By Jennifer Van Allen
“They spent 14 years building a stone wall!” my husband declared one night, dog-earing a page in The Good Life, Helen and Scott Nearing’s memoir and homesteading manual. By the time they finished it, he said, pioneering back-to-the-lander Scott Nearing was 87 years old.
“Eighty-seven!” my husband marveled. “Can you imagine?”
We were living near Philadelphia at the time, longing to escape killer commutes and draining routines that left us little time for the people we loved, the projects we cherished, and the outdoor adventures we ached for. Reading Maine books like The Good Life offered us hope that it was possible to simplify and prove there were people out there who treasured the woods and water as much as we did. We admired the Nearings’ pay-as-you-go credo. We loved the idea of growing our own food, building our own furniture, and committing just four hours to “bread labor,” the rest saved for civic, intellectual, and leisure pursuits.
We devoured every book we could find about Maine and highlighted the places we read about in our bedside Gazetteer. We were enchanted with Isle au Haut, the tight-knit island where “there was no Kmart or any other mart” that fishing-boat captain Linda Greenlaw described in her memoir The Lobster Chronicles. We wanted to be surrounded by people who felt, as artist and yurt guru Bill Coperthwaite put it in A Handmade Life, “intoxicated with the joy of making things.”
We pored over We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich’s classic account of her family’s life in the Rangeley backcountry. Candidly, she described her own ham-handed moments of homesteading and her indignation about society’s expectations, in 1942, of how a woman should look, dress, and behave. She wrote elegantly about the very things we wanted: the chance to attain happiness through achievement and to conduct our own search for personal peace, a little security, and a little love.
“It isn’t much to want,” Dickinson Rich wrote, “but I never came anywhere near to getting most of those things until we took to the woods.”
Our annual Maine vacations validated our hunch that the Pine Tree State was our promised land. Arriving each August, we felt the “sensation of having received a gift from a true love,” as E. B. White described the feeling of crossing the Piscataqua in One Man’s Meat, his remarkable collection of essays about daily life on a Maine saltwater farm. We went to Bucks Harbor in South Brooksville to see Condon’s Garage and get ice cream, just like the family in Robert McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine. When we visited the Nearings’ homestead on Cape Rosier, we were gobsmacked to find the gardens and stone walls looking just as pristine as they’d appeared in the 60-year-old photos in the Good Life books.
Each year, we returned to Philadelphia more smitten with Maine than ever, more determined to create our own good life there one day.
Then, in 2014, we packed up our books and moved to Maine. We’re not homesteaders, like the Nearings. We don’t live on a dirt road off the grid, but on the main street of our small town. Our vegetable garden is a middling effort, and I’m too paranoid about botulism to get into canning. We do far more than four hours of “bread labor” each day, and like most people we know, we struggle to unplug.
But we have made a very good life here. My husband achieved his dream of building a boat. It’s a dory that looks an awful lot like Sal and Jane’s in One Morning in Maine. Our schedules revolve around the tides, and we spend part of each day tromping through wooded preserves where the chickadees outnumber people.
Our lives wouldn’t meet the Nearings’ strict standards for self-sufficiency, but we have found our own brand of peace, one we never came anywhere near to getting until we took to the woods.