Turtle Island, A Living History Preserve
Story and Photos by Roberta Binder
The odometer turned 99.9, completion of one world as I prepared to step into another, our forefather’s reality: Turtle Island Preserve, home to Eustace Conway and camp, educational facility and primitive sustainable farm and museum. The clouds parted … the sun shone through; I crossed the babbling brook to a sacred land of peace and education. A campus representing true freedom shone through, illuminating how and why our ancestors thrived and this country grew healthy and strong.
At Base Camp, hearing laughter, I found three interns having breakfast; they greeted me with warm welcome and suggested I enjoy a wander since I was early for my meeting with Eustace and they assured me that he was generally late. How perfect! I could randomly explore.
Daniel, who is a year into his internship, found me and stopped to give me the lay of the land. As we chatted, he shared that as he was finishing his doctorate in linguistics he had read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about Eustace Conway, The Last American Man. He knew this was where he wanted to be.
Soon a smiling Desere arrived. She and I had been communicating regarding my visit. What a joy to meet in person! A science teacher, she came to Turtle Island in 2006 to better provide children with a true-to-life experience outside of the classroom, and she continues her mission as educator and office manager. As we walked she shared some background. “Eustace originally purchased 107 acres and today the total property is 1000 acres. He lived in a tipi for the first 17 years. The first actual building on the property was the tool shed to protect his tools.
“This climate is extremely friendly for pioneering, rich with appropriateness for human occupation. Historic anthropological evidence has documented existence of Paleopeoples, Indians and pioneers. The forest is amazing with beautiful trees … many 60-80 years old.” It is wood from these trees, sustainably harvested, carved with an ax or milled on-site, that has been used for construction of all the buildings.
We wandered past the blacksmith shop, to the fire circle as Desere explained, “this is our friendship circle, our central meeting spot. We have lessons here before meals.” Another building houses stations for teaching: fire making, tanning animal skins, and a canoe being built. Around the fire, musical instruments come alive during evening sharing time.
We continue to the large horse barn and on to the carriage house. The wood came from the property, roof shingles were fashioned by hand, the antique door hinges—which are over two feet in length—gifted by a local collector, and the door hooks forged in the blacksmith shop; in the distance are the outhouses: “historically accurate ways of disposing of human waste.” We head to the pasture—in the distance is a dwelling called winter camp where interns now live; it had been Eustace’s housing structure after moving out of the tipi. As we walk the grounds there are goats with kids, guinea foul, ducks, chickens, horses, mules, ponies. We were off to a garden to pick greens that would become the basis for our meal; even visiting reporters are given the opportunity to work for their supper at Turtle Island Preserve (TI).
As we filled our container, Eustace arrived as if on queue. We climbed to the top of the browsing shed as Desere left for the kitchen to prepare our meal. “We built this building in fourteen days; every piece of lumber was grown on this very spot. We cut the trees and cleared the area, took the logs to our on-site saw mill, brought those same boards back to this spot and built the whole thing by guiding interns and several visitors. The crew became a lot healthier, a lot more inspired, more capable human beings with more understanding of their American heritage … it is very well built, and they had good guidance.” With pride in his voice Eustace spoke of the work of the team, positive results and lessons learned.
I asked, “What brought you here?”
“It was my grandfather’s influence from Camp Sequoyah, which he started in 1920 in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. I was 16 when they were looking for a new manager to take over—I stepped up and announced I wanted to take on the job, but they looked at me as too young and with no experience. I repeated it again at 18 and was again turned down.
Only my mother understood that it was my true calling. So off I went to Appalachian State University where I completed two degrees in English and Anthropology. I needed those degrees so people would validate me.”
“In reality you have done what the founders of our country did, built a homestead. When did you begin holding camps and teaching?”
“Actually the first day I moved onto the property my anthropology professor, Harvard Ayers, brought a group of his college students out. That was the beginning of now 26 years of holding camps with the goal to teach American heritage and how to live off the land. Out here we cut down the trees as needed, make our clothes, harvest our food. We understand how these things work. When you get away from understanding how you are connected to the world you have problems. When you get closer to that connection, removing the middle man, at least you have the opportunity to understand and put the whole thing into perspective.
That is the primary teaching that I felt I could accomplish by creating an education center where people would be put in a different cultural and physical environment and that would become a catalyst for growth and insight to help to make the world a better place.
“One of the mantras of today’s world is ‘You can’t do that.’ The mantra here at TI is ‘You can do that.’ I always tell young people, ‘Do what you believe in.’ People are in mindless jobs as sheeple, living their lives out, passing their days. It’s totally unnecessary to be out of touch with your own personal inspiration. Our country and our people would be so much stronger if everyone, or even if 20% more of the population, would be doing something they believe in.
“Take my life for example. You couldn’t pay anybody to work as hard as I have to build this place, yet I did it voluntarily. I did it because I believe in it so much. Money isn’t my main encouragement; I do it out of love of this land and hopes for the education of youth—the future of this country. I’ve done everything here from visioning landscape architecture, cutting trees down, turning those trees into boards, and building the buildings, and making the tools to work with, to advertising and communications.”
Eustace continued, “America is in such a sad state; it is a country that has so much potential, we can choose the best food in the world. We can choose the best health in the world. But that is not our choice. We currently spend more on medicine than all the rest of the world combined and we are about 50th in health rank.
“As a teenager I saw the writing on the wall … I wanted to do something about the problem. And so I forged a path. My answer, as simple as it may be, is to get people in touch with their source of things. We are so very out of touch that we don’t know where our clothes come from, food comes from, water comes from, or the materials our houses are built with comes from. This is unhealthy distancing.”
“Tell me more about your educational camp program for your guests.” I asked.
“Camps run three seasons mostly all age groups—six to 80 year olds. We try to remain open to anybody who wants to have this kind of experience. Every group that comes has a program specifically designed for them. We have received people from across this country and from countries around the world.
We also have a 14 month total immersion internship work camp. I tell applicants up front this is going to be very hard, you are going to be very challenged, you’ll never work harder in the rest of your life—probably never want to, probably never need to, but you will always know that if you do need to, you’ll have it in you. We teach so many things like life lessons, how to compose themselves and build character through their entire life. Applicants come for a two-week trial period. This is an investment in the individual’s deep education, not arithmetic and English, really broad-based holistic foundational experience that produces good wholesome thinkers and problem solvers.”
With that the shell horn sounded indicating supper was about to be served. As we walked toward the kitchen, we continued the discussion on interns. “I’m looking for students who aren’t all about themselves, that are willing to have a contributing ethic, people who are able to deal with a certain level of stress, people who have a tenacious ‘I can do this and I’m not going to give up’ attitude. In fact the most important thing is attitude. You don’t need to have any skills, but you have to have a very positive attitude. You have to have trust; you have to trust me as a teacher. There will be times when that will be challenging.”
And with that, Desere presented a masterpiece, completely prepared with food from the farm: squash soup, garden salad from some of the greens we had picked, peachy vinaigrette, onions and more greens sautéed with hog meat raised and butchered at the Preserve. The three of us quietly held hands as Eustace gave the blessing, “Thanksgiving for all that feeds and nurtures us. Amen.” I’m a true foodie, this meal ranks as one of the top meals I’ve ever eaten in my life … I can still bring back the flavors!
As the meal came to a close, so too did our day together; this visitor, who was very reluctant to leave, enjoyed hugs and wandered off through the quiet woods, back to the world we live in, and before I left the property the sun was gone and the raindrops fell …
To learn more about Turtle Island Preserve or to request a visit or engage in a camp experience, visit TurtleIslandPreserve.com.
Roberta Binder, Facilitating Clarity through Mindful Editing Keeping the Author’s Voice, Always at RobertaEdits.com. She is also a writer and photo-journalist who enjoys all of her writing adventures with WNC Woman – Women Nurturing Change.