The life of Scott Nearing is a powerful story. A professor of economics, he was quickly blacklisted as a radical for his protests against capitalism, injustice and war. Out of work, he and his wife Helen established a farm in Vermont, where their self-reliant lifestyle began what came to be known as the Good Life in their books. I have previously mentioned Living The Good Life: How To Live Sanely And Simply In A Troubled World, which tells their back-to-the-land story. It was an inspiration to many, and people would visit the homestead, free to stay and help out. Four hours bread labour a day, then time to write, talk or engage in other progressive activities. If there was any doubt that this was the good life, Scott lived to be a hundred years old before his death in 1983.
A good ending is essential to a good story. As Helen told it in Loving and Leaving the Good Life, when Scott reached one hundred, he knew his health was failing. Their life was about honesty, simplicity, fearlessness and deliberate choices, a path outside a system they viewed as unsustainable. At Scott’s end, he was not about to seek medical interventions to prolong his life. One day he decided to stop eating. He died peacefully at home. This image of his death affected me. If I find myself in a similar situation, I thought, dying and clear of mind, I would like to make that kind of choice about my death, and face it with eyes open. It would be a good ending.
I have sometimes told others about Scott’s death. The usual reaction is, yikes, starving to death would be painful. I would just brush aside that natural reaction, but LaConte’s Free Radical has given me cause to reflect more deeply. After Scott died, LaConte become close with Helen, working with her as a secretary and designated biographer. She learned that there was more to Scott’s death, more that needed to be told for people like me who felt Scott’s death exemplary. The short, inexpensive book is available from the Good Life Center. LaConte provides keen insight into the mythology that shrouds the Nearings. She adds missing elements about Scott’s suffering and the Nearing’s dependence on others, without detracting for a moment from respect for them. It completes the picture for ordinary people, essential reading for anyone interested in unconventional views about death. A sad or bittersweet ending can often be just as satisfying as a happy one.