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Helen Nearing: Conscious Living/Conscious Dying

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Polly Bennell and Andrea Sarris
Directed by Polly Bennell with Andrea Sarris
VHS, color, 56 min.
High School - Adult
Popular Culture, Sociology, Environmental Studies

Reviewed by Charles J. Greenberg, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University


Helen Nearing (1904-1995) and her husband, Scott (1883-1983), are probably best known as first pioneers and later mentors for the back-to-the-earth counterculture movement that blossomed in the late 20th century. Their celebrated writings (e.g. the book Living the Good Life) and camera-ready openness to share their life philosophy with others over seven decades is portrayed through words, music, and images in Helen Nearing: Conscious Living/Conscious Dying.

The video production by Polly Bennell and Andrea Sarris allows Helen Nearing herself to relate much of the story of her self-described very good life. Additional detail and perspective is provided by on-camera appearance of the individual biographers of the Nearings. A soft and sparkling guitar/flute soundtrack introduces a reflective Helen, who provides her own narration of her childhood, accompanied by still family photographs. Most of the visual images continuing throughout the film are photographic evidence, alternating with the occasional filmed narrative by Helen. The musical portion of the soundtrack uses the Shaker spiritual tune and variations on Simple Gifts, appropriate for the similarity implicit in the Nearingís lifestyle.

The lives of Helen and Scott portrayed in the film start out on unique individual trajectories prior to intersecting. Scott rose to the stature of a University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor before being repudiated and ultimately dismissed for strong public pacifist views during World War I and his scathing criticism of the corporate sponsorship of child labor. Helen was steeped in the upper middle class culture of classical music and the unfettered freedom granted by her parents to travel and experience unhurried intellectual pursuits, such as a close youthful relationship with the young future-philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Scott was 21 years older than Helen when they met in 1928, yet on an intellectual plane they experienced uncanny synergy and mutual respect, with Helen dedicating her activities to support and realize Scott's ideas for reforming society. At the height of the 1930ís depression they tired of a harsh New York City existence and struck out for the northern frontier of rural Vermont.

What distinguishes Helen and Scott Nearing from those similarly inclined was their ascension during our so-called Information Age. How else can it be explained that a modest and status-unconscious couple living in a remote area without telephone or electricity could become idealized icons of simple, unencumbered homesteading.

The story and presentation of Helen and Scott as presented in Conscious Living/Conscious Dying is idealized. While celibacy is not an overt topic, the non-appearance of children in the Nearingís relationship reminds one of the Shaker community's rejection of procreation as a societal building block. [Shaker communities instead relied on religious conversion and new membership in their community to replace the need to create offspring]. Neither official biographer addresses an explanation for the childless circumstance (Scott is described as having a son from his first marriage). Although well known for their dedication to a vegetarian diet, there is more detail about Helenís growing of food than the philosophical and health underpinnings of vegetarian consumption.

Scott's death is told both from Helen's perspective and the perspective of Scott's biographer. Shortly after his 100th birthday, Helen describes Scottís decision to cease eating and hasten the end of his own life. Helenís biographer describes Helenís subsequent social re-emergence from the shadow cast by Scottís end-of-life care. Helen describes her own lifelong fascination with the meaning and purpose of life. It would have been informative if a sensitive interviewer could have interactively probed issues of faith, faithfulness, and whether Shaker cultural similarities were merely coincidences or specifically chosen models for the humanity the Helen Nearing exemplified.

Recommended for academic and public library collections on popular culture, alternative lifestyles, and movements for social change.