Rebecca Kneale Gould, Ph.D.

Department of Religion, Middlebury College


Practical Experience

Professor Gould's interest in homesteading and Helen and Scott Nearing in particular began when her advisor at Harvard suggested she check out the Nearings as a possible dissertation topic. She read Helen's biography Loving and Leaving the Good Life, and eventually all of the Nearing's books, becoming more and more fascinated by the idea that a couple in the 1930's would make the choice to go back to the land and consciously live by a defined set of values. During the course of her subsequent research she met Helen and came to love the Nearings farm in Maine. When the opportunity came a few years later for Professor Gould to live at Forest Farm, she jumped at the chance to enhance her research by actually living the "good life" herself. Her time there allowed her to gain insight into the homesteading life by growing her own food, composting, talking to the many pilgrims that flocked to Forest farm to learn about the Nearing's formula for the "good life".

It was during this time living at the Nearings that she experienced first-hand the choices inherent in living back to the land. A seemingly simple choice of whether to freeze or can the food from the garden becomes an issue of philosophy. Freezing would require the use of a freezer running on electricity or propane, and canning would entail using the stove for long hours, as well as diminishing the nutritional value of the food. Professor Gould now lives in Burlington. While she regrets having to commute to Middlebury during the week, she feels that she can live a more environmentally sound lifestyle in the city where she can walk everywhere, shop at the local co-op and still grow more than 20% of her food in her backyard. For the food that she does have to buy, she makes an effort to support small family farms and to buy responsibly produced products. She makes the choice to garden organically, although she says she would like to have the soil around her home tested to see if there are contaminants from past owners. She grows broccoli, squash and other vegetables in Burlington, but would someday like to have a bigger garden, live off the grid and find a way to live by the seasons. Her biggest goal is to find a healthy balance and not get stuck in a self-sufficiency trap, obsessing about purity to the detriment of intellectualism.


Scholarly Experience

Researching the spiritual side of homesteading and the motivations behind it has been the focus of Professor Gould's academic work. Many people that she has interviewed made the decision to go back to the land because they were searching for "something". They had the idea that nature was good, while their attitude towards American culture was ambivalent at best. They hope to abandon the "false god" of consumerism, which in turn leads them to find meaning elsewhere. For many, homesteading meant switching the location of meaning from life in an urban, consumer-driven world to nature, and a rural, simple life. She has noticed that many people during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960's and '70's started out following a strict, purist lifestyle. Twenty years later, when she began interviewing homesteaders, they admitted to more accommodation for things like power tools and store-bought food. One of the similarities between homesteaders is an awareness of where their food comes from. Most grow their own food and many are vegetarian or follow some sort of guidelines for eating. Professor Gould's attempts to answer the question of where people who make the decision to live simply, to homestead, find their meaning. What are their motivations and justifications? What is the role of faith in their lives, do they find it in God, nature or something else?


Back to Faculty Menu

Back to Home