something more of Scott Nearing’s background brings a clearer understanding....

He was born in 1883 to a well-to-do family in Pennsylvania. At 23 years of age he was an assistant professor at the Wharton School of Economics. Nine years later they fired him for his vocal opposition to child labor. One wonders how opposing child labor in factories and mines would get a man fired from his job as a professor. Well, evidently, he directed his venom at the Philadelphia industrialists who were benefiting from the use of child labor. These moneyed interests exercised their plutocratic powers and Nearing was out.

In 1917 Scott Nearing railed against the war, which he recognized as a capitalist tool to enrich the plutocracy. He wrote an anti-war pamphlet and was promptly indicted by the federal government for instigating draft dodging. At his trial he addressed the jury with an eloquent final statement, declaring that it was his right and duty as an American to voice his conscience. They deliberated for 30 hours and acquitted him.

Scott Nearing ran for Congress as a Socialist. He did surprisingly well but lost. He joined the Communist Party and, after disagreeing with them, they kicked him out. Unable to get a job in education, Scott turned to speaking. For nearly ten years he made speeches and debated such luminaries as Clarrence Darrow. Then came the Great Depression.

Again, from the Preface of “Living The Good Life”....

Under the circumstances, where could outcasts from a dying social order live frugally and decently, and at the same time have sufficient leisure and energy to assist in the speedy liquidation of the disintegrating society and to help replace it with a more workable social system?

That rhetorical question resonated with me when I first read it 32 years ago. Even though I was not a Communist or a Socialist, and even though I thought Capitalism was a good thing, and even though I thought foreign wars were probably necessary, and that vegetarians were oddballs, and even though the word “plutocracy” was nowhere in my personal lexicon, I knew something was seriously wrong with modern culture; that it was self-destructive. I intuitively understood that living simply was living better.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the Nearings and their book. I still am. Here is another excerpt from the Preface:

We left the city with three objectives in mind. The first was economic. We sought to make a depression-free living, as independent as possible of the commodity and labor markets, which could not be interfered with by employers, whether businessmen, politicians or educational administrators. Our second aim was hygienic. We wanted to maintain and improve our health. We knew that the pressures of city life were exacting, and we sought a simple basis of well-being where contact with the earth, and home-grown organic food, would play a large part. Our third objective was social and ethical. We desired to liberate and disassociate ourselves, as much as possible, from the cruder forms of exploitation: the plunder of the planet, the slavery of man and beast; the slaughter of men in war, and of animals for food.

We were against the accumulation of profit and unearned income by non-producers, and we wanted to make our living with our own hands, yet with time and leisure for avocational pursuits. We wanted to replace regimentation and coercion with respect for life. Instead of exploitation, we wanted a use economy. Simplicity should take the place of multiplicity, complexity, and confusion. Instead of the hectic mad rush of busyness we intended a quiet pace, with time to wonder, ponder and observe. We hoped to replace worry, fear and hate with serenity, purpose and at-one-ness.

It was an idealistic, utopian vision the Nearings had, and, to a degree, they achieved what they set out to do. Today, the Nearing's simple, agrarian-based “good life” still beckons to many. They see that our industrialized culture is bereft of substance and meaning. To such people, Living The Good Life is a worthwhile read. It contains practical advice and inspiring examples. I recommend it. However, this book should be read with discernment. It is a chew-the-meat-and-spit-out-the-bones kind of book.

Bearing that in mind, I would be sorely remiss if I did not state that I feel the Nearings missed the mark in their quest. I can not fathom a “good life” without my Christian faith at the center of it all. I can not imagine the “good life” without children and grandchildren to share and enjoy it with. Both of these things are conspicuously missing from the Nearing’s example.

Though not specifically discussed in their book, one need not look far to discover that the Nearings were not Christians. Helen’s thinking was heavily influenced by Buddhist beliefs. One assumes that Scott’s was also. Their lifestyle has Buddhist overtones. Though they acknowledged and loved the natural world, they held pantheistic beliefs about origins. They embraced the Hindu theology of reincarnation. This explains their vegetarianism and never owning any animals. Curiously, Helen made it a point not to even say the word, “God.”

Helen was also an avid dowser, a practice known as divination in the Bible, and strictly forbidden by scripture. When she and Scott decided to leave Vermont (because it was getting too developed and crowded) they turned their sights to coastal Maine. To find the best place for their new homestead, Helen dowsed with a pendulum over a map of the state. They moved where the pendulum told them to move.

In the final analysis, I’m convinced that “the good life,” as the Nearings knew it and lived it, was not "the best life." They left out the most important things. They failed to see and understand God's grace, and His mercy, and they neglected to give Him all the glory for all the goodness they had ever known.

All of which brings me to my own definition of The Good Life:

When a simplified lifestyle, separated-from-the-craziness-of-an-ungodly-world system, is lived within the God-ordained agrarian paradigm, and is pursued with a Biblical worldview, in humility and love, for the purpose of raising godly families (unto future generations), while blessing those around you, and strengthening the body of Christ, and influencing others to pursue righteousness, then God is glorified, and that is, in my opinion, as good as it gets.


P.S. You may be wondering why I titled this essay Scott Nearing’s Horse Chow. Well, it was my original intention to write about the unique food concoction the Nearings ate. They called it "horse chow," but it was not for horses. We’ll talk about horse chow next....

CLICK HERE to go to part two of this series.


brierrabbit said...

I read the Nearings account of their lives as a kid, and always thought living that way would be great. However, I also noticed that there was little about religous faith in their book. I have noticed over the years that the most successful agrarian societies were religous ones. One point though. About dowsing. Here in the Ozarks, which has a history of superstition and folklore, whole books being written about it, dowsing was called "water witching" However, people did not consider the dowser a witch, or even that magic was involved. It was just considered an ability, like artistic skill, or musical ability. It was really the only way for simple, non technological agrarian , {also religious} people to find water. They never considered it divination. In, fact, divination was greatly feared, and could get you called a witch, and that could, and did sometimes, get you killed. People really believed in witchcraft, in those days. Great blog you have. I come back often to read it.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the insight. I have heard of their books, but never really had any desire to read them. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit... Anyway, thank you for speaking out about the evil of "water witching". So few get it...

Jim Curley said...

It's interesting that just recently I picked up the Nearing's book in the local library and read it-always trying to find tips to make our humble and fledgling homestead efforts more successful.

I too was struck by God's absence in their life-that's something unthinkable around here. But as I blogged a couple weeks ago, I noted that even the unbelieving Nearings did something different than their usual work on Sundays....

The Nearings still have some practical things to teach even if their philosophy and beliefs were misdirected-May God grant them rest.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for having the courage to leave the comment about the dowsing/divination. I had learned about it after I became an adult. As a young Christian, I could never figure out why it just didn't "set right" with me. Now I understand!! Thanks much and God Bless!

Anonymous said...

I am a conservative Christian and never would have even thought water dowsing was a problem I just think it is a way of finding water, it just seems all erie in books that wrap it up with hexes and spells etc well back into the bible I go i do not want to be on the wrong side of this one as I try to be careful of these things,old farmers just called the dowser up like we do the well driller now so I am feeling sceptical but I do want the truth .

Anonymous said...

how about a little tolerance. just because the nearings (and i) didn't embrace christianity doesn't mean anything was missing in their life. i was brought up in the universalist church and my parents let me decide what i wanted to believe or not believe in which i feel is the way it should be. christianity is a path but those that feel it is the only path should try embracing the tolerance that their spokesman so often talked about. christians so often speak of forgiveness and tolerance but when push comes to shove, many of them only allow these traits within the christian belief. pretty short sighted and intolerant i call it. let kids (and everyone) make up their own mind and not have christianity forced on them like it was the only way. its a way but not the only way.

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks for your comment here.
I'm not for forcing Christianity on anyone. Did you read that in this essay?

Since you bring this subject up, I would like to point out that you have a significant misunderstanding about the "spokesman."

Jesus Christ made it very clear that forgiveness comes only when people follow Him. He made it very clear that "no man cometh to the Father but by me." He made it clear that He was the only way.

Yes, Jesus was loving and forgiving, but he was in no way tolerant of unbelief and the sin of unbelievers.

Best wishes,

Herrick Kimball