With limited gardening experience but strong spirit, a young couple confronts the challenges of running Forest Farm, the final homestead of back-to-the-land pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing. In the process, the pair learns as much about life and community as they do about working the land.
From March 2000 to March 2001, we were the resident stewards of Forest Farm, the last homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing in Harborside, Maine. Forest Farm is maintained by The Good Life Center, created in 1995 when Helen passed away. This nonprofit organization dedicates itself to “perpetuating the philosophies and lifeways exemplified by Helen and Scott Nearing, two of America’s most inspirational practitioners of simple, frugal, and purposeful living.’’
As the resident stewards, our primary duties included caring for the organic gardens and buildings, and engaging with the many seekers, pilgrims, and curious folks who found their way out here. We learned so much and were profoundly inspired by the Nearings and the communities that both physically and spiritually surround Forest Farm. The following passages are excerpts from the journal that we kept during our stay.
Neha writes: We arrived at Forest Farm late last night, plowing our overloaded van through snowdrifts. The late winter storm has passed, and we wake up in sunlight, enveloped in a history that we know little about but that feels as palpable as the stones that hold up this house.
Our early morning exploration of the house and garden reveal the bounty of food generously left for us by Jake and Jen, our predecessors, who left just a few days ago. Jars of tomatoes, sweet pickles, grape juice, rosehip sauce, and dilly beans fill a couple of shelves in the cellar. Farther back in the darker part of the cellar, we find boxes of potatoes (more than we could possibly eat), beets, carrots, parsnips, garlic, and an incredible basketball-size kohlrabi gigante. This alone will supply us quite a few meals.
What we find outdoors amazes us even more. We shovel our way into the quickly warming greenhouse and find brilliant salad greens under row cover. It’s an oasis of color: lettuces, spinach, mache, claytonia, tatsoi, kale, arugula, scallions, and generous bunches of parsley. Attached to the greenhouse is a fifty-by-fifty-foot stone wall enclosing the main garden, where we can see the tops of overwintered leeks and kale. After digging out the cold frames, we find rows of small jewel-like greens awaiting the coming thaw. Jen and Jake have left us sustenance and inspiration.
We imagine our summer garden as we look out over this place nestled between forest and salt water, rising from the low tide of winter. For now, with snow blanketing the garden and a frozen row of well-tended compost piles, we know that we have a bit of time to get to know our surroundings, to learn more about Helen and Scott, and—for the first time for both of us—to plan a garden.
Neha writes: Our first tender seedlings came up about a week ago: delicate shoots of onions, peppers, tomatoes, celery, leeks, and radishes. Delicate, but so powerful in their ability to push skyward through the soil. It certainly inspired confidence to see them appear. When we start to worry too much about the garden—whether it will all come together and if we’ll be able to leave the next caretakers the bounty that was left for us—I remember what our friend Mark would say: The seed, when planted, wants to germinate, and the plant wants to grow. We just help it along. All the good advice that we’ve solicited from neighbors has helped quite a bit, too.
Chris writes: It’s a warm morning, and the nesting phoebes above the balcony door outside of Scott’s room busily gather food for their insatiable clutch. Stepping out the door, thinking that the parents departed for another circuit through the apple trees, I’m greeted by the flutter and wheeling of the returning mother, who was as surprised as I was to cross paths. The luscious sight of mist bathing our garden drew me outside. Such a beautiful view of the garden we have from our bedroom door! Our busy porch mate is waiting with a mouthful on the eaves, content to view the scene as well. It feels as though the garden, the house, and its inhabitants are growing accustomed to us, as we are to them. Having drunk my fill of sweet, wet air, I go back inside, and mama phoebe quickly delivers her gifts and flies out for more. It’s time to feed ourselves and get into the garden.
Neha writes: We’re canning tomatoes today. Red, yellow, and green fruit and a food preservation bible in hand. Sweating over the cook stove, I recall Helen and Scott in the first scene of an early 1970s documentary film. Helen squeezed as many whole tomatoes as possible into a quart jar, Scott topped it with boiling water, and the lid was shut. Done. Helen chose to minimize and simplify her time in the kitchen, unlike Chris and me. Though the author of the book we’re using would surely take issue with the Nearings’s canning methods, their technique worked well enough for them if their longevity stands as proof. Scott died at the age of 100, Helen at age 91, and neither died of botulism.
In the kitchen hangs a photograph of Scott with a great weathered grin and one of Helen standing beneath a mammoth sunflower. Looking at them today, I realize that my awareness of the full cycle of life and death has been stronger and more constant during the last few months than at any other time in my life. The Nearings’s passing is as much a part of their story as their living was, and the deliberate ways that they approached both are evident all around us.
Chris writes: Many people ask if we have followed the Nearings’s way of splitting the day into three distinct parts: four hours of bread labor, four hours of personal/professional work, and four hours dedicated to community service. The quick answer is, well, no. We have aspired to that schedule, and will continue to, but so far we’re just trying to keep up with all that needs doing. I believe this is the very situation that Helen and Scott were trying to avoid—to not get stuck in the struggle to survive. Having talked to some people who have been successful at homesteading, there seems to be a common thread running through their stories. Fetching water, getting wood, and making sure the roof doesn’t leak are important, base-level needs, but equally so are creativity and stimulating the intellect.
Chris writes: Starting in the early fall and continuing through the winter, winds from the west and northwest pile seaweed on the beach in windrows. Composted, this is the nutrient base of the garden. Helen and Scott built a road down to the beach near the end of their old driveway—I call it the sea-manure highway. I bring each teetering wheelbarrow to rest at the current compost pile, draped with rockweed dangling to the ground and a pitchfork stuck into it pointing out the osprey and the raven overhead. Layers of seaweed and hay collected from a nearby field slowly stack up, and I add more spruce poles as the pile grows higher. By tomorrow evening, though, this mass will start its heating cycle and shrink to a quarter of its current volume, requiring more loads. We’re minting gardener’s gold, for stewards who will be here a couple of years after us. Our neighbor says that the most common shortcoming of organic farmers is to get behind on making compost, so tomorrow I’ll bring in more seaweed to keep up the supply.
Neha writes: This has been an unusual experience in many respects, but particularly in the way we have come to know Helen and Scott—as much as we could know two people without ever having met them. It’s an intimate experience living in someone’s home, surrounded by their things, their library, using their tools in the garden, their pots in the kitchen, or seeing an old pair of sneakers in the corner. Helen’s notes are everywhere—tucked into books, pinned on the walls—and I have come to know her handwriting well. That is the material experience we have of them, and the other experience is one that is told: by them in their books; by us to the many who visit this place; and most of all, by people who knew them, or met them once, or just heard them speak on the radio. I can’t really say that I know them now, but perhaps I have a little more of an understanding—a more human picture—of who they were.
When we first arrived, we both struggled to figure out how we fit into this very full place that was Scott and Helen’s home, wondering what they would think of our presence here. Soon we became too busy to think about it, and we’ve found ourselves settled in, living alongside the two powerful personalities still existing in this house.
Chris writes: We’ve been blessed with a musician in our midst. J. J., who came to work at the farm down the road, brought her fiddle and lots of musical energy. Helen would be pleased. Some of us have been gathering to play music, and I’ve been doing my best to keep up, to hit the right notes on my guitar. We’ve been playing for about three weeks, and just a couple of days ago we decided to put on a contra dance down at the Community Center. Tonight we played music and danced. There were people who had never performed on the stage and people who hadn’t been caught dancing in years.
Our final dance of the night was a circle dance. There were three rings of people holding hands, singing a round. The energy was swirling around the room; I could almost see it spiraling up above the group, spinning and tying us together.
Neha writes: The new stewards arrive in a week. The cellar is full of potatoes, garlic, kohlrabi (not as “gigante’’ as the one we received), beets, carrots, sweet pickles, tomatoes, blueberries, and plum and grape jam. Parsnips and leeks are in the garden. There are greens in the greenhouse ready to be picked, and there is snow on the ground. We are content.
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