Remembering Steve, One-Half Decade Later

Today we commemorate the five-year anniversary of our founder Steve Caldwell's death. His perspectives on loving well, suspending disbelief, and the Better Theory have changed the lives of all who knew him. His legacy has further laid the groundwork for Better Farm and betterArts, two initiatives designed to be the realization of Steve's highest hopes for this space.

Stephen F. Caldwell was born Sept. 10, 1941, to Bob and Mary Caldwell, a couple who met while working as reporters at the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N. J., and married in 1934. Steve was one of four children; an older sister, Cath, and two younger brothers, Bob and Dan. All four children went through the Ridgewood school system. 

Steve graduated from Columbia University in 1963. He planned to begin working as a reporter in the fall. Instead, three months after Columbia, he broke his neck in a car accident and was paralyzed from the chest down.

He moved in June of 1964 from rehab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City to his parents’ Victorian home in Ridgewood; and until October 1970 he lived in the two large rooms comprising half the ground floor of 226 Prospect St. He used a manual wheelchair he could barely push, slept in a hospital bed and, except for upwards of a dozen trips to and from and stays in one hospital or another, was out of doors fewer than six times a year.

When in his wheelchair, Steve sometimes sat in front of his Selectric typewriter. He read and wrote extensively, and got hundreds of reviews published in The Record, The New York Times, Psychology Today, and The Saturday Review of Literature. Many of Steve’s poems were published in various literary magazines.

In 1965 Steve started playing poker in a game that usually included his mother and brother Dan. Steve’s other brother, Bob, also played infrequently and most of the other players were friends and acquaintances of Bob’s and Dan’s. On most Friday nights a group met in Steve’s room to smoke, drink, and, most important, talk. Other participants were his aunt and uncle (William A. Caldwell would receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for Simeon Stylites, a 6-day-a-week column he had been writing since the 1930s in The Record), and their daughter Toni. The talk was very good, but the Friday-night gatherings eventually waned and by 1970 had ended.

The conversation, however, did not.

When Steve received money through insurance for his car accident, he decided to buy property where he and his friends could live communally. And so in 1970, he, his friends, and family started Better Farm in Redwood, N.Y. Before he moved in, the people around him spent a summer in Redwood convert it into a space appropriate for Steve; complete with indoor plumbing, ramps, and rewiring. The name was borne of "The Better Theory", a way of thinking Steve and his friends dreamt up that took life's greatest hardships and translated them into humanity's greatest opportunities. The Better Theory offers each of us the chance to make our lives our greatest artistic achievement.

Steve moved there in October, thinking he would live there permanently. It proved otherwise, and he was back and forth between Ridgewood and Redwood until, in 1973, he first wintered in Tucson, Ariz. Thereafter he split his time, except for six months in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1984, between Redwood and Tucson. While he was away, Better Farm stay occupied with people committed to his vision of intentional and shared living.

Steve considered himself radically agnostic, saying: “For me, suspension of disbelief is a useful, even necessary, exercise.” He used that suspension of disbelief to propel himself into an extremely active lifestyle; including daily bird-watching trips in his wheelchair totaling up to 17 miles at a clip. His independence awed the medical profession; and his repeated brushes with illness and death seemed to only embolden and inspire him. He wrote once that his family and friends were “invigorated by my perverse joy of life.” He was right.

Steve has written two novels, both unpublished, and a collection of poems called Instead of Shooting Reagan, which was published by a vanity press in 1984. In 2008, he began making plans to convert Better Farm to run on renewable energies such as geothermal and solar; and discussed at length his vision for reviving the commune he started.

He died on March 17, 2009, while wintering in Tucson due to complications from pneumonia. Better Farm was entrusted to his niece, Nicole Caldwell.

Better be.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.