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AT HOME IN A SIMPLE LIFE

Philosophy put into action

BY RICHIE DAVIS
Recorder Staff

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 supper.

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 a stroke.

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 locally.

"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."

(c) Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. All rights reserved.
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label levels:

There is currently no available "Beginner" label. The following is the default level label: Even as a teenager Juanita Nelson followed her convictions. She remembers being 16 years old and traveling to Georgia on a segregated train. She protested by taking a seat in each car that was reserved for white people. As a result of this decision and others like it, Juanita is considered a pioneering civil rights activist. More accurately, she has pursued a life-long commitment to her belief in nonviolence. Throughout her life, this promise has guided her choices. She and life-partner Wally Nelson actively participated in organizations dedicated to peace and equality. They became war tax resisters. They traveled south to live in an intentional Christian community. Eventually, they became homesteaders in Deerfield, Massachusetts, with self-sufficiency as their goal. Juanita explains that "by simplifying my needs and by living more nearly within the bounds of my own productivity, I hope to reduce my exploitation of the earth and its inhabitants."

 

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"Philosophy put into action" article on Juanita Nelson in The Recorder newspaper

publisher   The Recorder [Press]
date   Jan 8, 2008
location   Greenfield, Massachusetts
width   9.75"
height   4.5"
width   9.25"
height   11.0"
process/materials   printed paper, ink
item type   Periodicals/Newspaper
accession #   #L08.014


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See Also...

"The Dilemma" political cartoon from the Daily Recorder-Gazette newspaper

"Gun Controls" editorial in Greenfield Recorder newspaper

"Deerfield- It's Early Beauty Has Never Left" article from Tercentenary Recorder newspaper


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