Reading The Last American Man to imagine simple off-grid living in nature

Walden makes me weak at the knees. I see a beautiful log cabin and my heart skips a beat. Any overused romantic cliche will fit my feelings for nature, self-sufficiency, and escaping city life for the wilderness.

After glancing at the blurb of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man for a few seconds, I clicked add to Kindle without hesitating. It seemed like a great match for the adventure I was about to set off on: 10 days hiking in remote Greenland, away from civilisation and phone signal and with no option for food re-supplies.

The Last American Man

“Do we need to notice that fall is coming? Do we have to prepare for that? Respect that? Much less contemplate what it means for our own mortality that things die in nature every autumn? And when spring does come round again, do we need to notice that rebirth? Do we need to take a moment and maybe thank anybody for that? Celebrate it? If we never leave our house except to drive to work, do we need to be even remotely aware of this powerful, humbling, extraordinary, and eternal life force that surges and ebbs around us all the time?

The book was as perfect for this trip as I’d hoped. I didn’t know much about its background before I started reading it in Greenland – and I had no internet to research it – so I was left to jump to conclusions: was Eustace Conway a real person? Is this an accurate biography? Is this a modern Alice B. Toklas scenario, with Liz Gilbert cultivating her own “truth”, real or imagined?

Here’s what I’d read later: The Last American Man grew from a feature that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote on Eustace Conway while at GQ Magazine, before Eat, Pray, Love exploded and she wrote some of my favourite books of the last few years: Big Magic, The Signature of all Things, and City of Girls.

In this rousing examination of contemporary American male identity, acclaimed author and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert explores the fascinating true story of Eustace Conway. In 1977, at the age of seventeen, Conway left his family’s comfortable suburban home to move to the Appalachian Mountains. For more than two decades he has lived there, making fire with sticks, wearing skins from animals he has trapped, and trying to convince Americans to give up their materialistic lifestyles and return with him back to nature. To Gilbert, Conway’s mythical character challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be a modern man in America; he is a symbol of much we feel how our men should be, but rarely are.

– From the publisher

Even without really knowing the background of what I was reading, I was captivated by Eustace Conway. He’s strong, connected to the wild, competent and self-reliant – and yet… he’s utterly flawed.

We hear about the emotional abuse and lack of love from his own father. And then we see Eustace fall into a similar mould: he can be rude, insensitive, and hurt others – even if not physically, certainly emotionally.

I glamourise living simply and wildly, but this book is a welcome reminder that this lifestyle does not equate to living well and kindly. You can quite easily be a despicable person who lives in a timber cabin by a turquoise glacial lake and lights a woodburner stove every evening. Of course you can.

And yet, and yet. There are so many aspects of Eustace that I adore. Knowing the magic of the forest, the healing properties of shrubs, which berries to stay an arm’s length from – to how to build shelters, start fires, identify birds, and grow crops that survive what the weather throws down. Having the courage and persistence to hike and horse ride across continents, push yourself to your limits, and cry out more, more, more. Living differently and uniquely and honestly. Designing your own life instead of a faded version of the standard paint-by-numbers print-out.

The most extraordinary gift you’ve been given is your own humanity, which is about consciousness, so honor that consciousness.”

After reading The Last American Man, you might find yourself wondering how to integrate the best parts of Eustace’s life and mind without ending up with the worst. Living a wild life and succeeding at building a family, a loving relationship, and a caring circle of friends. Of finding a way to be happy.

Is it possible? Yes. At least I think it is. Here’s some of Eustace’s best advice to follow:

“Revere your senses; don’t degrade them with drugs, with depression, with willful oblivion. Try to notice something new every day, Eustace said. Pay attention to even the most modest of daily details. Even if you’re not in the woods, be aware at all times. Notice what food tastes like; notice what the detergent aisle in the supermarket smells like and recognize what those hard chemical smells do to your senses; notice what bare feet feel like; pay attention every day to the vital insights that mindfulness can bring.

And take care of all things, of every single thing there is—your body, your intellect, your spirit, your neighbors, and this planet. Don’t pollute your soul with apathy or spoil your health with junk food any more than you would deliberately contaminate a clean river with industrial sludge. You can never become a real man if you have a careless and destructive attitude, Eustace said, but maturity will follow mindfulness even as day follows night.”

Having returned from Greenland, I’m warmed by the knowledge that I’ve just spent my longest time outdoors in the wilderness. Just ten days, but I’m so proud of that. It’s a path to whatever adventure I want to tackle next. And it’s a shining reminder of just how much I adore the natural world. It’s my church, school, healing ground, and therapist’s office. It’s home.

You can find The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert on Amazon.

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