On Light Alone
by Ellen LaConte
Loose Leaf Press, 1996
126 pages, $13 paperback
Stockton Springs, ME
There have been more books over the years by Helen and Scott Nearing – intrepid homesteaders, vegetarians, socialists, exemplars of high-quality, high- integrity, frugal living – than books about them. Now that both have departed their good lives, Scott at age 101, Helen at 91, that fact is bound to change. They can no longer speak for themselves. But their friends, particularly friends of Helen, who are still grieving her 1995 death, are full of memories and eager to speak of them.
Ellen LaConte came into Helen Nearing's life after Scott's death and acted as her secretary, designated biographer, and dear friend. Though she saw every flaw in the opinionated, sometimes gruff, vigorous old lady, LaConte came to view her as a kind of guru, and she characterizes this memoir of Helen as a “guru meditation.”
“Helen Nearing was not yet a fully enlightened, completed being,” LaConte writes. “She knew of the workings of enlightenment, had stood often at the gateway and seen in, but she had not had the full experience. She said she was still in spiritual kindergarten. However, she went further along the Path than most of us ... Her commitment to service was real: her triumph over private adversities was hard won and genuinely humble. She loved life but was detached from the things of it in a way that made her seem, if not blase, at least easy and untroubled and light … She lived full-tilt and died full-tilt. She lived more consciously than most of us and died more willingly than most of us. She was a guru-in-training.”
And so Ellen LaConte felt drawn to meditate upon her friend Helen's life and death as one would meditate on the life of a beloved spiritual teacher, absorbing lessons both personal and profound. This book is the result. It is an expression of raw grief that is almost, but not quite, painful to read, because you can see acceptance work into the author's soul as she articulates the very words you are reading. It is a deeply moving study of grief, a poem of love, and a new insight into the woman so many of us emulated for years, not in her spiritual life, about which she and her husband Scott rarely wrote, but in her ways of canning rose-hips, building stone walls, and collecting maple syrup.
Helen's cookbook, embellished, as are all her books, with esoteric quotations from many authors and centuries, is much more about not cooking than about cooking. Helen wouldn't touch animal products, and didn't think grains should be made into bread, or vegetables spiced too much, lest they tempt one into eating more than one should.
Living on gruel and fresh, organic vegetables and fruits (and peanut butter), paying as they went, refusing to oppress animals or people, the Nearings crafted a lifestyle of quirky independence, unapologetic principles, and incredible industriousness. The principles and the lifestyle are what impress in their books – and what brought thousands of their readers to emulate them, visit them, and admire them.
It was only in Helen's second-to-last book,Loving and Leaving the Good Life, which was her autobiography and exalted account of Scott's death, that her spiritual side came out. And then her final book was a collection of quotations about death. Helen was clearly preparing for her own death, and was ready for it. Ellen LaConte describes it for us, along with her own perceptions of the last years of Helen's life.
“Helen didn't get old in the way we mean that someone changes themselves to suit being ‘aged.' She never made the adjustments that women think they are supposed to make as they grow older, and never reduced or relaxed her expectations of herself. “Until her last year, ... she was still collecting stones “in case there might be another building project.”
“She moved as lightly and precipitously in age as she had in youth. She had to be persuaded not to leap from cars before they'd come to a full stop. She tilted forward and a little to the right when she walked, as if she would lean into where she was going in order to get there sooner. ... She could outdistance people half her age, was more likely to be out in front with the children than lagging behind with the grownups.
“Helen let her wrinkled old neck and saggy-baggy arms and legs out into the sun without any thought that at 90 propriety demands that one cover up. It never occurred to anyone that Helen should do any different, because it never occurred to Helen that she should. Even in her old skin, Helen was perfectly natural being Helen.”
Over the years I accumulated and assimilated most of the Nearings' homesteading books. I founded a homestead myself. When it came out, I read and treasured Loving and Leaving the Good Life. Only last summer, after Helen's death, when I visited the third of the Nearings' stone homes, called “Forest Farm” like the other two, and built up like the others, stone by stone, when he was 95 and she was 75, only then, as I listened to the treasured tales of Helen's and Scott's friends and neighbors, did I start to systematically acquire as many other books by and about the Nearings as I could find.
Ellen LaConte was silent at that visit; she was still tangled in grief. Now she has found her way out and contributed her account, holding back almost none of her love and sadness and spirit and acceptance. It is a valuable addition to the wonderful Nearing legacy.
Reviewed by Donella Meadows, adjunct professor at Dartmouth College, and co-author of Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits.