Ack, update Thu 1:40 forgot to enable comments!
Just finished reading The Last American Man, a biography of Eustace Conway. All the reviews go on about how cool he is, and how strong, and his great achievements: hiking the Appalachian Trail way too fast and out of season, riding across the country on a horse in just over 100 days (an all-time record), living in a teepee and eating roadkill and turning that into a thriving thousand-acre wilderness camp.
His achievements are wonderful, but that wouldn’t make for much of a story: awesome tough guy achieves awesomely tough goals! It’d be like those old, all-too-sincere Childhood of Famous Americans books that both Eustace and I were raised on: Daniel Boone, Young Hunter and Tracker, that kind of thing. What really struck me about it was how he would never admit to being wrong, and would never forgive anyone else’s mistakes or disagreements, would not discuss decisions, did not accept or understand for the feelings of others. He’s a leader, but only through sheer force of personality.
People see him and are swept away by the incredible vision of him, but they fail to realize that being near him means taking endless orders, that it means backbreaking fourteen and sixteen hour days, because that’s what his back-to-roots life is like. And to him, it’s self-evidently the right thing to do, and anyone who doesn’t see it exactly his way is just too lazy to look.
Sure, it would be wonderful for the planet if everyone lived mindfully at all times. It would be wonderful for the planet if everyone lived carefully and gently in the woods and worked constantly. But if we all began cutting our own wood for fuel, we’d cut down all the damn forests again, and lots of people would cut off their legs with axes and die of sepsis before they could hike a hundred miles on their stumps to get to a doctor. Not everyone is as tough as Eustace Conway– I’d venture to say almost nobody is — and he seems to think that’s because everyone else is just a goddamn pussy, all feelings and desires. He doesn’t care what you want, he knows what’s right and he thinks you should know it too. So, that’s what it means, apparently, to be a real man in America: to be difficult to love, because you are so driven. What will he do when his knees give out and he can’t work that hard anymore? What will he do when he finally does cut off his fingers with that chainsaw and can no longer sew his own clothes from sinew and buckskin?
My first reaction to the book was wanting to move back to Virginia and sit on a porch with a .22 shooting squirrels for dinner. I am told squirrels don’t taste that good, I haven’t shot a gun except a Daisy air-rifle firing BBs at a target back at summer camp, and I was a terrible shot even then, but that’s not the point. The point is that it would be difficult and hard but also simple and clear, that I would spend all morning chopping wood and all evening fixing the fence and that would fill my days.
And then the book made me sad that I don’t have the drive and energy and self-discipline to do that sort of thing. I’d get bored and tired, and use electric heat or buy cordwood or just get more blankets and huddle in the cold all winter. I felt sad that I don’t have the drive and the energy to do what people like my friends Jasmine (off for an MFA this fall) and Ora (summer of aid work in Jordan, returning to work on her PhD in the fall). I just get so tired and it’s so difficult, and I stop seeing the point and I stop caring. Eustace Conway has achieved a lot in his lifetime of hard work and long hours and pain and suffering, but it doesn’t amount to much of anything in the long run. Compared to the grand sweep of time, my life of anomie and convenience isn’t really any different. So why bother?