The Nearings began their simple life on an old farm on the foot of Stratton Mountain near Jamaica, Vermont in 1932, in the pit of the Great Depression. In 1952 they moved to Maine, ultimately settling on their “Forest Farm” at Cape Rosier (in the village of Harborside, within the town of Brooksville), where they lived until their deaths. Scott remained a thinker, writer, and lecturer on economics and social issues for many years. Their best known books (those they wrote together) are Living the Good Life(published 1954) and Continuing the Good Life (1979). The first of these is often credited with being a major spur to the U.S. back-to-the-land movement that began in the late 1960s.
Helen and Scott were devoted to a lifestyle giving importance to work, on the one hand, and contemplation or play, on the other. Ideally, they aimed at a norm that divided most of a day’s waking hours into three blocks of four hours: “bread labor” (work directed toward meeting requirements of food, shelter, clothing, needed tools, and such); civic work (doing something of value for their community); and professional pursuits or recreation (for Scott this was frequently economics research, for Helen it was often music – but they both liked to ski, also). They clearly honored manual work, and viewed it as one aspect of the self-development process that they felt life should be.
The Nearings were experimenters and were also very widely read. They frequently quoted authors of centuries past in their own books. They found wisdom in some of the attitudes of the past, but did not feel tied to the life patterns or technologies of the past. In no way did they reject civilization, or sacrifice what they accepted as the enriching aspects of modernity. Apart from the necessity that drove them to the land, when they sought a good life during the Depression, keys to their success in the lifestyle included intelligence, commitment, self-discipline, and enjoyment.
Their New England climate sometimes provided as few as 100 frost-free days in a year. For people aiming at self-reliance, this was a big problem. About their subsistence crop raising, they wrote: “Our initial gardening experiences in Vermont… were conventional. We did as the neighboring natives did, planted what they did and when they did. Then we started to branch out.” They began to experiment first with cold-frames and later with greenhouse culture; those years being distinctly different from the present time, there was virtually no personal experience with greenhouses in their area and little accessible literature on the subject.
In Vermont, the Nearings also adopted some innovations in their structure and equipment for preparing maple syrup and maple sugar from the maple trees they tapped; these maple products were sources of cash income for them. During a period when it was becoming standard practice to use manufactured fertilizers and pesticides, they pursued the organic approach to food gardening. In Maine, without sugar maples to provide a cash crop, they cultivated blueberries. The Nearings utilized and refined the slipform stonemasonry method of building houses and outbuildings from stone and concrete (also known as the Flagg method). The Nearings built 12 stone structures, from small to large, on their Vermont land, and nine on their Maine land. In Maine, projects on the new land included a concrete and rock dam the Nearings constructed, resulting in a 1.5 acre (6,000 m²) pond. If anything, Helen was more the stonemason than Scott, though Scott (21 years older than Helen) also worked hard physically, into advanced age.
Their best-known books draw mainly on their personal experience on their homesteads. Secondary content is drawn from reflections on mainstream-American society (which they were critical of and basically rejected), their neighbors, and the positive values they believed in: self-responsibility, healthy exercise and diet, social cooperation, environmental consciousness, etc. The cycles and rhythms of nature were the Nearings’ guide as they successfully provided for about 80% of their food needs.
Their approach to living, based largely on the reduction of wants and a mostly non-monetary return from their organic horticulture and other sorts of labor, appealed to many people. The Nearings offered an almost “open-house” situation on their land for several decades, so that visitors could experience this way of life and learn a bit from them. Living as a couple, without the chore support of a traditional New England farm family, meant they had to get needed assistance in other ways. They were impressively hard-working and self-reliant, but sought cooperation with neighbors. In their early years in Vermont, each season they worked with neighbors, the Hurd family, tapping their maple trees and condensing the syrup. The text and photos in their books also make it plain that the labor from guests helped the Nearings’ projects along (as well, the Nearings wrote they had sometimes hired local expertise and help, when they needed it).
After nearly two decades, they assessed “we had built up our good life in Vermont, improving the soil, clearing out and enlarging the sugar orchard, replacing shacks with concrete and stone buildings, reconstructing roads, and generally converting a sickly, bankrupt farm into a vigorous, healthy enterprise…”
The Nearings saw opportunity for the cooperative development of the lumber industry (and other industries) in their Vermont valley. Ultimately, while they considered their original Vermont-homestead project to be successful in providing a livelihood, as well as contact with nature and enjoyment of life, they felt frustrated by an extreme local household independence—which they felt contrasted unfavorably with the reality in many rural parts of Europe. Their valley neighbors in Vermont, the Nearings wrote, “…looked upon cooperative enterprise as the first step toward super-imposed discipline and coercion. They were suspicious of organized methods and planning. They would have none of it.” For this reason — in addition to the fact that Scott disliked the development of a ski resort at Stratton Mountain, and the mindset of cityfolk who patronized it — the Nearings moved on to another rural place, Cape Rosier, Maine.
Due to the publication of their books, and to their open-house practices regarding guests, the Nearings’ approach was emulated by thousands of people who wanted a life that afforded play and contemplation in addition to work. 
Many sympathetic journalists and admiring friends have published articles about the Nearings. But another view of their lives was written by their sometime neighbor Jean Hay Bright, titled Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life (2003). The author notes that Helen and Scott spent winters traveling a lecture circuit (hinting that a reason might be that a stone house on the waterfront in Maine could be cold). Also (as mentioned in Helen Nearing’s own autobiographical Loving and Leaving the Good Life), Hay Bright makes clear that they were not extremely “vegan” in their vegetarianism (for instance, they ate yogurt and even ice cream), and that they made good and regular use of the volunteer labor of young idealistic visitors who were always warmly welcomed and fed a hearty meal of fresh greens, Helen’s famous soup, and Scott’s gruel — a combination of raw oats, raisins, peanut butter and honey. Hay Bright also conveys that, despite having been critical toward the electric transmission grid and its pitfalls (a nuclear power plant was once proposed for Cape Rosier), the Nearings built a new house with normal modern conveniences, including grid electricity, next to the original Cape Rosier house. That house is now home of “The Good Life Center,” which carries on the Nearings’ work. (www.goodlife.org)