Think of the many articles one can find every year in the Wall Street Journal describing some entrepreneur or businessmen as being a “pioneer” or a “maverick” or a “cowboy.” Think of the many times these ambitious modern men are described as “staking their claim” or boldly pushing themselves “beyond the frontier” or even “riding into the sunset.” We still use these words today to describe our boldest citizens, but it’s really a code now, because these guys aren’t actually pioneers; they are talented computer programmers, biogenetic researchers, politicians, or media mongrels making a big splash in a fast modern economy.
But when Eustace Conway talks about staking a claim, the guy is literally talking about staking a goddam claim.
- Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man
Her’s some video of Eustace Conway speaking at Earthskills Rendezvous. After reading The Last American Man it’s easy to dismiss Eustace Conway as a delusional disgruntled survivalist turned homesteader turned mad man in the woods louring prospective wifes to his work farm. Such is the fallout when you let a coyote ugly bartender chick (who now that she’s a mom and been to India and all should probably be referred to as “woman”, or as Eustace Conway would probably say “female”) write what would appear to be your biography.
Little did I know, when I met Eustace at Earthskills Rendezvous, all I knew about him was from an article in a 1998 issue of Life magazine which I stole from a barbershop in North Carolina (Life magazine has since cease to be). The story described Eustace Conway as living off the land and educating others on how to do the same at Turtle Island in North Carolina.
I kept that issue of Life magazine for years (along with a National Geographic about the Alaskan Highway) eventually becoming tattered and coverless from being packed and unpacked so many times. Ever since reading that article I’ve had it in my mind to checkout Turtle Island.
I imagined Eustace then as a blissed out guy living a relaxing life ridding horses out in the woods. It was a naive view which I suppose why Elizabeth Gilbert’s book The Last American Man is a good read for anyone considering making an exit from normalized society and living off the land.
The Last American Man is billed as a study of the traditional western image of masculinity. As Gilbert tells it, the western male mythology was forged along the American frontier. So entrenched is this romantic icon of the American frontiersmen that we still rely on his activates to to lend a vocabulary to our modern accomplishments as the quote at the top of the post exemplifies. And Eustace, as an “authentic” frontiersmen living on Turtle Island is, as Gilbert explains at the end of this short npr interview, “a reosetta stone” for men.
Wow! The “rosetta stone” of men…coming from the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert I’m not sure if that sounds like a blessing or a curse.
Really I think a better title for the book would have been Another American Man or The Latest American Man. After all, the Amish have been doing this kind of thing for as long as anyone can remember.
To me The Last American Man is a worthwhile read not because it makes a relevant study into the modern male identity crises. After all one does not have to dig too deeply to see that whatever identity crises is revealed in her book is just as much Elizabeth's crises as it is Eustace's, though you may not realize it until you got a bit familiar with her later books. Indeed if you were trying to sound clever on NPR you could very well describe her next book, Commited, as an appraisal of the modern feminine identity crises (how does the modern woman maintain identity after getting married, having kids, etc.).
Rather whats interested me about about this story is how it follows a fairly standard trajectory of what happens to people (I’m somewhat hesitant to say just men here) who because of a botched childhood or personal insight or just “seeing the writing on the wall” look upon the modern world we inhabit and, feeling an undeniable intuitive sense that our modern Babylon is not where it’s at, go into the wilderness (or go to India, or practice Thi Chi, or whatever) seeking truth, peace of mind and then upon finding those answers attempt to change others – albeit with the best intentions – only to find that most people out there are so distracted by just making ends meet, so incompetently invested in the statuesque, so clinging to the most fantastical fantasies of technological salvation as to be unreachable, barley even alive much less happy.
Although The Last American Man is a good read, if you ever get a chance to meet Elizabeth Gilbert or Eustace Conway you’ll more likely get on their good side by not mentioning this book. Only eight years after is publication both author and subject seem to have moved beyond a mere lack of excitement in the project to a straight up annoyance with the whole endeavor. As such the staying power of this book would appear to be somewhere between a harlequin novel and a decent comic book. Indeed like a bad marriage both Eustace Conway and Elizabeth Gilbert seemed to have grown and moved on since The Last American Man was published.
Your can see this disinterest in how Gilbert deals with questions about The Last American Man at around the 19:45 minute marker of a video discussion she did for authers@google where she sums up Eustace as a “masonic mountain man guy who lives in the woods in North Carolina…who has this completely deranged messianic view of himself has somebody who can return American to an agricultural society…”
Everyone present at this Earthskills lecture who was mentioned in Gilbert’s book seemed to distance themselves from the book saying that it was a good book and some parts were accurate but in other parts Elizabeth “did what she had to do to write a bestselling book.” Some said that the falling out between friends was not nearly has dramatic or long lasting as portrayed in The Last American Man.
When Eustace was asked about the The Last American Man at the Earthskills workshop, he paused for a second and with a smile asked “All right, with a show of hands how many people here have read the book?” There were maybe 20 people there and about 12 of them raised their hands. He looked a bit exasperated and in a I-have-to-tell-this-story-again tone of voice explained that while he provided interviews and journals (in exchange for 50% of the profits which he did not mention) he had no influence on the actual writing of the book saying “She went away and a few months later I got a copy of the book in the mail.”
Eustace vehemently repeated that The Last American Man is not his biography and went on to say that if you read some of the books Gilbert wrote after The Last American Man, including Committed you realize Gilbert, in Eustace’s estimation, had some serious issues with men going on in her head at the same time she was working on The Last American Man.
Anyway, about the video of Eustace Conway speaking at this year’s Rivercane Rendezvous. Unfortunately I only had about an hour’s worth of memory for my camera to record a 4 hour lecture; trying to guess the best parts before they happen was obviously difficult.
I should also mention before rolling tape that this conversation was one of many activities going on that afternoon and this talk with Eustace in no way captures the mentality of the festival in its entirety. In fact even within the Earthskills crowd Eustace is defiantly a controversial figure in many ways. I remember asking more than one girl if they were going to check out the Eustace Conway lecture only to have them snap at me “I read the book” and walk away obviously not interested in spending any time with a guy like Eustace or even a guy who could possibly relate to a guy like Eustace. Having only read that Life magazine article I really did not get what all the animosity was about, “I have got to read this goddamn book I thought.” I since have…and oh, now I get it.
“He did once read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus in an effort to understand his control thing,” Patience continues. “It was really sweet. For a while he said things like, ‘I can see I’m not validating your opinion.’ He sort of got over it, though.”
- Outside Magazine
Seriously folks, enough with the romance already…what we want to know is if Eustace Conway thinks that civilization will grind to a standstill in our lifetime. And among the attendees at Earthskills are just the kinds of folks who know how to ask a question like that, and believe me it did not take long. In fact it was the first question asked (I knew right then and there these earthskills people are my kind). Here’s Eustace’s answer…
Eustace Conway at Earthskills 1 of 3Eustace Conway (aka The Last American Man) speaking at the 2010 Earthskills Rendezvous in Georgia. (1 of 3)
Some of Eustace’s good friends were there including John Ruhl (mentioned in the The Last American Man) who taught Eustace how to train a hoarse. In this video clip Eustace talks and answers a few questions about horse riding. When Eustace says “this man helped me get the right horse” he is pointing to John Ruhl who is setting next to him.
Eustace Conway at Earthskills 2 of 3Eustace Conway (aka The Last American Man) speaking at the 2010 Earthskills Rendezvous in Georgia. (2 of 3)
Once of Eustace’s claims to fame is setting a world record for fastest cross continental crossing on horseback. Here’s a video of Eustace talking about the infamous reservation crossing.
Eustace Conway at Earthskills 3 of 3Eustace Conway (aka The Last American Man) speaking at Earthskills Rendezvous in Georgia. (3 of 3)
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I plan to visit Turtle Island this summer. I guess what I’d like to ask Eustace Conway is whether or not the effort that went into legal ownership of his land was worth the sacrifice. Does he see the paper that declares him the “owner” of Turtle Island to be a fitting reward for all his efforts? Personally I’m somewhat reluctant to put that much value on land ownership as all it gets you are property taxes until some well connected developer uses eminent domain laws to kick your ass out. What’s more, if there was a social collapse would Eustace stay and defend Turtle Island (could he even do so if a post governmental organization like, say, Backwater, wanted to turn his sanctuary in some kind of training facility?) or would he seek a more remote, easily defensible claim?
This is the context within which I’m framing my perspective on “modern survival,” don’t put all your eggs in one basket. That which stakes a claim to permanence is a lie. Everything is changing, everything is ephemeral…governments, land titles, tools, life itself.
Comments for article Eustace Conway published on May 27, 2010