Helen Nearing: Liver of The Good Life

Helen Nearing’s influence on my life has been profound and I am honored to write this post to celebrate her and her husband, Scott.  I grew up in the 1960s and 70s in a liberal university town where their works were widely read, so I have always just assumed that everyone knew of them and had a copy of “The Good Life” on their shelves.  But a couple of days ago, I realized that this view was most likely wrong and that there are probably millions of women who have never heard of Helen.  So, if this is the case with you, I would love to introduce you to one of my favorite women of all time, Helen Nearing.

Helen Nearing and her husband Scott moved to a farm in Vermont in 1932 and began a grand experiment in what would now be called “voluntary simplicity.”  They grew their own food, built their own house, made their own clothes, and only made enough money to meet their most basic cash needs.  (Until this time, Helen had grown up in luxury and done very little physical labor. Think of the faith, love, and courage it took for her to make the decision to do this!) They divided the day into four-hour blocks:  one was for “bread work,” meaning what they needed to do to meet essential needs to sustain life, one was for community service, and one was for leisure and recreation. 

The key was to reduce their needs to a minimum.  No trips to the mall, no fancy clothes, no new cars, nothing that did not serve a useful purpose.  In exchange, they got back four or more hours a day and the satisfaction of spending their time outside, doing honorable, healthy work, and being role models for people like me who were looking at non-traditional ways of living their lives. 

To me, voluntary simplicity is less about doing things a certain way than in creating a new relationship between yourself, your work, and money.  It is about not taking the media’s word for it that you really need 95% of what they are selling. It is the realization that if you do not needs gobs of cash, you do not have to give away your precious time and energy at a job that is extremely stressful and time-consuming instead of one that is fulfilling, requires fewer hours and serves others, but may be lower-paying.  You can choose how you spend the days of your life and what you give your precious talent and energy to.

In 1953, they wrote their book “Living the Good Life” about their experiment and, over the years, until their deaths in the 1980s and 1990s, they were visited by literally thousands of people who came to their home to learn what they had to teach.  They wrote more books and articles, lectured, and always lived what they preached.  Scott was actually the more public face of the two, but he was more analytical and pragmatic, while Helen came from a more mystical, artistic, contemplative point of view and so it was she that I felt connected to, though I never met her.

I do not, of course, follow their lead exactly (as the Coldwater Creek catalog people can attest), but it is because of them that I bought an old house with few modern conveniences and have worked for 20 years with my husband to renovate it, grow many of my own herbs, shop mostly in consignment stores, and take jobs that don’t necessarily pay tremendously well, but pay enough for me to live and help support my family. And, I should say that I am not advocating that women stop fighting to be paid as much as men or that they live at poverty level.  Of course women need to have economic equality – the issue is how much of our lives we want to spend making money, not that we should make less than men – and too many women completely underestimate how much they will really need in retirement.  If you have children or parents to support or care for or have special needs yourself, your financial need will be substantially higher than people like the Nearings, who had no responsibilities other than to themselves and were in good health till their deaths.

What I have recently come to realize is how integral this view of how to make a living can be to women’s spiritual lives.  Many women feel that their connection to the Earth is an essential aspect of their spirituality.  The importance of not over-consuming and making your living in a way that does not exploit the Earth is obvious.  “Voluntary simplicity” is one important way to reduce the amount of energy we use, garbage we generate, and pollution we cause.  There is no better way to honor the Earth than to step away from destroying Her.

Voluntary simplicity is also key to a healthy global web of sisterhood between women.  When food, clothing and materials for shelter are exported rather than used for the good of the women in other countries who make them and factories that make unnecessary goods pollute the environment, especially in developing nations, what we have here in the US really does reduce the quality of life for women around the world.  Here is where “fair trade” can come in.  If you buy goods that are made by women who are fairly paid and who work in safe, ecologically-sound conditions, you can have your imports and help women overseas support themselves in a way that benefits them, too.

Finally, voluntary simplicity is a grand way to express to yourself and others that you are sacred.  Your time, energy and talent is worth more than a cashmere shawl or yet another knick-knack or fancy dinner out.  If you spend the time you gain on “soul pursuits” like music, art, poetry, walks in the woods, reading, or whatever brings you closer to your Creator and your inner self, how rich will you indeed be.  You have not only stated your sacredness, but taken back power over your life by being the one to determine how you spend your time and energy.

In the last few years of her life, Helen wrote a book titled “Loving and Leaving the Good Life” about her marriage to Scott and her thoughts about what their lives had meant.  She chose to end the book with words that were not about economics or freedom or power, but about love.  And this, to me, is the real spiritual message of voluntary simplicity: love yourself and your soul enough not to waste them, love others enough to spend time with them rather than in constant work, love the Earth enough to conserve it; love all beings enough to participate with them in this world in a responsible way. 

But she says it much better than I do: “A network of love crisscrosses the globe…  There are so many threads of love in the world, so much love going on, for and from so many people.  To have partaken of and to have given love is the greatest of life’s rewards.”

To learn more about the Nearings and their work and lives, go to The Good Life Center, the organization that sells their books and continues to spread their message.

                                                                              ~ Carolyn Lee Boyd

By Carolyn Lee Boyd

Carolyn Lee Boyd’s essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in a variety of print magazines, internet sites, and book anthologies. Her writing explores goddess-centered spirituality in everyday life and how we can all better live in local and global community. In fact, she is currently writing a book on what ancient and contemporary cultures have to tell us about living in community in the 21st century. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com, where you can find her writings and music and some of her free e-books to download.


  1. I had never heard of the Nearings and I wonder why. I had no idea that the urge to live simpler and closer to nature went back so far into the 30s. Very interesting.

    I’m so glad you have found the Nearings! Actually, Henry David Thoreau voiced many of the same kinds of sentiments in Walden in the 1840s, though his “experiment” didn’t last as long. He also believed that the real cost of something was how much life you had to give away to get it. So, it’s an idea that has a history but has just been more widely appreciated recently.

  2. I like the idea of voluntery simplicty–it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I have a friend who is at the begining of this kind of lifestyle with her partner. I’d like to do a “slimmed down” version for myself (we have some finanical obligations), unfortunatly I’m not much of a gardner, and with my digestive problems, I not sure I could thrive on local and preserved foods all winter (which is half the year these days).

    I tend to think of it as more of a way of looking at work and money and prioritizing time than following any particular lifestyle — all our circumstances are so different! So, however you find it works for you is what’s important. I’m glad you found the post useful!

  3. Thanks for writing this! I never heard of them before you mentioned them to me. I think it’s a wonderful idea, and as you said, we can do it on different levels. Not everyone has the means or willingness to have a garden, etc., but there are many small things we can do towards having a simple, authentic life. And indeed, the power of love is not to be underestimated – for our selves, our loved ones and our planet. I believe waste truly has a lot to do with lack of love in our lives.

    What a wonderful insight about waste having to do with the lack of love in our lives. Thank you! And I think you do great at living a simple and authentic life!

  4. Hi, Carolyn!

    The Nearings are new to me, as well…I’m happy to have learned abaout them today..thanks.

    Your post is one that brings up alot of emotion for me, because it’s something I’ve wanted for myself and yet haven’t yet found a way to really impliment. Being a single mom of two, (and even during my marriages), it seemed always a dead necessity that I go to work and make as much money as I could – not by doing what I ‘love’, but what I do well and is very marketable. We live a pretty basic lifestyle…somewhere in the middle of the Middle Class (and sinking, it feels like on a ‘bad’ day…the cost of living in California is outrageous!) I’ve prayed, looked, sought after, you name it! – in an attempto to be ‘free’ to spend my time doing only those things I really love.

    I haven’t found that inner key yet, to unlock that door. In the meantime, I just try to keep things together – and find my simple pleasures in unusual times and ways.

    GREAT article..thank you!

    You’re welcome! I think that’s all that most of us can do — living the way we want to the best that we can, but realizing that we also have obligations to loved ones. I think you do wonderfully at finding ways to express yourself and live your dreams through your blog and elsewhere.

  5. I have been thinking about simplicity in conjunction with the old adage “moderation in all things.” For a couple of years, my sister went extreme with the simplicity deal – dumpster diving, not owning a car, etc – but ultimately she was able to give back much less to the world in her work because she had no time or energy. On the other hand, the concept of moderation in my fuel-driven, food-excessive, comfort-filled world is hardly enough to make a positive change in the rest of the Earth. So much for philosophy.

    When I think about what you have written in the terms you have couched it, in particular regarding the spiritual sisterhood through reverence of the Earth, this makes a profound sort of sense to me. I feel like instituting rituals in my life that celebrate these concepts of voluntary simplicity might actually work for me.

    Also, your post has inspired me to write a little in my own blog about chthonic goddesses – you might look for it in a few days.

    I will indeed look for it! I am anxious to read it! Your insights about “moderation” were fascinating. Thanks!

  6. I found this enlightening as well! You have stirred my desire to write again, you may find my ideas “contemptable” due to the inroads forward thinking women have made. But my thoughts are observations from living 60 years and holding a formerly all male dominated role at work as well as being the support of a family of 5 while husband stayed at home. I feel that: Western women have hurt their men and thus their personal relationships with them and worse–cheated themselves desperately. When illness knocked me down and I now have to accept (had to “look up”)certain needs to be provided for me and certain things to let go off. I realized I felt great peace and the ability to further invest in the things I could contribute that could never be provided if I was still in absolute control of my enviroment. With that, I came to watching the great power struggles in marriage. I’ve learned you can do with less, you can do better in fact! The time will not sit idle, you will fill it with emotional growth, love and care towards life and family, appreciation you never had before and the relationship and family, personal or global will prosper from your new avenue of input. Balance, Ying and Yang, Man and Woman.

    I’m glad you found this enlightening! I don’t find your thoughts contemptible at all — I think it is important to listen to all women’s experiences and yours is valuable. I enjoyed your comment!

  7. Thanks Carolynn 🙂 I’m new to blogging, I just started using “My Space” with the urging of a friend, I was hesitant, but it’s a new adventure that I’m glad I tried as it progressed to this exchange. I am really enjoying all your posts here, as I love people, nature, gardens, I continually create my little Oasis here in Nevada, where hummingbirds and dragonflies hover and bees Yes! real bee’s buzz in my pumpkin vines and high in the hollyhocks. To work in the soil and watch Gods magic is a treasure chest of happiness complete with blue birds 🙂 only I have redwinged blackbirds. Thanks again Sue B.

    You’ll love blogging! It really is a great way to exchange thoughts with people you would otherwise never interact with. I am happy for you that you have such a wonderful garden! I love dragonflies and I haven’t seen one in my garden this year!

  8. Geez, I don’t know how to edit here, to add to my comment, I was to zelous to write! I should have held back to till I consumed all of the posts on this page! Anyway, I wanted to comment that oddly, Helen Nearing realized that there is such a wonderful freedom to unloading most of your possesions and she did it on her own volition. Possesions are anchors.Being told the extent of my illness (worked with chemicals,damaged lungs.) I threw away a household of collectables and gave away most all the furnishings, it was necessary to be ready to move to Southern Nevada quickly and so- chuck it all I did. (well mostly)Oh I have never experianced such a release! I can go anywhere, anytime and no worries of storage units or what to give to who.Again balance and a certain indifferance to the “Jones’s”, I too am going to read about the Nearings.

    Yes – not owning a lot of things really can be freeing. I’m sorry to hear about your illness, but I’m glad that you have found a way of life you enjoy more than before.

  9. My parents met while both were living at The Nearing’s, and learning from them. I was honored to meet Helen, but alas I was only about 4 years old, and only have photographs as my memory. It’s wonderful that their books & teachings are out in the world.

    What a great story! Thank you for your comment!

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