Helen Knothe Nearing
February 23, 1904
Ridgewood, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||September 17, 1995 (aged 91)|
Harborside, Maine, U.S.
|Occupation||Author, simple living advocate|
|Spouse(s)||Scott Nearing (1947-1983)|
Helen Knothe Nearing (February 23, 1904 – September 17, 1995) was an American author, advocate of simple living and a lifelong vegetarian.
Helen Knothe was born on February 23, 1904, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, as the daughter of Frank Knothe, who had a clothing business. She grew up in an economically comfortable family of Theosophists and was a lifelong vegetarian. She graduated from Ridgewood High School and studied the violin internationally. As a young woman, she had a romantic relationship with Jiddu Krishnamurti.
She and Scott Nearing started a relationship in 1928 and married nearly 20 years later, on December 12, 1947, when she was 43 and he was 64. In 1934, the couple left New York City for Winhall in rural Vermont, where they had purchased a rather large forest tract for $2200 and a moderate-sized farm for $2500. They aspired to live a more “purposeful” life and improve their health while disassociating from modern society. At the homestead, they lived a largely ascetic and self-reliant life, growing much of their own food and putting up nine stone buildings over the course of two decades. Cash was earned from producing maple syrup and maple sugar from the trees on their land and from Scott Nearing's occasional paid lectures. However, in her book Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life, Jean Hay Bright documents that the Nearings were both heavily subsidized by substantial inheritances which supported their forest farm. In 1934, around the time they purchased the Vermont property, Helen inherited between $30,000–$40,000 from former suitor J. J. van der Leeuw (equivalent to $570,000 in 2020). Scott received an inheritance from his father that was said to be "at least a million dollars" in 1940 according to Nearing's son Robert. Hay Bright's calculations make clear that while very hard working homesteaders, the Nearings never came close to supporting themselves on their "cash crops" as they state.
Helen and Scott Nearing left the Vermont homestead in 1952 after the area saw an increase in ski tourism, moving to a homestead in Brooksville, Maine, on Cape Rosier, where they continued growing much of their own food using organic farming practices. They cultivated blueberries as a cash crop. In 1954, the couple published Living the Good Life which inspired many young, educated Americans to create simpler, rural lifestyles and the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s. In 1994, Mother Earth News called Nearing the "mother of the back to the land movement." The magazine did first interview Nearing in 1971.
Nearing was a speaker at the World Vegetarian Congress held in Sweden in 1973 and in Orono, Maine, in 1975 and hosted by the International Vegetarian Union.
In 1980, Nearing published her vegetarian cookbook Simple Food for the Good Life. In 2016, 20 years after her death, the Portland Press Herald reported: "The book, which is still in print, contains the ultra-simple recipes for which she was known (such as Simple Celery Soup, made with celery, oil, one potato, water, salt and nutmeg). It was here she famously called herself “a far-from-enthusiastic and qualified cook.”"
In the summer of 1991, Helen and Scott were inducted into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame of the North American Vegetarian Society.
Helen Nearing died in 1995 as the result of a single-car accident in Harborside, Maine. The New York Times and NPR's Living On Earth ran obituaries after her death.
The Maine estate was left for The Trust for Public Land which established the Good Life Center to continue the Nearings' legacy. The farm managers who live at the farm must eat only vegetarian food on the property. People come from across the country for the ability to have the farm manager jobs. The Thoreau Institute acquired the papers of the couple. Her life is continuing to inspire other people to have a homestead.
Co-authored with Scott Nearing