Living The Good Life 1: The Book and Background

October 11th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Living The Good Life, Part One

Reflections on the book that launched the 1950s Back to the Land movement, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World by Helen and Scott Nearing, and how Ardis and Philip Hyde implemented the book’s philosophy…

Lower Lawn, Japanese Maples, Aspens, Raised Beds, Apple Orchard, Part of Gardens At Rough Rock, Spring, Northern Sierra Nevada, California, copyright 2009 by David Leland Hyde.

Living The Good Life With Ardis And Philip Hyde, Part One

By Nancy Presser and David Leland Hyde

The first day I met David Leland Hyde, he introduced me to the life and work of his late mother and father, Ardis and Philip Hyde. David explained his father’s life long dedication to wilderness conservation through landscape photography of the American West. David also shared how his father designed, drew the plans and built the family home.

Even though David was fighting off a mid-winter flu, he still took the time to lead me through the Hyde house and Philip Hyde’s photography studio. David said that his father built the place himself over two years beginning in 1957. Ardis Hyde helped in the evenings and taught kindergarten during the day. They acquired 18 acres and built what was originally a 1200 square foot home plus garage and studio, all on Ardis’ school teaching salary. Quite a feat I think even in the 1950s.

After I knew David better he shared with me that everything around us in the home, the flat roof, the solar hot water panels, the clerestory windows, the raised bed vegetable garden, the fruit trees and the whimsical stone lined pond and flower garden were all ideals of self reliance and low impact living that his parent’s adopted back in the 1950s. The foundation of the Hyde’s living philosophy came from the book Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World by Helen and Scott Nearing. This Amazon link goes to the original version which is now out of print and only available used. The new version, The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living, contains the Nearing’s first book Living The Good Life and their second book Continuing The Good Life all in one volume for one low price. Recently, David happened to have his mom’s personal copy of Living The Good Life around and loaned it to me to read.

David is a voracious reader and has loaned or recommended many books to me to read in the time I have known him. However, intuition told me that reading this book was a priority. He first presented Living the Good Life to me in a way that made a lasting impression. He said:

In the 1990s I planted a garden at my place in Pecos, New Mexico. My mother gave me advice regularly and a local green thumb friend also taught me quite a few tricks to gardening in that area. For example, if you plant Marigolds around the perimeter of your vegetable garden it greatly decreases pesky bugs and slugs. As I delved back into gardening, I thought back on the vegetable gardens I had planted with my mother and on the gigantic 40X60 foot plantation that she tended in various years. I also realized that she was probably one of the foremost experts on gardening for butterflies in the Northern Sierra Nevada of California. At the same time some friends of mine had bought land outside Santa Fe, New Mexico and were building and farming. One day while visiting my parents in California, I interviewed my mother about vegetable gardening and gardening for butterflies. I recorded the interview, which turned out to be a delightful discourse between us and illustrated very well my mother’s deep knowledge and love of plants, insects and other aspects of pesticide-free gardening. I wish now that I had made dozens of tapes of her because she was an expert in canning, freezing, preserving, making her own soap, bread, cheese, butter, tofu and many other household items and foods. At the end of our session, she pulled me close and said very seriously, “David, here’s the basis of your mother and father’s philosophy and what we based our home lifestyle upon,” as she handed me her copy of Living The Good Life. She passed on not long afterwards. Ironically, I have only read the first few chapters. Living The Good Life has been on my list for a long time, ever since her passing in 2002. I regret that I did not get a chance to read it and discuss it while she was alive.

Because I now had a key into the insight of Ardis and Philip Hyde, I opened this crucial book to see how I could get to know the Hyde’s better and to learn more about growing a life close to the land. Being a city girl from Long Beach I never lived on the land and I wanted to learn how people did it. The closest I’ve ever come was when I helped create a cooperative organic garden outside San Diego, which we called the Edible Village. We cultivated structures out of plants. We made a dome from collected branches that became a bean and herb garden. We also built a corn maze for the kids and a labyrinth out of plants and rocks. Each participant picked out his or her own stone along the perimeter. We also had chickens and practiced biodynamic composting. I will share more about all of this in blog posts to come in this series. The introduction to Living The Good Life, written in the 1930s, and preface, written in the 1970s, are all about how crazy and chaotic the world was then. What struck me was that nothing has changed. Meanwhile, I have been working to simplify my own life over the last 10 years.

David noticed that I continued reading Living The Good Life more than most of the other books he had shown me. He asked me if I would like to write about my reflections as I read the book and how it relates to what I am discovering about the lifestyle of the Hydes. Helen and Scott Nearing, as well as Ardis and Philip Hyde in kind, had approaches to life that serve as examples that can guide us today toward living more happily and sustainably. What I find most fascinating about reading The Good Life now is that although the first publication of the book was in 1954 and the sixth printing was in 1971, we still have the same, if not worse, chaotic, degenerating society.

Helen and Scott Nearing wrote Living The Good Life after coming out of the Depression of the 1930s:

We had tried living in several cities, at home and abroad. In varying degrees we met the same obstacles to a simple, quiet life—complexity, tension, strain, artificiality, and heavy overhead costs. These costs were payable only in cash, which had to be earned under conditions imposed upon one by the city—for its benefit and advantage. Even if cash income had been of no concern to us, we were convinced that it was virtually impossible to counter city pressures and preserve physical health, mental balance and social sanity through long periods of city dwelling. After careful consideration we decided that we could live a saner, quieter, more worthwhile life in the country than in any urban or suburban center.

For further reading see also Helen Nearing’s latest book, Loving and Leaving the Good Life, written after Scott Nearing passed on at age 100. Here’s Wilda Williams’ Library Journal description:

This quiet and reserved memoir is a tribute to the “good life” and the ideals of self-sufficiency, simplicity, socialism, and pacifism that Helen and Scott Nearing shared for 53 years. Helen was 24 years old in 1928 when she met Scott, a married 45-year-old economics professor who had been blacklisted by universities and publishers for his radical views. In 1932, the Nearings left New York City for a Vermont farm, beginning the homesteading life described in their Living the Good Life (1954), the bible of the back-to-the-land movement. Later, they moved to Maine where, during the 1960s and 1970s, they played host to 2000 visitors a year. For Scott and Helen, old age was a “time of fulfillment. Scott kept his strength and bearing all through his last decades.” But as he neared his 100th birthday in 1983, he chose to leave the good life peacefully by fasting. Helen is a modest narrator, at times so self-effacing that she switches into third person as when she discusses her relationship with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Still, her eloquent chapter on death and old age and her loving portrait of a remarkable man makes this a recommended purchase…

Both the Nearings and the Hydes managed to find and implement the Good Life. For a lively discussion on creating the Good Life on a larger scale through building a sustainable world and the issues related to it see the blog post, “Art, Earth And Ethics 1.”

How would you define The Good Life?

(Continued in the next blog post, “Living The Good Life 2.”)



  1. pj says:

    Cool post. Interesting that they were followers of the Nearing’s philosophy. I’ve read the book several times, though not in the last twenty years or so. I need to revisit it.

    I can really relate to what they say about living in cities. These places aren’t at all conducive to a sane and balanced life. At least not for me.

  2. I understand your plight PJ. According to the Nearings, it doesn’t seem as if much has changed in the city in the 80 years since they themselves left the city. It’s cool that you know Living The Good Life and have read it many times. Perhaps as David and I write this series you will share some of the insights that you received from reading the book.

  3. Hi PJ, thank you for jumping in. Thank you, Nancy, for your reply to PJ and for writing such a great blog post. In many ways cities are getting worse and worse. Nonetheless, hopefully all of the rhetoric about liveable cities, green cities, living cities, sustainable cities, conscious cities and so on will eventually become reality. It will be interesting to see how long it takes. I would guess that as we transition away from a centralized petroleum economy to a more Earth friendly society that we will see the changes we seek in cities. Easy for me to say, sitting here looking out at the wilderness. Yet, I believe it is possible to create cities that are beautiful and worth living in. I know of several that already exist. Does anyone else know of any or have any other ideas on this?

  4. Sharon says:

    I enjoyed this article very much, David and Nancy. I’ve never read the book – I’ll see if the library here has it. My step-daughter is an organic gardener by profession and I have learned so much from her.


  5. Hi Sharon, Thank you for your comment. I hope you can find the book locally at a library, or order it through David’s link above, because it is what my English teacher would say, “a lovely read.” You are lucky to have an organic gardener in the family. I hope she is local too so you can enjoy all the delicious fruits and vegetables of her harvest, as well as your own if you too are gardening. Be Well.

  6. Thanks Sharon. How is the soil for gardening on Nantucket? Are you a green thumb?

  7. Sharon says:

    The soil seems to be pretty good. It’s very sandy here, of course. I don’t have an especially green thumb but I have learned to keep things alive! I had a small garden in Texas and a pretty front yard, but we don’t have a sunny enough spot where we live here for a vegetable garden – just some flowers.


  8. Thanks again, Sharon. Keeping plants alive I believe may be the first step to good gardening. I know some people who say they can’t keep anything alive. All they probably need is a good gardening mentor. I was around my mother’s gardening all my life, which did seem to rub off on me when I tried it as an adult in New Mexico. Fortunately I also had a good local gardener extraordinaire who had all sorts of insights and tricks for every situation that arose. On the other hand, if you don’t have a sunny garden spot, that puts a damper on it. As I recall, New England’s growing season is pretty short anyway. In Pecos, New Mexico I had beginner’s luck and was also fortunate to happen to plant my vegetable garden in the bottom land that was extremely rich and fertile. I also planted Sunflowers from seed and they took off. They spread all around my place and grew 10-12 feet tall. The ancient pueblo people of the Southwest, popularly, but politically incorrectly called Anasazi, believed that Sunflowers originally came with them from another dimension through the Sipapu, the small circular doorway in Kivas through which their Medicine Men traveled to other dimensions and other worlds. While I was growing that garden I was reading Louis L’Amour’s amazing “un-western” Haunted Mesa, set in New Mexico with a plot centered around travel through the Sipapu and the significance of Sunflowers. I realize many people aren’t into this kind of thing, but I must say anyway that my first garden as an adult was definitely a highly magical experience in the Land of Enchantment. Here at Rough Rock, my childhood house and my parent’s dream home in the Northern Sierra Nevada California, we have had to bring in all of the soil and build it up using our old truck mentioned in the blog post, “Covered Wagon Journal” . The land we are situated on here is an ancient rock slide and thus does have bits of soil mixed in, but is nearly solid rock. Also, the growing season is short. Soil and sun do make a big difference, but my mother somehow overcame both to create a thriving, plentiful oasis brimming with tasty food.

  9. It seems everything I pickup to read is about our cultures downward spiral. We are a society that is incapable of sustaining itself. I have often wondered how my grandchildren, and for that matter their parents, would survive without their frozen meals, fast food restaurants. I’m not sure they nor I could keep a growing garden to survive. This past year I read a book called My Dirty Life which dealt with this subject. So, it looks like i have another book to order. Sigh!

  10. Hi Monte, I hear you about the downward trend. Sometimes it is discouraging. Change is exhausting. I could go on and on about too many changes in my life in recent years. But the alternatives to change, not changing, are not acceptable to me any more. It’s not that we are incapable of changing, it’s that we are unwilling, or it’s not convenient enough. I think all the media attention to our culture’s downward spiral is how we as a society will change. First there is acknowledgement, then acceptance, then action. All the information about changing our ways has to get out there first. We will probably go to many extremes before we find a balance as a society. To get out of the fast food trap, a few years ago I talked to my two kids about my New Year’s Resolution being no fast food any more (unless we were in a tight spot when on vacation or driving long distances). Since that year, we have become fast food free. We are still working on the frozen meals, but what was 80% frozen in my past is now down to about 10%. Today I am a home cooking mom. I make extra food so we can have left overs or more meals later. It takes time, planning, and a little creativity, but I am more happy when I do this and so is my family. I’ve never read “My Dirty Life,” but the description on Amazon looks interesting.

  11. Hey Monte, I also looked at the description of “My Dirty Life” and have added it to my “to read” list. I also made some changes to the post above. In Nancy’s third paragraph where she provides the Amazon link to “Living The Good Life” I also added the link to “The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living.” Because “Living The Good Life” is out of print, it goes for over $27 used, but “The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living” contains the whole book “Living The Good Life” as well as the whole text to their later book “Continuing The Good Life” all in one volume. It sells NEW for only $10.77. So, please use our links to acquire your own copy at a reasonable price. I believe we make less than a buck, but it helps to keep this blog going. Thank you for your support and readership.

  12. Hi David, I got your email about the book. I’m away from the office for a few weeks. I’ll check it out when I get back. I’m computer free right now. I’m sending this post from my phone. (Dirck is manning the office while I am away).


  13. Thanks, Sharon. I love all that computers can do and the internet, blogosphere and all, but for a few weeks THAT must be The Good Life.

  14. Greg Russell says:

    This is a really interesting post, and timely because the concept of simplification is something that’s been on my mind for some time now.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that simplifying your life is one of the most challenging tasks there is; ideally, I would like my family to reduce our belongings to the minimum and live a more reliant life. I keep a small garden each year, but expanding it would be a priority. Through recycling and composting, we produce very little trash each week, at least compared to our neighbors.

  15. Greg, thank you for your comment. I am glad to hear that the idea of simplification makes sense to you. I agree, simplification is very challenging, especially when you have children, given the media influence of waste and consumerism bombarding us daily. That is one reason why I started monitoring what they watch and limiting how long my children watch that infernal talking box they call television. I commend your ability to keep a garden and reduce your waste through recycling and composting. I recently viewed a short film on Netflix called “Radically Simple”. It is based on the life and work of an engineer and author named Jim Merkel. In his book “Radical Simplicity”, he helps the reader pragmatically meet his or her own sustainability goals. Most of these goals: how much waste you consume, money you consume, food you consume, can be figured out in simple mathematical formulas, which in turn help you track and manage your sustainability goals. Wow. There is so much to learn about this. It is an on going process. I am awed by the pioneers like the Hydes and the Nearings that have gone before us and acheived their simple living goals.

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