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Into the Woods

An outdoorsman and educator brings his environmental vision to Pittsburgh on Sept. 14

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We're having lunch at Turtle Island, and there's a little bit of everything: meat from a deer shot on the grounds. Fresh cheese from the goats roaming in sight, just across the creek. Tomatoes grown in a garden just up the dirt road into Turtle Island's woods, which spread for 1,000 acres in this lush, mountainous section of northwestern North Carolina.

 

The crusty French bread, it's true, is salvaged from a Dumpster in the nearby town of Boone, as is the lettuce. But that sort of economy too meshes with the ethos of Turtle Island's owner and guiding spirit, noted outdoorsman and educator Eustace Conway. As a nature preserve, primitive farm and educational facility, Turtle Island serves as a practical critique of the heedless waste and destructiveness of modern society. It's also a template for doing things better, as Conway will discuss when he visits Pittsburgh for the first time on Sept. 14, in a free talk at Carnegie Mellon University.

 

According to Conway, the modern world's problem isn't technology per se, but the mindless way it lets us distance ourselves from where our food and fuel come from, and where the waste goes.

 

 

"Part of it is spiritual deprivation. The type of economy where you don't get personally involved in the source of things keeps you from having meaning," he says. "If you're hunting, you have an emotional experience. You have a skill involved. There's blood, there's kicking, there's screaming, and you are vitally aware of life and your participation in the food chain. If you buy a can of beanie weenies, it's hard to recognize the sacredness of food."

 

Conway, 45, grew up in small-town North Carolina. He's a self-made outdoorsman who spent 17 years ... including his college days ... living year-round in a teepee, making his own clothes, and hunting and gathering all his food. In 1981, he hiked the Appalachian Trail, with little more gear than a knife and a sleeping bag, the final 1,000 miles wearing just a couple of bandannas knotted together.

 

Yet it's Turtle Island ... purchased with fees he earned as a speaker and educator ... that is Conway's home. It's here that he and a small community of volunteers, interns and friends built a barn and other buildings out of logs, rough-hewn planks and hand-split wooden shingles. And it's here ... amid deep woods, pristine streams, gardens, pasture and horse-plowed fields with chickens, goats and mules ... that Turtle Islanders grow or hunt most of their food. They live in a virtual time-warp where the cooking is by wood stove, the lighting by kerosene lamp, and outhouses accommodate what one does in outhouses.

 

Conway wears his wiry hair in braids. Like the full beard that frames his wide grin, it's going silver. But while he hasn't saved the world yet, he's still trying to bring people back to nature. For a guy who lived without electricity for 28 years, he's done remarkably well, partly thanks to The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert's splendid 2002 book about him.

 

Much of Conway's outreach comes through playing host: Turtle Island welcomes some 7,000 visitors a year, from summer-camp kids to curious adults. In late August, the place even suggests an eternal summer camp. But it's a working farm, and Conway is a workaholic. A rare hike to a favored swimming hole aside, he's constantly on task, and so are the two other current residents: his girlfriend, a 30-year-old former science teacher (and one-time Pittsburgher) named Desere Gamaldi, and a young Minnesotan named Yvonne, who quips that she's here because "I romanticized Little House on the Prairie." Visitors, too, are conscripted to pick okra, wash dishes in the open-air kitchen, and tidy the coal pile for the blacksmith shop.

 

There's so much going on that Conway, who loves to travel, is reluctant ever to leave the place. Such industry seems to belie his freedom-loving, back-to-nature ethos ... no less than do the motorbikes staffers get around on, or the pickup trucks they hide from formal visitors.

 

But Conway is more idealist than purist. Last year, electricity (and a couple of freezers) arrived at Turtle Island, powered by a small solar array. This year came a mini hydroelectric plant. "I can't get everybody to move out in the woods; let me try to figure out how to get people on green power anyway," Conway says. "Let me set an example. I'm trying to meet people closer to where they are."

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