AT HOME IN A SIMPLE LIFE
Philosophy put into action
BY RICHIE DAVIS
TURNERS FALLS- The Winter Fare that some people are working to make happen
next month got its inspiration, as so many ideas seem to, from a pint-sized
woman with big ideas.
Yet 84-year-old Juanita Nelson- who lived until recently without electricity
and still draws water from a well to a home without a telephone or indoor plumbing-
shrugs off the suggestions that the Feb. 2 farmer's market might be seen as
anything remarkable. She hatched the idea for a celebration of the simple pleasures
of local winter foods just as she did Greenfield's summertime community harvest
For her, it's a way of life.
In November, Nelson was named a finalist in the first "Cooperate for Community"
contest sponsored by the National Cooperative Grocers Association to honor people
across the country working for a more sustainable food supply while exemplifying
the spirit of cooperation.
Recovering from a stroke she suffered last month, she was relaxing recently
in the apartment of a Turners Falls friend with whom she has been staying, reflecting
on the coming Winter Fare and on a recent 22nd annual conference of the Pioneer
Valley War Tax Resisters, which she co-founded, and how it's all part of a whole.
"It's all connected," said Nelson, who since moving with her husband,
Wally, to Deerfield's Woolman Hill in 1974, has lived simply and peacefully.
She and her husband, who died in 2002 at age 93, stopped paying federal income
taxes 60 years ago because of their opposition to war.
"Every once in a while I think, I'm just going to do what I can for myself
and the heck with trying to bring other people along," she said. "Then
I seem unable to resist. I try to do my thing and not stick pins in other people...
and then I find myself doing that," she added with a laugh.
Nelson grew up "dirt poor" on the outskirts of Cleveland, where her
family- originally from Georgia- never had a car and didn't have land suitable
for a garden. She won a scholarship to attend Howard University, which she found
"a little hoity-toity," and left after two years to work at 19 as
a reporter for a weekly newspaper, "The Cleveland Call and Post."
"It was supposed to be liberal because it was a so-called black newspaper,"
said Nelson, who is black and who organized a Congress of Racial Equality chapter
in the city while finishing school at Western Reserve University- and also working
as a reporter.
It was on assignment that she met her future husband, who'd been raised in
Arkansas, worked in Cincinnati and Chicago and had declared himself a conscientious
objector during World War II. She interviewed him at the Cuyahoga County Jail,
where he was jailed for about a year after walking out of a Civilian Public
Service Camp that felt like "slave labor."
Nelson, who never thought before about war and had even briefly considered
joining the Women's Army Corps during World War II, said, "I was intrigued
immediately. You ask, 'What would you do if somebody was going to kill you?'
Wally said, "I'd try to protect myself by putting my hands over my face."
In the end, I couldn't see that my life was worth more than somebody else's.
It just spoke to me."
Nelson, whose short hair is just turning gray, recalled, "Wally had been
in prison. It didn't seem to be making any sense whatever to be paying for something
you were so much against."
Living in Philadelphia, where they joined with the fledging war-tax refusal
movement, "We still felt we were so entangled in a system that called for
war, we wanted to go further and get more out of the system."
She laughs as she recalls a visiting striking farm worker who asked them, "Why
would you want to cut back? You don't live on any kind of a high scale."
The couple moved in 1970 to a small town in New Mexico, where they made friends
with Randy Kehler, a conscientious objector who was moving to Deerfield to teach
at an alternative school at Woolman Hill.
He invited them to farm there, and in 1974, the Nelsons arrived to become homesteaders.
Juanita was 15 years younger than Wally, who was 65 at the time. He recalled
staying at Greenfield's Weldon Hotel years earlier while working as a salesman
for the Antioch Book Plate Co.
They moved to an old four-room house to the Quaker-owned Deerfield site where
they set up a three-quarter-acre garden, "The Bean Patch," from which
they sold vegetables at the Greenfield Farmers Market.
To this day, she laughs as she tells people, "I have running-in water,
running-up water and running-out water" in the house- literally carrying
buckets from the well, running up the stairs and pouring them into a can that
drains to a downstairs sink and eventually an outside barrel.
Particularly since the death of her husband, who cut, split and stacked their
wood, Nelson has depended increasingly on friends to bring wood, and occasionally
water and vegetables, to supplement the garden that's also supplied their food.
Nelson makes clear she's not trying to prove anything to anyone by the simplicity
of her life, and is amused by people who ask, "How can you live like that?"
and adds, "I don't appreciate being put up on a pedestal; that's almost
like an excuse. Until I had the stroke, I could still get my water and things."
After a few days of blurry vision and "feeling peculiar," a medical
check-up put Nelson in the hospital, frightened by the notion that she'd suffered
As self-reliant as she wants to be, Nelson says it's made her think about whether
she ought to move in with friends during the winter months.
"Even before the stroke, I was trying to tell myself if somebody has to
do everything for me, I'm going to have to move. I don't want to change my way
of life, but I may have to. I'm going to try to be sensible."
Eveline MacDougall of Greenfield, who first met the Nelsons 23 years ago, called
her "the most practical person I've ever met, on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute
level. She seems to have a singleness of purpose that's been very impressive
for me. She lives it, instead of just talking about it.
"First and foremost for her seems to be putting it into action,"
MacDougall added, "It's really grounded. There's no enshrining. Instead
of a lifestyle, it's a life."
Nelson, who laughs at how much people believe they need and how deprived they
feel in an era of "limitlessness" if they have to do without year-round
tomatoes and strawberries, says it's made her life richer to eat stored root
vegetables, pickled beets and other local foods for winter meals.
And while she doesn't suggest how other people should live, she did suggest
the harvest supper and Winter Fare as an introduction to how much is available
"Many people have more sense than I have, and they can figure it out,"
said Nelson, whose "very exploratory" mother in her later life became
a vegetarian- unlike her- as well as a war-tax resister and a Quaker. If someone
asks her for her opinion, she doesn't back off from sharing it.
"But mainly I'm concerned about what I do," she said. "Living
simply is almost like an umbrella that can cover everything. You have to believe
in it and feel it. I'm so far away from what I'd like to be, but just talking
about stuff doesn't do it for me."
Nelson laughs as she talks about people she hasn't seen for years who ask her
incredulously, "Are you still doing that?"
"I tell people I never want to grow up."