This past week, I traveled to Steuben, Maine, where I visited a rather extraordinary individual named Larch Hanson. For the past forty years, Larch has been harvesting and marketing seaweed from his hand-made house, across the road from a sweet, tranquil cove where he keeps his boats and dries his harvest. I had come to hear and record his story. For twenty-five years, he lived in a small cabin with few of the essentials most of us take for granted. He carried water from the stream for all those years and an outhouse was there for the necessities of life. Then, a few years ago, he replaced the cabin with a large, four-storey house, a plain-looking structure except for the lighthouse attached to the east side – the lighthouse conceals a fire escape required by code. From the outside, the house is like a large barn, probably 30 by 40, maybe bigger. His partner, Nina, had been showing me around while we waited for Larch to come home from town. My eye fell upon a neat border of blooming daffodils around the foundation, also adorned with an abundance of comfrey. “Pheasant’s Eyes!” I said, so surprised to see again this most distinctive narcissus, which has gone by down in my part of the world. “Is that what they are?” she replied and added that Larch had transplanted them there from his mother’s garden in Minnesota. We both looked more closely at these hauntingly beautiful faces nodding in the cool sea breezes. It gave me the odd feeling that they had followed me here, or I had followed them or been led by them, the same feeling I had had when I found them on the table of desserts at the talk I gave in Madbury and then, amazingly, once again when I gave a talk in Hollis. Both times, I was able to identify the bloom only because of Mary Liz’s quest (see my earlier post). It certainly was the year for the Pheasant’s Eye. At least for me.
The rest of that week reminded me of what I love about the work that I do. I spent intense hours listening to Larch who had come to Steuben in 1970, a disciple of Helen and Scott Nearing, who more or less established the back-to-the-land movement in New England by building their own house of stone and preaching the principles of simplifying your life and avoiding debt at all cost. “Pay as you go!” I remember Scott thundering at a room full of listeners at UMass in the early 1970s, pounding the podium as he said each word individually. I was in that room and heard his message so loudly that my husband and I endeavored to buy a piece of land and build our own house, all for cash, cash that we did not have before we heard those words. We bought their book, Living the Good Life, which had been written in 1954 but which seemed every bit if not more relevant then, in 1973, than it might have been in those bright-eyed days of the post-war years.
We were revolutionized by what we read and looked around at the potential of the rural land all around us. We turned off the main circuit to the electrical panel in the farmhouse we were renting at the time and brought out the oil lamps. Both of us were employed, doing modest jobs and we worked out a stringent budget. We bought woodstoves (everyone had discarded theirs by then and they were available for not much money) and cut cords of wood, by hand. We tilled up a huge plot of soil next to the house and planted rows of vegetables that I had calculated would provide us with a succession of food throughout the summer and fall and I learned to can. We converted the basement into a root cellar and learned the basics. Turnips and potatoes figured heavily into our plan. We were on a mission! Within a year, we had saved $15,000 – enough to buy 7 acres down the road and the lumber and materials to build the small but comfortable house we had spent the winter designing. The house had wood heat, a wood cookstove, solar hot water, a composting toilet, and a system of hand-pumped water clever enough that it appeared in Organic Gardening, my first published article. We installed each as we saved the money, wiring the house but not turning on the electricity until the very end of the project.
And so it began, just as it did for Larch Hanson and probably thousands of other like-minded young people throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine at that time. We tended our gardens in our relative isolation, in community with this huge band of Nearing worshippers. But by the early 1980s, we started to fade from the landscape as the societal demands that Scott Nearing had railed against gradually overtook those who had so hoped that this kind of conscious living could take hold and substantially influence a world increasingly obsessed with war and material goods. Everyone was at odds. Eventually my first husband and I divorced, which forced us to sell the house we built, a house I still long for in its simplicity and clever innovation.
Scott Nearing died in 1983. He was 100 years old and his face was weathered like a dried apple. After a life of conscious decisions, he made the conscious decision to stop eating. His life work was done and he felt the need to leave the good life. Helen cared for him to the end and lived on. She wrote their last book, Loving and Leaving the Good Life, and it was then that I first met her. She was coming to Peterborough to give a talk on a Sunday morning, a talk sponsored by our local hospice. My husband, Paul, had benefited greatly from their services, which was a new movement at the time. They knew of my affection for the Nearings and asked me to drive to Harborside, Maine, to pick up Helen and drive her down here to Peterborough. I did so with distinct pleasure. I arrived in her driveway, a place much imagined over the many years of my allegiance. She was sitting on a stump next to the front door to their handbuilt house, waiting for me. She showed me the storied house and its stone-walled gardens. The Nearing house was across the road from the cove, so they could be near but not on the water – always thinking about the taxes they did not want to pay, undoubtedly where Larch got his inspiration. We set forth onto the highway, talking most of the way, an extreme privilege for me to have such a lot of one-on-one time with this Queen of self-sufficiency. She was in her late eighties at the time and as hearty as a forty-year-old. She died one year after that, in a strange automobile accident, colliding with a tree just across from their house in Harborside. No one ever knew if she had fallen asleep or steered her car into the big tree on purpose. Life without Scott must not have been the good life. That she should die in a car, something that she and Scott eschewed for many years, seemed like a supreme irony to me.
I had journeyed to meet Larch, expecting an interesting encounter with a man who indulged in a unique industry but had not expected to re-encounter the Pheasant’s Eye as well as the spirit of my old friend Scott Nearing, which revitalized my interest in Scott and his philosophy about life. I read his biography on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Nearing), itself an innovation of our time, and learned more than I had ever known about him. What I had always known was that he was a pacifist and a man of principle and nothing in the reading dissuaded me from that notion. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think of our world today, the Wall Street crimes, the proliferation of wars and unrest throughout the world, and the manipulations of information, disguised as “news.” Even his quiet, provide-for-yourself life in Harborside could not have shielded him from the tragedy of this.
I still heat with wood and that very same cookstove of all those years ago remains the center of my kitchen. Locally raised eggs, meat and a CSA, all down the road from me, provide for what I don’t grow myself. I’m investigating the possibility of solar, though it is still fiercely expensive. The problem is that this iPad life is now ridiculously expensive. One of the Nearings' early hand-made houses in Stratton, Vermont, where they had started out in the 1940s, is now for rent for $1200 a week and the house boasts a gas fireplace, microwave and satellite TV, a fact that makes my point better than any words I can conjure. It would be a very tall order to exist now as the Nearings did from the 1940s to the 1980s. At least from what I know about this world, that is my conclusion.
(I will be writing about Larch and his seaweed in a future issue of Yankee. Stay tuned!) Read More