Elon University has spent over 8 years in the Turtle Island alternative breaks program. On Elon's most recent visit to the preserve, student Cole Vandermast made some insightful observations. We were so impressed, we thought we'd share it here:
December 1, 2014
If you knew of a way to live a more enriching, meaningful, and appreciative life, would you? The people of Turtle Island Preserve in Boone, North Carolina have chosen this way of life, and then some. The Turtle Island Preserve is an off-the-grid farm and nature preserve that teaches sustainability and a primitive, traditional way of life. The farm is that of Eustace Conway, an expert in traditional living and carpentry, self-sufficiency, and survival skills. Eustace has amassed over 1,000 acres of land over the past 28 years, and has built a reputation as one of the premier leaders in traditional living, which has drawn many followers to him over time.
The people who come to live and work with Eustace are “Old, young, curious, adventurous, outdoorsy folks,” and who are “seeking wisdom and techniques for walking between both worlds,” as told by Desere, my contact within the preserve. These people come to Eustace as interns, or simply as volunteers, and help him with his work, forming a community or even a family in the process. The Turtle Island community, or subculture, can be defined as such and examined through their daily routines, rites and rituals, and the unique lifestyle that they live. This ethnography will ultimately serve to prove that, not only is Turtle Island a subculture, but it is a more fulfilling, and effective way of life, one that should be more widely endorsed.
To better understand the culture of Turtle Island as a whole, and the way in which these people live, one must examine its leader and figurehead, Eustace Conway. Eustace was a frontiersman before he had a frontier to tame. Before he started the preserve he had already hiked the Appalachian Trail with almost no provisions, and had ridden across the country on horseback in record-breaking speed. He stopped his traveling days when he had grown tired, as many have, of being told to live a life that he didn’t want to live. Eustace’s struggle to find a more fulfilling existence is chronicled in the book The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert. In this book, Gilbert talks of a way of life that has been lost to this generation of Americans, a way of life that Eustace and the people of Turtle Island embody, but which is quickly going extinct.
Why is this way of life disappearing? Eustace believes it is because we are fearful of death, death which resides in nature. This fear drives us to break away from the natural cycles which compel most other organisms in the world; causing us to build giant, concrete, sterilized shelters, far from death and disease, far from nature. Why then does Eustace, among others, choose to live this way? Is it because he is unafraid of death? “Only those who live in the wilderness can recognize the central truth of existence, which is that death lives right beside us at all times, as close and as relevant as life itself, and that this reality is nothing to fear but is a sacred truth to be praised” (Gilbert, 16). This is the way that the people of Turtle Island live; not unafraid of death, but not fearful of it either, simply accepting that it is an unavoidable consequence of existence and recognizing its importance as a driving biological force.
Desere herself, as a member of this community, embodies these ideals. She says that her first realization, the one that sparked her desire to search for a more fulfilling and meaningful existence, came from a grocery store. She had bought a package of meat from the local grocery store and found herself wondering where it came from, “And that was one of those first moments, my bachelor’s degree, fantastic job with full insurance and benefits package, my gorgeous house, my beautiful truck and my promising career– were meager in comparison to the cold hard fact that I still had no idea how the flesh I consumed on a daily basis – went from a living animal – to a clean slice of meat, sitting coldly in a Styrofoam package on my kitchen counter.” This detachment she felt from the food that she was eating opened her eyes to the fact that she was reliant on corporations and systems for all of her food, clothes, and even the home that she lived in, “Even though I was already composting household organic waste, conserving water, recycling and living a comparatively self-sufficient lifestyle – there were still the deep questions, and a profound sense from within that constantly reminded me that I didn’t actually know where my food came from, how to truly ‘survive’ – let alone thrive, if the very system I existed within ceased to exist itself.” This then sparked within her the desire to become independent, and to ingrain herself within the processes that bring her food to the table, the roof over her head, and the clothes that she’s wearing. That’s when she found Turtle Island, “What unfolded was beyond my imagination. I arrived to witness free-range chickens, draft horses and old-timey structures that likened scenes from 19th century paintings and a little bit of Colonial Williamsburg. I was warmly welcomed and put straight to work. There was no electricity, no hot running water and the food was prepared exclusively over a fire.” It was everything she had dreamed of, “By the week’s end I’d cleared garden paths, got elbow deep in freshly killed chickens, led a horse to water, jump started old pick-up trucks, and drove a backhoe. Eustace’s little piece of Appalachia was a microcosm, with thrifty old-time tricks and antiquated methods, married with chainsaws and heavy equipment. I learned so much, and there wasn’t even a monetary exchange. The word “economy” began to take on a whole new meaning.” Just this short experience at Turtle Island prompted her to sever her ties from modern society and become fully immersed in their traditional lifestyle, “It took six months of saving, rearranging and parting with beloved possessions, friends, and comfortable security. Im sure from the outside it appeared like a breakdown of some sort. I just couldn’t help myself. It was as if a great mystery, a lesson that had eluded me would finally be revealed. I would be getting to the root of my very existence.”
I too felt drawn to Turtle Island. During my fall break this year, I took a service trip to Turtle Island to help Eustace with his daily activities, learn about sustainability and traditional lifestyles, and develop a better understanding of nature. In an average day at Turtle Island, we would wake up at 6:30 in the morning and participate in a ritual called morning watch. In this ritual we meet in a circle, take our shoes off, and silently hike up a nearby mountain. Once we get to the top, marked by a medicine wheel, which is a sacred circle of stones carried up by Turtle Island residents who participated in a sweat lodge, we sit in quiet meditation and appreciate the beauty of the world, and of the morning. This ritual is meant to show us the unity and connectedness of all things in nature Starting your day this way instills within you a deep appreciation of nature and life, and it inspires a unity within the community.
After morning watch, the rest of the day is very straightforward. The whole community participates in breakfast, washes their dishes, and then proceeds to the gazebo, or fire-circle, where we are given our assignments for the next few hours. Another daily ritual we participate in before meals is that the community comes together in a circle, holds hands, and prays to nature for the food that it provides for us. After breakfast, and once we’ve received assignments, we work. The work is hard, back-breaking, but honest. Most of it involves moving lumber, chopping wood, moving rocks, and stacking wood. Around noon we eat lunch, and once again proceed to the fire-circle where we receive our assignments, and then work until dinner. After dinner, there are chores to do with the farm animals; mucking the stalls, feeding the farm animals, retrieving hay from the loft, and other activities like this. After chores we are free to congregate as we please, or to go to sleep, the latter being the more popular choice.
Though an average day includes many rituals and processes such as morning watch and praying together before eating, life at Turtle Island consists of other unique rites that one must partake in if one is to live the lifestyle. These rites include spending all day outdoors, using an outhouse instead of a bathroom, and taking care of and living with animals; not simply as pets, and not simply as resources or food, but as organisms sharing a fulfilling and free existence, symbiotically.
Another way that Turtle Island is unique is that if one partakes in this lifestyle there are not only rites and rituals that one must physically participate in, but there are also certain values and ideals that this lifestyle is characterized by. One of the main values that one is instilled with is appreciation. Appreciation for nature, for each other, for the work that you do, for the food that you eat, and appreciation for your own life and the lives of every organism around you, be it bird, bug, tree, or person. An additional value that the people of Turtle Island both physically and mentally manifest is sustainable living. As Desere puts it “we do make a solid effort to act consciously, with great care, respect for the natural world and the impacts we make. While we are all consumers, our choices when it comes to what we consume and how we consume it… seem more sustainable, healthier and more respectful. America at large seems to be on a collision course in a lot of aspects.”
The culture and rituals of Turtle Island strongly appealed to my own values and ideals, and caused me to ask myself: why isn’t this lifestyle more popular? Alex Whitcroft, a resident of the Dancing Rabbit ecovillage of Missouri, explains why in his article Getting Ecovillages Noticed. “The communities movement is still largely a fringe phenomenon,” he says, “it still struggles to shake off the "hippie" label that it has been landed with and be considered for what it is—a global community of well educated, intelligent people developing systems and social models the mainstream would greatly benefit from paying attention to.” Though they struggle with these labels, Whitcroft explains how over time he believes that ecovillages and communities will become more accepted in contemporary culture because they represent a way of sustainable living without destroying the environment.
Living in this way, separated and almost completely isolated from modern society, would appear to create a kind of distance between communities such as Turtle Island or Dancing Rabbit ecovillage and society. However, Desere says that “We are more connected to the steadfast, tried and true traditions of Appalachia. The rituals and activities we participate in have been around for millennia. Modern contemporary society is only a thin film of unsustainable and “convenient” living on the surface of thousands of years of human activity. Even the simplest natural disaster or power outage will make modern people face these situations. Yes, there is a distance, but also people repeatedly inform us that they too pine for a simpler approach to an otherwise chaotic and meaningless life.” These rites, rituals, and traditions make up Turtle Island’s culture and characterize their values and ideals. The unique configuration of all these things creates a society, or subculture, that thrives on community, appreciation, and environmental sustainability.
There is an incredible amount of freedom that comes with living in this way, and this lifestyle is one that if contemporary culture or “modern society” adopted, the stratification of wealth, power, gender, race, and religion, would be far lessened, creating a world where all ethnicities and demographics are equally appreciated. It is my belief that if this type of community was more widely endorsed, through our appreciation of nature and our appreciation of the work that we do, we would focus less on the differences between one another, and more on what brings us together. However, this lifestyle cannot be accomplished unless people are committed to live this way; to break away from the normal systems and processes that control our lives, and live in a more independent and self-sufficient way. As Eustace says “Break out of the box! 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 thousand and thousand of years, and it is not the only way you can live today!” (Gilbert, 1).
Gilbert, Elizabeth. The Last American Man. Penguin Books. May 13, 2002. Print.
Whitcroft, Alex. “Getting Ecovillages Noticed.” Communities Magazine #156. Fall, 2012.
Web. 19 November 2014.