At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America

At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America

At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America

At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America


Motivated variously by the desire to reject consumerism, to live closer to the earth, to embrace voluntary simplicity, or to discover a more spiritual path, homesteaders have made the radical decision to go "back to the land," rejecting modern culture and amenities to live self-sufficiently and in harmony with nature. Drawing from vivid firsthand accounts as well as from rich historical material, this gracefully written study of homesteading in America from the late nineteenth century to the present examines the lives and beliefs of those who have ascribed to the homesteading philosophy, placing their experiences within the broader context of the changing meanings of nature and religion in modern American culture.

Rebecca Kneale Gould investigates the lives of famous figures such as Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, Ralph Borsodi, Wendell Berry, and Helen and Scott Nearing, and she presents penetrating interviews with many contemporary homesteaders. She also considers homesteading as a form of dissent from consumer culture, as a departure from traditional religious life, and as a practice of environmental ethics.


We saw our good life … as a pilgrimage, for us,
to the best way we could conceive of living.

Helen Nearing, Loving and Leaving the Good Life


In 1996, I was living in a wood-heated stone house on the coast of Maine. The food I ate came mostly from the garden. The waste I produced went into the soil. I collected seaweed, for the compost, from the Penobscot Bay cove I daily surveyed from my living room window. In ways both large and small, I lived a life dictated by the cycle of the seasons and the pleasures and limits of staying in one place, hour by hour, day by day.

That place was called Forest Farm, a homestead that once belonged to Helen and Scott Nearing. While hardly a household name in mainstream culture, Scott Nearing was well known in academic and socialist circles as early as the first decades of the twentieth century, when he spoke on the lecture circuit with John Reed, debated Clarence Darrow in packed lecture halls, and ran on the Socialist ticket for Congress in 1918 against Fiorello LaGuardia.

Helen Nearing was a less familiar figure, although she was well connected in certain spiritual networks. She was born to parents who were deeply engaged in Theosophy, a nineteenth-century liberal religious movement that grew out of Spiritualism and a burgeoning American interest in Asian religious traditions. Theosophists embraced the concept of reincarnation and encouraged the practice of meditation. They supported the intellectual and spiritual quest for an ancient, perennial wisdom that they believed to be discernible beneath the outer forms of many religious and philosophical tra-

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