Our family was freshly arrived from a near-metropolitan New Jersey area, new to rural Vermont and still in the process of trying to fit in to a society which still prided itself for “having more cows than people” when we began to hear about “strange things going on up Cram Hill way!” The nearby mountain road known as Cram hill seemed to have all the appeal of a place where the “headless horseman” might still ride at the witching hour to an imaginative 13-year old boy who read too many books.
In truth Cram Hill was a typical unpaved back road passing through a beautiful and heavily forested approach to a small farming community we could walk to – and frequently did -- from our farm place. Near the hamlet of West Brookfield, a hand-built wooden bridge crossed high over Ayers’ brook to reach an old, un-repaired house whose mysterious owner, Elmer Cram supposedly kept house with his several wives. All I knew for sure was that they didn’t have electricity or even a mail box, and we never saw anyone outside.
In time, I came to feel somehow comforted to live in a place where it was “okay” to be different; where even the mystical (and “plural”) Elmer Cram clan, with oil lamps glowing dully behind their time-worn curtains could live free. And in private.
Scott and Helen Nearing had already left their Vermont mountain homestead and relocated in an equally remote area of Maine at Cape Rosier on Penobscot Bay when I became interested in the events which caused them to escape the world of academe and the busy streets of Manhattan. Their book Living the Good Life telling of their decision in 1932 to leave one life behind in favor of a simpler and more basic existence in the unsettled wilds of New England practicing a self-reliant and more natural lifestyle captured my attention. They hand-built their own home and other buildings from stone, sought to raise most of their own food and devote no more than 50% of their time and energy earning a “bread income,” first with maple syrup and sugar in Vermont, then on commercial blueberries in Maine. Because they had become politically “unwelcome” in Scott’s university surroundings where he had been a Professor of Economics at a time when the term peaceniks had not yet been invented they felt they no longer fit in.
After a long period of occasional correspondence, we made a family trip to meet with them and spent several days following them through greenhouses, growing beds, a new stone wall under construction and gaining familiarity with an impressive composting toilet. Scott was 92 and finishing one stone project he said would take “13 more years”.
Having lived from August, 1883 to August, 1983, Scott died “voluntarily” at the age of 100 just as planned. Helen – 21 years younger – drove her car into a tree at age 91 after writing a final book titled Leaving the Good Life. I can say that I have never known anyone who lived more mindfully and intentionally than the Nearings, credited as they are with inspiring the entire “back-to-the-land” movement in America and elsewhere.
In my imagination I often find “myself” living on a small offshore island on coastal Maine and pioneering a “saltwater farm” back at the turn of the 19th century when such a life would have been historically fitting and eminently satisfying. It is understandable therefore that I should greatly admire one who managed to actually live out the essence of such a lifelong dream. Her name was Tasha Tudor one of the most talented and successful writer/illustrators of children’s books of all time. She wished to live the bountiful country life of the 1830s surrounded by overflowing English gardens and small livestock, where she would weave and sew her own clothes from her sheep and goats, raise and preserve her own foods and enjoy the company of English Corgi dogs while producing lovely art work in a period home surrounded by beauty. Tasha Tudor (born Starling Burgess in Boston in 1915) did all this. The only disappointment is that although living near me in Marlboro, Vermont, she passed away at the age of 91 before I made good my hope of visiting with her. Only in America could so many such dreams come true.