I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
As his horses amble along a dirt road through the thick forest outside of Boone, N.C. (pop. 13,472), Eustace Conway, 48, holds the reins in his hands loosely, allowing the animals to pull his buggy at an unhurried pace while he explains his purpose-driven life.
"Most people in the modern world don't have a clue where food comes from, where water comes from, where their clothes come from," he says against the rhythmic sound of clopping hooves. "But here, people get a chance to find out where fuel comes from and what it takes to get it. They see where water comes from. They make their own clothes. They can hunt for their own food or grow their own garden."
Such is the purpose of Turtle Island Preserve, a 1,000-acre farm and environmental education center founded by Conway in 1987 in a remote, pristine valley in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Hand-hewn log cabins rest beneath towering hickory trees; roosters and dogs have free reign; cooks prepare meals over an open fire; and visitors get a taste of how most Americans lived before the 20th century.
Conway fashioned his vision of Turtle Island years before purchasing the land with money he saved as a young man by living frugally and from earnings he made speaking on environmental issues across America.
"One of the main things we do here is to get people to taste a little bit of reality," he says. "We don't want them to leave here the same that they were."
Like 19th-century author and pioneering naturalist Henry David Thoreau, Conway decided at a young age to go into the woods and live deliberately with a lifestyle of simplicity and ecological stewardship.
Though Conway was in his early 20s before studying Thoreau, he identified with his writings on economy, thriftiness and simple living. "Those are very sound, very important philosophies," Conway says. "They're more important now than they ever have been because of overpopulation and limited resources."
Since growing up in the suburbs of Columbia, S.C., and later Gastonia, N.C.where his parents took him to nearby woods to teach him to hunt, fish, camp and identify local flora and fauna—Conway has loved nature. His grandfather, who founded a summer camp for children in 1923 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, inspired him to share his enthusiasm for the outdoors with others.
So, as his peers gravitated toward television and other sedentary indoor pastimes, a youthful Conway built miniature log homes out of sticks, sewed buckskin clothes, and learned to hunt small animals with a bow and arrow. At age 12, he lived off the land for a week, camping alone in the mountains. At 17, he left home to live in a self-constructed tepee on the outskirts of Boone while attending Appalachian State University, where he graduated in 1986 with degrees in English and anthropology.
As a young adult, the adventurous Conway canoed the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, and crossed North America on horseback from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He kayaked along the southern coast of Alaska and backpacked wilderness trails of Central America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. He gained inspiration and direction from American Indian cultures by living for periods with Navajos in New Mexico and Mayans in Guatemala.
Wherever he went, Conway promoted his cause. "Today more than ever, we need to understand and live by harmony and balance with nature," he says, "because it makes sense, it feels good, it feels right. It connects us with what is sacred."
His mother says Conway's philosophy was born of a childhood immersed in the ways of the woods when he wasn't in school or church. "I watched him follow this path from the time he was 11, says Karen Conway, 79, a retired teacher in Gastonia. "He wanted to help others love the environment. Kids don't get the chance, playing electronic games or living the city life. That gave him a vision to teach others the basic, fundamental things to take care of the Earth."
Today, students, families and groups visit Turtle Island for workshops, summer camps or just to meet Conway, the subject of The Last American Man, a 2002 book by journalist Elizabeth Gilbert, and Full Circle, a 2003 documentary by director Jack Bibbo. Visitors discover a soft-spoken, modern-day frontiersman with long, graying hair and a shaggy beard, whose hands and heart have lovingly and deliberately shaped the preserve to help others discover the rhythms of nature.
At Turtle Island, guests sleep in tents or rustic cabins with outhouses and pay nominal fees for their accommodations to help fund the preserve. They learn traditional skills such as blacksmithing, harnessing horses, basket weaving, starting campfires without matches, or slaughtering roosters for dinner.
"Everyone who goes to a Turtle Island camp walks away changed, or sown with the seeds of change," says Hunter Strickland, 16, of Raleigh, N.C., who has attended camps the last two summers. "Being removed from human-made environments is revolutionary."
While choosing a path of rugged individualism, Conway is no hermit. He works with local alternative energy groups, speaks at schools, and engages in community life in ways consistent with his message of environmental ethics. For instance, when Boone's town leaders decided to convert a vacant lot into a community garden in 2006, Conway volunteered to plow the land with a team of horses and mules.
"The intention of the garden was to be self-sufficient in a responsible way," says organizer Matt Cooper, 29, "so the animals fit right in."
Plowing with animals is effective but slow, acknowledges Conway, who in recent years has traded hand tools for modern equipment for some time-intensive tasks. For instance, he used to cut roads through the forest with horses; today, he uses a bulldozer. He prefers a chainsaw to an ax and, when making boards, he uses his own biodiesel-fueled sawmill. "I use knowledge I've built up from years of doing things the most primitive way," he says. "Hopefully the ethics I've learned give me good direction."
Conway's overall plan has not wavered, however. He wants every visitor to walk away from Turtle Island with life-altering revelations about the roots of humanity and the resources that sustain their existence.
"Maybe they'll never kill a rooster or rub two sticks together (to start a fire) again," he explains, "but they'll see where food comes from, and learn of their ancestral heritage, and that foundational insight may be a cornerstone to ground their reality forever."