September 23, 2017
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Oregon couple stewards the good life at Nearing homestead

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Updated:

HARBORSIDE, Maine — Decades ago, when eager back-to-the-landers from all over the country came to Helen and Scott Nearing’s home to meet the couple that wrote about and helped to define a new idea of the good life, they often would spend some time helping in the garden and then share a meal with the Nearings.

Nowadays, although both of the Nearings have been gone for many years, their spirit and philosophy remain palpable in Forest Farm in the quiet village of Harborside. Their home — now called the Good Life Center — is still a place where people come to pay their respects to the Nearings, to learn more about simple, sustainable living skills and to immerse themselves in the peace of the homestead that has become a pilgrimage spot for seekers who have found or who are still looking for their own version of the good life.

But while the visitors are there, they may find that their bodies are fed along with their spirits. Every summer and fall, participants in a special Nearing residency program come to live at Forest Farm. They welcome the visitors, work in the organic vegetable garden, manage the compost heaps and provide tours of the farm. And this year’s resident stewards, Jeanie Kirk and Alex Page, are happy to keep up the Nearing’s tradition of nourishment. On a sunny, humid August afternoon, they wind their way through the walled garden and the land around it, enthusiastically offering samples of crisp green beans, sweet and tart husk cherries and early golden apples to visitors.

“It’s such a deep dive into them [the Nearings], being here,” Kirk said. “I love how this garden for them was the physical manifestation of their ethos.”

For Kirk and her husband, both 33, finding their way to Forest Farm happened more because of serendipity than strategy. In fact, they had never heard of the Nearings before last September, when they came to visit a friend who lives in Blue Hill. They had just gotten married, and were taking a short honeymoon in Maine before returning to their regularly scheduled lives in Portland, Oregon, where Kirk worked as a grant writer and Page as a transit planner for a non-profit organization. They had planned a day at the beach, but it was raining, and their friend told them about Forest Farm.

It was a special experience, they said. It was Common Ground Fair weekend, and no other visitors were there. They wandered through the house that Helen and Scott Nearing had built overlooking Spirit Cove and Penobscot Bay. Kirk snapped a photo of a poem that Helen Nearing had written in 1992, just a few years before her death at age 91.

“Though all is constantly changing, nothing is lost in the universe,” she wrote in the poem. “Everyone who feels I love adds to the heavenly glow. The love that has been felt all through the ages, everywhere, all through time … what a shining! Love once felt has its place. Love is the source, love the goal, and love the method of attainment.”

Something in the words and in the feeling of the place stayed with Kirk and Page, and after they returned to Oregon, she held on to that. In January, Kirk learned that the Good Life Center was looking for seasonal residents and it didn’t take much mulling it over before deciding to send in an application email. It didn’t take long — just a few hours, really — before they heard back from Warren Berkowitz, the farm manager and a board member of the Good Life Center, who also was a longtime friend of the Nearings.

“I know a good thing when I see it,” Berkowitz said. “We’re looking for people who are generous in terms of their spirit.”

And he figured he had found that in Kirk and Page. The couple was interested in learning more about organic gardening, in doing more homesteading, and in learning more about the Nearings. And they were willing to welcome the visitors, usually 1,000 in a season, who come to Forest Farm. At home in Portland, they live in a rented house fairly close to the urban heart of the city, but like many people there they dabbled in growing their own food. They had two chickens, fruit trees and a garden plot, but were eager to come to Maine to figure out how they could push their own gardening envelope. Still, there were some sacrifices involved. Page had to decide if he was willing to quit his job to come to Forest Farm, which would pay a lot but not in dollars.

“We asked different people we trust, and across the board, people said it sounds like you can’t turn it down,” said Kirk, who is able to work remotely from Maine for her job.

For Page, it was both a difficult and a financially scary decision to quit his job.

“It was like you are doing something absolutely crazy,” he said. “I said to Jeanie, maybe because it’s crazy, that’s why we should do it.”

They packed up their Subaru and drove across the country to start working at the farm in June. Here, living in the place that was built by the Nearings, making pickles on their old cookstove, having access to their library and tending the garden that Helen and Scott Nearing had begun, Kirk and Page seem to have comfortably settled into their role. They go down to the cove to fetch seaweed to enrich the compost piles, swim in the chilly water there, plant and weed, harvest and cook, and, always, listen to the stories their visitors tell about the Nearings.

“People are coming to pay homage,” Page said.

“It’s been really interesting to me to dig into the visitor’s knowledge about the Nearings. That’s been really beautiful,” Kirk said.

When they go home to Oregon in October, they know they will take a lot of Maine with them. For one thing, they now know more organic gardening techniques and feel more confident about their own skills. They may turn dreams of having a greenhouse of their own into a reality. But that’s not all, they said.

“I think Helen and Scott espoused a lot of the good life principles that we’ve been trying to work into our lives,” Kirk said. “We have role models, in a way. Also, clarity would be something I’m bringing away from here. We are anxious to begin to apply our learning here to our own life.”

Page said that one of his Forest Farm takeaways will be the image of Scott Nearing planting apple trees into his 90s. Those trees weren’t planted just for personal benefit and enrichment.

“It’s about giving back,” the steward said.


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