Eustace Conway is probably as close to Rousseau’s ideal of the “noble savage” as it’s possible to be in modern-day America. The product of a middle-class American family, Conway decided at an early age that being at one with nature was more important than being at one with conventional society.
So he left home at 17 and moved into a teepee. He wore buckskins and lived off the land. Still, he managed to earn a college degree with honors from Appalachian State University.
Within a few years he had begun to acquire acreage in the North Carolina mountains that eventually would become the 1,000-acre Turtle Island Preserve, a working 19th century Appalachian “heritage” farm that also serves as Conway’s environmental pulpit. His original audacious vision was that Turtle Island would be a green beacon lighting the way for a large-scale return to nature — think of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” but in reverse.
Along the way, Conway, 45, has had the sort of adventures that rank him among the great outdoorsmen of all time. He has crossed the continental United States on horseback in a record 103 days, hiked the full length of the Appalachian Trail and kayaked Alaska’s south shore, always living off the land or sea and carrying equipment more befitting a 19th century explorer than a modern-age adventurer. The details of his extraordinary life, as well as its whys and wherefores, are chronicled in Elizabeth Gilbert’s celebrated biography, “The Last American Man.”
But what of his vision? With Turtle Island recently turned 20, MSN asked writer Philipp Harper to talk with Conway about the way his vision — and his level of environmental optimism — have changed over the years.
MSN: Does how you live give you a greater respect for the earth?
CONWAY: Oh, my gosh, so much greater! It’s made an inestimable difference.
MSN: What was your goal when you retreated to Turtle Island 20 years ago? Did you see yourself having a profound impact on society?
CONWAY: I’m not exactly sure what was on my mind. I’m not sure I had a grand scheme. But basically the idea was that I’d show folks something invaluable and they’d see the light, that what they were doing was killing themselves and the planet.
MSN: Has this changed over the years?
CONWAY: Yes, but only because I’ve failed at the larger goal. I’ve gotten more in touch with the realistic perspective that masses of folks aren’t going to change because of my showing them the light.
MSN: How about changing behavior in small, practical ways?
CONWAY: There are so many possibilities. The main thing is to motivate people to reevaluate some basic assumptions. As far as practices, it’s about getting closer to some of the basics in life, not only where they come from but where they go.
For example, if you save your urine and put it in a sawdust bucket you produce compost, something which goes back into the life cycle. Now, take that compost you made and go grow something, even if it’s one tomato plant on a window sill.
It’s all about taking individual steps. Without that you can’t go any further, and the first step is usually the hardest.
MSN: What else?
CONWAY: Well, composting food waste. What is food waste and where would it go if I didn’t compost it? Start weaving a thread of consciousness. See waste turned around.
If we say we want to take better care of the planet, let’s just take five minutes a day thinking about compost or looking at our trash.
We’re the most wasteful people who’ve ever existed.
MSN: Describe your relationship with the environment.
CONWAY: Everything is about relationships. Everything is connected to everything else, all aspects of life. Every movement has an opposite and equal reaction. Every move we make as human beings results in consumption and degradation.
For 27 years I’ve used leaves instead of toilet paper because I think toilet paper is detrimental. As you get in touch with the natural world, the environment that’s the source of all things, you understand how life in modern America puts us so far away from it.
Personally, I am in touch. I went right out to where food comes from. I made my own shelter and my own clothes. I found out about the roots of existence. I feel the weather and I taste the fruit of my labor. I have really fresh food because I grow it and harvest it. My milk is fresh squeezed from my goats. I have a very deep conscious and unconscious oneness with the earth.
MSN: Some self-described environmentalists have criticized you in the past for killing and eating animals and clothing yourself in their skins. How do you respond?
CONWAY: When I shoot a deer and take its meat and skin, I’m intensely connected to the forest. Manufacturing blue jeans and T-shirts decimates the environment. So the environmentalist who wears blue jeans and a T-shirt and tells me I’m not doing a good job by killing a deer is missing the point.
MSN: What’s the energy situation like at Turtle Island?
CONWAY: For nearly 20 years we had no electricity but now I have a small hydroelectric plant and some solar on the edge of the compound at my shop. But in the main part of the preserve we have no electricity. We use fire for lighting and cooking and heating.
MSN: But in burning fossil fuels aren’t you producing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming?
CONWAY: Well, firewood is a renewable resource, plus our level of consumption is extraordinarily different from what’s commonplace in modern America. Here you walk 30 feet and pick up some firewood instead of shipping it from the other side of the world. Also, it puts people back in touch with their roots.
MSN: Are you more or less optimistic than you used to be about man’s ability to save the environment?
CONWAY: Unfortunately, I’m less. I’m the last one who wants to give up, but the writing on the wall says that we’re going downhill. And it’s pretty indelible ink on that wall.
MSN: You haven’t lost your will to fight, have you?
CONWAY: No, I haven’t lost my will to fight, but I haven’t got as much will to fight as I used to. And I don’t have nearly the hope I used to have.
MSN: But isn’t there more awareness of the need to be
“green” than there used to be?
CONWAY: Yeah, there’s more information about it, but people aren’t doing more. If information is all over the place and people still aren’t doing one-twentieth of what’s needed, that’s a reason for deep concern, isn’t it?
MSN: Ok, then, what’s the answer?
CONWAY: One of the main things is education, especially starting with young people. Each individual has to have the dedication to care about what’s right. My hero, Jacques Cousteau, pointed out that people only care about what they understand. If people don’t understand the sources of life, how can they put a lot of energy into loving the planet? My argument all along is that we have to be interested.