At The End Of A Good Life

Scott Nearing's dignified death, like his life,
sets an inspiring example for all of us

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 20
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Perhaps the most profound reason for our intensely consumptive lifestyle is, at bottom, our fear of death. "You can’t take it with you," as they say – though you can try to numb the terror with the things that money can buy. But in his purposeful death by fasting at the age of 100, Scott Nearing demonstrated that there are better, simpler choices.

Throughout their lives, Helen & Scott Nearing were a living example of the possibility of such choices. Their experience, memorialized in Living the Good Life and a string of other books, has been an inspiration to thousands of people looking for an alternative to modern industrialism. On their homesteads first in Vermont and later Penobscott Bay, Maine, the Nearings built, made, grew and collected nearly everything they needed. Yet they still found plenty of time for nourishing their inner lives and giving to others – through music, education, writing and speaking.

Here Helen Nearing, who still lives at the Maine homestead, recounts the story of Scott’s purposeful passing. For more information about the Nearings’ rich-yet-simple lives and their many books, write to Social Science Institute, Harborside, ME 04642.

Doctors practice medicine. Scott and I intended to write a book together, We Practice Health, which never eventuated, though we wrote much on the subject in various chapters of our homesteading books Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life. We rarely if ever used doctors, pills, or hospitals. Yet Scott lived to a hale and hearty 100 and died when he decided to – by fasting for a month and a half at the very end.

He had always been physically active, in the woods, in the garden, in building construction. He was also active mentally, having written 40 or more books from his 20’s to his 90’s, including an autobiography, The Making of a Radical.

"Work," said Scott, "helps prevent one from getting old. My work is my life. I cannot think of one without the other. The man who works and is never bored, is never old. A person is not old until regrets take the place of hopes and plans. Work and interest in worthwhile things are the best remedy for aging." Still, he was facing the end and knew it.

Interviewed in 1981 he said "I look forward to the possibility of living until I’m 99." His blue eyes twinkled. "It is a precarious outlook, I assure you. With age, your facility of expression and perception diminishes. I have almost nothing left but time. But if I can be of service, I would like to go on living." Walt Whitman, at a far earlier age (70) said, "The old ship is not in a state to make many voyages, but the flag is still on the mast and I am still at the wheel."

Most people begin to get old in their 60’s. Scott only began to be old in his 90’s. Up to then if anyone called him old I was outraged, because he neither looked nor felt old. Sure, he had plenty of wrinkles. They came in his 50’s from a lot of hard work in the sun. But failing and getting feeble? No.

He did more than his share of mental and physical work up to his last years. At 98 he said "Well, at least I can still split and carry in the wood." And when he was close to the end, lying in our living room, his one regret at leaving this Earth plane was on watching me lug in the wood for our kitchen stove. "I wish I could help with that," he said. He was a help unto the end.

A month or two before he died he was sitting at table with us at a meal. Watching us eat he said, "I think I won’t eat anymore." "Alright," said I. "I understand. I think I would do that too. Animals know when to stop. They go off in a corner and leave off food."

So I put Scott on juices: carrot juice, apple juice, banana juice, pineapple, grape – any kind. I kept him full of liquids as often as he was thirsty. He got weaker, of course, and he was as gaunt and thin as Gandhi.

Came a day he said, "I think I’ll go on water. Nothing more." From then on, for about ten days, he only had water. He was bed-ridden and had little strength but spoke with me daily. In the morning of August 24, 1983, two weeks after his 100th birthday, when it seemed he was slipping away, I sat beside him on his bed.

We were quiet together; no interruptions, no doctors or hospitals. I said "It’s alright, Scott. Go right along. You’ve lived a good life and are finished with things here. Go on and up – up into the light. We love you and let you go. It’s alright."

In a soft voice, with no quiver or pain or disturbance he said "All…right," and breathed slower and slower and slower till there was no movement anymore and he was gone out of his body as easily as a leaf drops from the tree in autumn, slowly twisting and falling to the ground.

So he returned to his Maker after a long life, well-lived and devoted to the general welfare. He was principled and dedicated all through. He lived at peace with himself and the world because he was in tune: he practiced what he preached. He lived his beliefs. He could die with a good conscience.

As to myself and my old age: I try to follow in his footsteps. It is not so easy homesteading alone, but I carry on. A few more years and I also will experience the great Transition. May I live halfway as good a life and die as good a death.

Going It Alone

by Helen Nearing

Satisfaction in life seems to come from living in tune with your beliefs, in tune with other humans and animals you encounter, and in tune with your environment. Scott and I worked together at this for over 50 years, with some measure of success.

If we thought it a good idea to live in the country and breathe fresh air and grow our own clean fresh food and cut our own wood and build our own houses, we did it. If we thought it was wrong and unnecessary to consume animals for food, we ate only vegetables, fruits and nuts. Live and let live was our motto. We tried not to exploit humans or animals and looked on all as our brothers. We neither poisoned nor polluted the earth, and tried to leave the earth a better place than we found it. If this appears bombastic and self-congratulatory it’s not meant that way and we didn’t feel that way. We merely looked on life as a welcome opportunity to put certain ideas into practice – ideas we believed in and did not want to leave on the shelf. We tried to make our lives meaningful and live according to our ideals.

Now I have the chance to see if a lone woman can continue the effort all by herself. It is possible, but not so easy. Fuel is no longer provided from trees on the place; Scott always tended to that. I now get it from neighbors. I still garden and grow a large proportion of what I eat. Building is finished; there is housing enough, though I still collect stone for possible future use. I maintain the house and grounds, and welcome countless people who stop by to see if the Good Life is still real and being practiced.

Homesteading is best done by a couple or family, with the necessary chores delegated and shared. A communal life is richer than a single one. Mankind was doubtless meant to live in company, not isolation. Personally, I like living alone, if I cannot live with Scott, but it has its disadvantages especially as one grows older. I am now 86, "old and well stricken in years," but I still live on the land and off the land, and will do so until I too go on into the Great Unknown.

I have just finished another book, called Leaving the Good Life, mostly about Scott, his purposeful life and his planned, dignified death.

But I’m not leaving quite yet. Maybe another book or two.