Arguably Vermont is the most radical state in the Union in terms of its commitment to human solidarity, individual freedom, sustainability, direct democracy, egalitarianism, communitarianism, political independence, and nonviolence; and it’s been that way for a long time.
Vermont’s radicalism goes back at least to 15 January 1777, when it became an independent republic. It remained independent until it joined the Union as the fourteenth state on 4 March 1791. Because it was never a territory or colony belonging to some other government, it was the only American state which truly invented itself, an event which has left an indelible mark on the character of its citizens over two hundred years later.
Secession represents the most radical form of peaceful rejection of the policies of the central government a state can choose. Although Vermont is home to one of the most active political independence movements in the country today, there is absolutely nothing new about the notion of secession in Vermont. As far back as 5 January 1815, Vermont joined other New England states in signing the report of the so-called Hartford Convention in opposition to the proposal of the U.S. Secretary of War to implement a military draft for continuing the mismanaged War of 1812 with England. This report was, indeed, a declaration of the right to secede.
In 1928 and 1929 a quirky little Vermont literary magazine known as The Drift-Wind published a series of tongue-in-cheek articles by Arthur Patton Wallace and Vrest Orton calling for Vermont independence. According to Orton, the purpose of such a movement would be “to constitute an Arcadia for persons of free thought, active mind, high standards, and aspirations and cultural imagination.”
In November of 1932, radical economist and political dissident Scott Nearing and his partner Helen Knothe, whom he later married, moved to the Pikes Falls region in the southern Green Mountains of Vermont. Near the town of Jamaica they organized an intentional community known as the Forest Farm experiment which was committed to simple living, self-sufficiency, sustainable agriculture, cooperation, mutual aid, and an ascetic lifestyle. The Forest Farm complex included eight stone houses and a 4000-tap sugar bush which the Nearings transformed into a self-sustaining maple candy business.
Nearing, who held a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, was fired from teaching positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Toledo University for his political views. He was strongly opposed to American participation in World War I. Indeed, he wrote an entire book, The Great Madness, devoted to that subject. Although Nearing called himself a pacifist, a more accurate portrayal of his stance on war would be that of one radically committed to nonviolence. He was hardly a shrinking violet when it came to expressing his opposition to American imperialism. Not only was Nearing an active communist sympathizer for over a half century, but he was a nonsmoking, vegetarian, teetotaler. Above all, Scott Nearing was a rebel.
On 6 August 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Scott Nearing wrote to President Harry S. Truman that “your government is no longer mine.”
Nearing’s biographer John Saltmarsh described him as “a complete secessionist from capitalist cultural hegemony.” Saltmarsh opined that “Nearing moved through a series of secessions—from Christianity, from politics, and finally from American society itself. The secessions in his life were progressive repudiations of American canons of moral conduct as well as indications of Nearing’s perception of the fragmented, segmented, discontinuous nature of American society. Only in the isolated private sphere provided by homesteading could a radical resistance and constructive challenge to capitalist culture be nurtured.”
Nearing was not the only famous secessionist who spent time in Vermont during the twentieth century. Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent nearly twenty years with his family in Cavendish, Vermont after he was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974 for the anticommunist books he had published. It is ironic that both men were attracted to Vermont even though one was an ardent communist and the other a vehement anti-communist.
In 1952, after twenty years in Vermont, the Nearings rather precipitously packed up all of their belongings in a truck and moved to Harborside, Maine. There they started a new homestead and continued practicing simple living, self-sufficiency, and sustainable agriculture until Scott’s death in 1983 and Helen’s in 1995. In 1954 they self-published Living the Good Life: Being a Plain Practical Account of a Twenty-Year Project in a Self-Subsistent Homestead in Vermont. When the book was republished in 1970 by a commercial publisher, it became a classic of the simple living, back-to-the-land movement.
The question raised by many was why did the Nearings leave Vermont so suddenly after twenty years there? Increased tourism, cultural isolation, and American individualism were said to have made it increasingly difficult to attract new members to the intentional community located near Pikes Falls. However, the harsh anticommunism associated with McCarthyism also took its toll in conservative Republican Vermont. Vermonters became much less welcoming of left-wing radicals during the Korean War period. However, there can be little doubt that the legacy of the Nearings spread by their numerous books and pamphlets contributed significantly to the huge influx of hippies to Vermont in the late 60s and early 70s, thus leaving a permanent imprint on the heart, soul, and political character of Vermont. And Scott’s granddaughter Elka Schumann continues to exemplify all of the virtues of the good life in Glover, VT where she is a vital mainstay of the Bread & Puppet Theater. It does not appear to be by chance alone that many of Scott’s political views have found their way into Bread & Puppet performances over the years.
To continue their vision of “the good life” beyond their own lives, after Scott’s death in 1983 and before her own in 1995, Helen arranged for the creation of The Good Life Center, a nonprofit organization based at their homestead Forest Farm, in Harborside, Maine. The mission of The Good Life Center is to perpetuate the philosophies and way of life exemplified by two of America’s most inspirational practitioners of simple, frugal, and purposeful living.
Building on the Nearing legacy, The Good Life Center supports individual and collective efforts to live sustainably into the future. Guided by the principles of kindness, respect, and compassion in relationships with natural and human communities, The Good Life Center promotes active participation in the advancement of social justice, creative integration of the mind, body, and spirit; and deliberate choice in efforts to live responsibly and harmoniously in an increasingly complicated world.
For additional information about The Good Life Center visit www.goodlife.org, write to P.O. Box 11, Harborside, ME 04642, or call (207)326-8211.
What differentiated Scott and Helen Nearing from contemporary environmentalists, simple living proponents, and back-to-the-land advocates was their commitment to radical politics aimed squarely at the American Empire. All too many Vermont downshifters and newly minted agrarians overlook the fact that the American Empire is currently engaged in the implementation of a series of military horrors including full spectrum dominance, nuclear primacy, the right of pre-emptive strike, the militarization of space, and imperial overstretch. Simple living may make one feel good, but it really doesn’t do a whole lot to curtail the influence of the Empire and its use of high-tech instruments of death.
Although Soviet-style communism has been discredited in the eyes of most Vermonters, many of the other ideas of Scott and Helen are as relevant today as they were when Scott and Helen were living in Vermont and Maine. For example, the concluding line of Scott’s book Man’s Search for the Good Life was “Live, and help live.”
Finally, I am struck by the similarity in the beliefs of the Nearings and those of the Second Vermont Republic. Supporters of the Second Vermont Republic subscribe to the following eight beliefs: political independence, human scale, sustainability, economic solidarity (buying locally), power sharing, equal opportunity, tension reduction, and community. The evidence is pretty strong that the Nearings subscribed to these beliefs as well.
The Nearings may have lived simply, sustainably, and ascetically, but pacifists they were not. They spent their entire adult lives actively confronting the materialism, the injustices, the racism, the militarism, and the violence of the American Empire. Where are Scott and Helen now, when we need them most?
Thomas H. Naylor
September 1, 2009