Bringing nature to a tech-savvy campus

Championing the phrase “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” Eustace Conway did not use running water or electricity for 20 years while camping in the woods of North Carolina. Given that, hearing Conway speak at such a technology-driven school as Carnegie Mellon last Thursday night was quite a juxtaposition. However, Conway seemed as comfortable speaking within concrete walls as any of us would be, peppering his lecture with clever anecdotes and lighthearted comparisons between the modern world and the world he lives in.

Introduced by Tomasz Skowronski, AB Lectures chair, Conway was welcomed warmly by a mixed audience of students, faculty, and other curious Pittsburghers. Conway began by offering his different perspective on the world. He has lived most of his 45 years in his Turtle Island nature preserve, named after a Native American folktale in which the earth is supported by a giant turtle. Through Conway’s eyes, the earth itself is a “female entity that gives us life,” but modern American society is “destroying itself like a bad cancer.” Conway blames much of this deterioration on consumerism. Corporations, he said, have put a “blinder” on Americans about where their food, clothing, and other everyday items come from.

In one particular anecdote, Conway told the audience of an elementary school girl who was appalled by his handmade deerskin jacket. He pointed out to our more mature audience that the cotton clothing most of us wear daily is produced through “raping the landscape” of its natural plants to make way for the mono-crop, as opposed to his jacket that was made with a natural, renewable resource. Conway explained that the necessity to hunt, skin, and tan the skins of five deer to make his jacket made him appreciate the “specialness and sacredness of life gone.” As he pointed out, he also used every part of those deer, from the toenails, hanging from his shoulder to remind him of the deers’ sacrifice, down to the tendons, which he used as both thread and dental floss.

Conway noted how disappointed he was at seeing a kiosk at an airport that was supposed to educate people on science, but only offered interaction with a computer screen and buttons, without any hands-on experience. He did, however, dismiss the absurdity as reasonable. “If that’s what it takes...”

Conway explained that most people in urban societies have “spiritual deprivation” and are not in tune with their surroundings. This is understandable, he continued, since there is so much stimulation in the modern world that we are forced to tune out and only pick certain things to pay attention to. While elaborating on such stimulations, he noted that he had only ever seen two iPods, receiving chuckles from the audience when coming to a loss for words to describe them as any more than “little things.”

After speaking for a half hour, Conway turned to the audience for questions. One person asked if there was perhaps a middle ground between his natural way of living and the modern experience. Conway replied to this by pointing out that he does use a few modern tools, such as plastic buckets, a chainsaw, and a truck. He also explained, jokingly, that he chooses to wear manufactured jeans in order to not look too weird when he gives lectures. In response to a question about hostile environments, Conway pointed out that the modern world is much more hostile than any natural habitat, since nature is predictable. “I don’t get poison ivy ’cause I don’t touch it! Why would I touch it?” he exclaimed to note the simplicity of dealing with natural surroundings.

Conway also related his environmental advice to economics. When making a decision, we should consider “how much good versus how much detriment” is coming out of it, a simple cost-benefit analysis. Conway explained that he used this analysis when he finally used toilet paper three years ago for the first time in over two decades. Previously, he had used leaves he had found. Toilet paper, something he claimed Carnegie Mellon students take for granted from Housing Services, should be “used preciously.... It is a gift; it is a dream,” a pointed example of how alternative his lifestyle is.

Conway concluded the evening by explaining that our whole culture needs to make a more meaningful experience, and we all need to get involved in reality. As audience members got up to leave, Skowronski returned to invite everyone to a small reception in the hall. The selection of vegan refreshments including organic soda, salad, and organic corn chips with hummus fit right in with the event’s notion of natural living. Despite the free reception, many people stayed in the auditorium to purchase books and personally thank Conway for coming, a testament of just how fascinating Eustace Conway’s life experiences are.