HELEN AND SCOTT NEARING are the great-grandparents of the current back-to-the-land movement, having abandoned the city in 1932 for a rural life based on self-reliance, good health and a minimum of cash.
Actually, the city-and the society that now glorifies them-kicked them out. The University of Pennsylvania bounced Scott from a professorship in 1915 for his strident opposition to child labor. His crusade against U. S. intervention in World War I got him indicted for interfering with military recruitment (he was later acquitted); and even the Communist Party expelled him in 1930, condemning his brand of socialism as too individualistic.
Unable to teach or punish without abandoning his principles, Scott, with Helen Knothe-then a pampered concert violinist, world traveler, and confessed "political ignoramus"-wound up in a $5-a-week cold-water flat on the East Side.
Broke and blacklisted, and prefering rural poverty to city squalor, they left for southern Vermont. There they focused their considerable intelligence and courage on self-sufficiency, eventually transforming 65 eroded acres into a thriving homestead, Forest Farm, (described in a previous book, Living the Good Life ).
When the ski industry arrived, ripping into their mountainside and values, ("We were not happy in surroundings that were becoming a center for trivial activities and purposeless living"), they left for Maine in 1952 to start again.
Continuing the Good Life covers the years in Harborside, Me., where the Nearings produce almost all their food in an organic garden and sun-heated greenhouse, cut their own firewood, and contend with thousands of pilgrims seeking "the good life."
But dilettantes after a woodsy dolce vita , always leave disappointed. The Nearings, stewards of the mind and soul as well as the land, have no patience with self-indulgence. They follow a daily "four-four-four formula":
Four hours on gardening or similar work providing "the basic essentials of living normal, healthful, serviceful lives."
Four hours of professional activity-Scott has written 50 books on economics and homesteading, six of them with Helen.
And four hours "dedicated to fulfilling our obligations and responsibilities as members of the human race."
Continuing the Good Life is fascinating, timely, and wholly useful, a mix of the Nearings' challenging philosophy and expert counsel on practical skills. We learn about eating from garden and greenhouse throughout a harsh Maine winter, building with stone, growing blueberries as a cash crop, hand digging a pond (16,000 wheelbarrow loads), and more.
The Nearings also explain their dedication to healthful living, describing their lifelong vegetarian diet ("We eat nothing that walks or wiggles") and how their varied but disciplined lives have kept them "chronically well."
With 50 years of self-sufficient living behind them, the Nearings (Helen, 75; Scott, 96) are "still questioning, investigating, searching and aiming to build a more rewarding and more creative life. For those who are so minded and so willed, we have written this book."
While lacking the depth of the Nearings' book, Self-Sufficient Country Living is a good first book for the would-be homesteader, offering basic information on gardening, livestock, and wild foods.
Some material is curious, however., Savage warns us to keep "birds of nearly every kind" out of our garden, a dreary and ecologically unsound idea. And he tells us the ownership of a chainsaw "is hardly worthwile." Good luck assembling ten cords of firewood with bow saw and axe.
The chapters on goats, pigs, hens, ducks and rabbits are well done but somewhat sketchy for serious husbandry. We're told, for example, that "a parturient goat will kid without assistance." Alas, Savage won't be around to help when you're up to your elbows in blood and the kid is breech and your veterinarian is off skiing in Colorado.
This is an honest book though, and the author admits the impossibility of telling the "intending countryman all he needs to know." Fortunately, Savage includes instructions for home brewing and vinting. So, when your pipes burst and your chickens get the pip and you run out of the firewood and your prize sow is seduced by a wild boar, you may repair to the root cellar to stay happily snockered on parsnip wine until spring. Then you can turn the whole mess over to a real-estate agent.
City-bound dreamers will delight in The Almanac of Rural Living , a bizzare jumble of reprinted agriculture extension bulletins, animal husbandry books, diagrams and miscellaneous instructions for just about everything:
Candle-making, weaving, ceramics, silk-screening, pole-building constrution, making bricks from rammed earth, building a hand-cranked washing machine, and even panning for gold. This last, presumably, to support you while enjoying this richly eclectic life.
Neese, who gives us no indication he's actually done any of this stuff, also includes a chapter on health: "Do not wear wet or dirty clothing. Wash dirty clothes and dry them in the sun. . . . . Do not wear at night what you wore during the day."
We are also told to slaughter a steer by hitting it between the eyes. A photo of the doomed animal is conveniently displayed with a big "X" superimposed on the target. "A sharp blow at this point," we're asured, "will immobilize the animal for several minutes."
More likely the homesteader will be immobilized permanently, leaving the family to pay funeral expenses with the last of the gold nuggets. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption