One of the nice things I did this summer was go see an author talk at the Opera House. Elizabeth Gilbert is famously known as the author of the best-seller, Eat, Pray, Love. Her talk was entitled, “Life after Eat, Pray, Love” so I felt a little silly sitting there having never read a page of that book and then paid money to find out what was to come next. Chatting with the lady next to me (clearly a fan), I sheepishly admitted the above mentioned and timidly added that I saw the movie version of E.P.L only after it came out on DVD. Suffice to say, I’m a pretty useless fan. Though I’ve never read her bestselling novel, I did see her TED talk (me and a million others) about writing and creativity which excited and moved me. She didn’t disappoint – I enjoyed her candidness, her honesty, her American-ness, and how she distils her chosen career down to the simplest term; she writes because she’s not particularly good at anything else (so she says).
Gilbert’s Ideas at the House talk was filmed and if you want to, you can see it on the Opera House blog.
After her talk, I picked up a copy of – no, not Eat, Pray, Love – but her first novel, The Last American Man. In this novel, Gilbert profiles the remarkable Eustace Conway, adventurer and wilderness man extraordinaire. There’s a handful of stuff written about him on the web such as this and about his nature reserve, TV stint, and more recently his run-in with the law. But he is more widely known as the guy who, as a teenager, left the suburbs to live entirely off the land in a teepee in the woods. He has since walked, kayaked and ridden a horse across many countries, and all the while living off nature and shunning consumerism and modern comforts.
Conway’s whole concept of completely living off the land is so hard core – sewing buckskin (from an animal he hunted himself with a spear) to make a shirt using sinew from the animal’s flesh as thread – that I’m captivated by the story. I mean, who does that?! In the novel Gilbert writes that Conway would quickly answer, “Our ancestors did, for thousands of years, dumbass.” She also talks about how rigid he is with his vision, how pure he remains to his beliefs, that beyond the romance and allure of the “mountain man” idea, there lies a stubborn darkness deep inside Conway, and a capacity for ruthlessness.
In spite of that, people love him. They are drawn to his charisma, his message, and I guess his strangeness. For me it’s the latter; oddballs interest me, particularly ones who don’t give a flying fox (Hungry and weary on the Appalachian trail, Conway didn’t think twice about skinning a flying fox and eating it raw). Oh, and did I mention that he managed to get a degree in natural history while living in a teepee just outside of his university campus? How about that time when he was welcomed into someone’s home and exclaimed with no hint of irony, “My, you have a lot of material possessions!” When asked why he reckons teenagers are awestruck after hearing him speak about living in the woods, he said it’s because he’s probably the only real person they’ve ever met. Here’s an excerpt from the book in which Conway talks about cirlces and boxes to a bunch of teens:
“I live,” Eustace said, “in nature, where everything is connected, circular. The seasons are circular. The planet is circular, and so is its passage around the sun. The course of water over the earth is circular, coming down from the sky and circulating through the world to spread life and then evaporating up again. I live in a circular teepee and I build my fire in a circle, and when my loved ones visit me, we sit in a circle and talk….. People say I don’t live in the real world, but it’s modern Americans who live in a fake world, because they’ve stepped outside the natural circle of life….Do people live in circles today? No. They live in boxes. They wake up every morning in the box of their bedroom because a box next to them started making beeping noises to tell them it was time to get up. They eat their breakfast from a box. Then they leave the box where they live and get into a box with wheels and drive, to work which is just another big box broken up into lots of little cubicle boxes where a bunch of people spend their days sitting and staring at the computer boxes in front of them. When the day is over, everyone gets into the box with wheels again and goes home to their house boxes and spends the evening staring at the TV box for entertainment. They get their music from a box, they get their food from a box, they keep their clothing in a box, they live their lives in a box! Does that sound like anybody you know?”
By now the kids were laughing and applauding.
“Break out of the box!” Eustace said. “You don’t have to live like this!…You’re not handcuffed to your culture! This is not the way humanity lived for thousands and thousands of years, and it is not the only way you can live today!”
I’d argue that boxes are terribly convenient, as is shampoo and tinned tuna, but I wouldn’t be able to get far with that argument because Conway is unmovable when it comes to matters of right and wrong, convenience and substance. It’s an interesting read; food for thought. What are you reading?
Oh stop reading this – go outside already! Have a good weekend!