Train Hard - Stay Humble
from The Last American Man
Elizabeth Gilbert - Author
I first visited Eustace at Turtle Island back in 1995. Midway through my stay, Eustace had to leave the mountain, and I went with him. He had to leave the woods, as he often does, to teach about the woods, to make some money and spread the gospel. So we drove across North Carolina to a small summer camp that specialized in environmental education. A group of teenagers skulked into the camp's dining room for the evening's event, and to me they all looked like jerks-loud, disrespectful, shoving, shrieking, laughing. Eustace was supposed to get these kids excited about nature.
I thought, This is not gonna end well.
Eustace, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, not buckskin, walked across the stage toward the microphone. Around his neck hung two large coyote teeth. On his belt, the knife. The shoving and shrieking and laughing continued.
Eustace, thin and serious, stood at the microphone with his hands in his pockets. After a long moment, he said, "I am a quiet-spoken man, so I am going to have to speak quietly tonight."
The shoving and shrieking and laughing stopped. The jerky teenagers stared at Eustace Conway, riveted. Just like that-dead silence. I swear it. It was like goddamn To Sir with Love.
"I moved into the woods when I was seventeen years old," Eustace began. "Not much older than you are today . . ." And he talked about his life. Those kids were so transfixed, you could have operated on them and they wouldn't have noticed. Eustace told them about wilderness survival and his adventures, but he also gave his speech about the difference between the world of boxes and the world of circles.
"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. The life cycles of plants and animals are circular. I live outside where I can see this. The ancient people understood that our world is a circle, but we modern people have lost sight of that. I don't live inside buildings, because buildings are dead places where nothing grows, where water doesn't flow, and where life stops. I don't want to live in a dead place. People say that 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.
"I saw the circle of life most clearly when I was riding my horse across America and I came across the body of a coyote that had recently died. The animal was mummified from the desert heat, but all around it, in a lush circle, was a small band of fresh green grass. The earth was borrowing the nutrients from the animal and regenerating itself. This wasn't about death, I realized; this was about eternal life. I took the teeth from that coyote and made myself this necklace right here, which always circles my neck, so I'd never forget that lesson.
"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 out of a box and then they throw that box away into another 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 television boxes 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 because people tell you it's the only way. 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!"
Another hour of this, then uncontained applause, like at a revival meeting. After the talk, Eustace sat on the edge of the stage, drinking from the glass jug filled with fresh Turtle Island spring water that he carries with him everywhere. The teenagers approached reverently, awed, as the camp director gave Eustace an enthusiastic handshake and a discreetly enveloped generous check. The teenagers gathered around more closely. The toughest, baddest-ass gangsta boy of them all came to stand right beside Eustace. He put his fist on his heart and announced, with real solemnity, "You rule, man. You da bomb." Eustace threw back his head and laughed. The other campers lined up to shake his hand and then detonated with questions.
"Could you make fire right now if you had to?"
"If someone dropped you naked into the middle of Alaska, could you survive?"
"I suppose so. But it'd be a lot easier if I had a knife."
"Were you scared when you first moved into the woods?"
"No. The civilized world is much scarier than the woods."
"Were your parents mad at you when you moved into the woods?"
"My father didn't know why I'd want to leave a comfortable modern house, but my mother understood."
"Do you ever get sick?"
"Do you ever go to the doctor?"
"Do you know how to drive a car?"
"How do you think I got here tonight?"
"Do you use any modern tools?"
"I use chain saws all the time to take care of my land. I use telephones. And plastic buckets. My God, but plastic buckets are great! I've made plenty of my own baskets and containers out of tree bark and grasses-I mean, I know how to do it and I've used those primitive means of hauling water around lots of time-but I tell you, there's nothing like a plastic bucket to get the job done faster. Wow! Plastic buckets! Glorious! I love 'em!"
"Do you have a toothbrush?"
"Not at the moment."
"Do you have a hairbrush?"
"I used to have a porcupine hairbrush. I don't have it anymore, though."
"What's a porcupine hairbrush?"
"A hairbrush made out of porcupine bristles."
"Where'd you get that?"
"A porcupine saved my life once when I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, so I made the hairbrush out of its bristles, to honor it."
"How could a porcupine save your life?"
"By giving me something to eat when I was starving to death."
Here, there was an extended silence, as the kids tried to figure that one out. Then they all kind of said, "Ohhh . . ." at the same time, and the questioning continued.
"Why were you starving to death?"
"Because there wasn't any food."
"Why wasn't there any food?"
"Because it was winter."
"What's the longest you've ever gone without eating?"
"Probably the two weeks before I killed that porcupine."
"Can you show us your porcupine hairbrush?"
"I don't have it anymore. I brought it to a demonstration like this one, to show it to some kids your age, and somebody stole it. Can you imagine how sad that made me feel?"
"Do you have a gun?"
"I have several guns."
"Have you ever killed a person?"
"Are you married?"
"I guess I haven't found the right woman yet."
"Do you wish you were married?"
"More than anything in the world."
"Do you ever get lonely out there in the woods?"
Eustace hesitated, smiled wistfully. "Only in the evenings."
Later that night, when we were alone, Eustace told me how heartbroken he gets whenever he spends time around modern American teenagers. Yes, he can communicate with them, but people never understand that it rips him up inside to see how ignorant the kids are, how undisciplined in their personal interactions and how disrespectful of their elders, how consumed they are by material desire and how helplessly incompetent in a way that you would never see with, say, Amish children.
But I wasn't listening carefully to Eustace's lament, because I had another question on my mind. "Hey, about what happened there tonight. Do you get that kind of response everywhere you speak?"
"From all age groups; from all backgrounds?"
I thought this over. "So tell me specifically. Why do you think these particular teenagers were so hypnotized by you tonight?"
Eustace's reply was so immediate, so uncompromising, and so coldly delivered that it sent a quick little chill right through me.
"Because," he said, "they recognized right away that I was a real person. And they've probably never met one before."
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