Wednesday, April 27, 2016

iAppraise | Elizabeth Gilbert's The Last American Man

“…People say that I don’t live in the real world, but its modern Americans who live in a fake world, because they have stepped outside the natural circle of life… Do people live in circles today? No. They live in boxes. They wake up every morning in the box of their bedroom because a box next to them started making beeping noises to tell them that it was time to get up. They eat their breakfast out of a box and then throw that box away into another box. Then they leave the box where they live to get into a box with wheels and drive to work, which is just another bog box broken up into lots of little cubicle boxes where a bunch of people spend their days sitting and staring at the computer boxes in front of them. When the day is over, everyone gets into the box with wheels again and goes home to their house boxes and spends the evening staring at the television boxes for entertainment. They get their music from a box, they live their lives in a box! Does that sound like anybody you know?”

That’s the thing with books – you never know how you’re going to end up picking the one that makes you want to stop and pause after every couple of paragraphs! The Last American Man has been one such book. I had picked it up from a second hand bookstore because it had an interesting synopsis on the back cover and also because it has been written by Elizabeth Gilbert.
But never did I imagine that Eustace Conway – whose own journey this book is about – would turn out to be the man in my head!

Some books made the voices in your head a lot louder | The Last American Man
Some books made the voices in your head a lot louder | The Last American Man

On rabid destruction of Nature
Unlike Eustace, I do not own or live in a tepee. On the contrary, I had to Google what one looked like! But that didn’t change much for me. To be honest, Eustace’s story isn’t what I am aspiring to emulate. I love Nature but I don’t have it me to survive the wild with nothing but my bare hands and a few tools. Neither do I have the audacious plan of creating something like a Turtle Island of my own. But it was Eustace’s belief system that has resonated with me. Well, most of it did.

Like this one:
“We seem to have the same disregard for our bodies as we do for our natural resources; if a vital organ breaks down, after all, we always believe we can buy a new one. Somebody else will take care of it. Same way we believe that somebody else will plant another forest if we use this one up. That is, if we even notice that we’re using it up.”

Development has remained a fancy buzzword for a while now and it’s something that I cannot seem to comprehend. Rivers are interlinked artificially, forests are bulldozed recklessly, animals and birds continue to be hunted for sport while mountains are being pulverized without batting an eyelid! Why? For the sake of development. Whose development is it anyway? It’s like Eustace says do even notice we’re using it up!

That irony died a thousand deaths with this image isn't a hyperbole | National Highway 7 en route near Mowgli's Seoni in Madhya Pradesh, India (as seen in November 2015)
That irony died a thousand deaths with this image isn't a hyperbole | National Highway 7 en route near Mowgli's Seoni in Madhya Pradesh, India (as seen in November 2015)
His idea for Turtle Island – a way for people to experience the natural world in order to enhance their appreciation and respect for all forms of Life – was realised when he felt the need to 
“teach people that it’s a lie, because the bulldozers will keep coming until every tree is gone. There is no place that is safe. And when I realised that? Well, that’s when I decided to get a forest of my own and fight to the death anyone who ever tried to destroy it. That was the only answer and the most important thing I could do with my life on this earth.”


On experiencing Nature
I’ve been realising that I experience a certain kind of oneness when I am within Nature. There’s a sense of belonging I seldom experience even in the city I have grown up in or for that matter even with the people I consider myself to be close to. Out there under the blue skies with my back against the mightiest of trees with birds adding a tune to the air, I find my own centre. And it’s for the kind of connect I am able to strike with my natural surroundings that this anecdote from the book jumped right at me:
On another occasion, Eustace took a small group of kindergarteners for a walk in the woods… “The woods are alive,” he said, but he could see that the children didn’t quite get it. Then he asked a question, “Who wants to be my helper?” When a small boy stepped forward, Eustace – with the help of the children – dug two long shallow trenches in the forest floor. And he and the little boy lay down in the trenches and the other children buried them so that only their faces were sticking out of the ground, looking straight up.
“Now, we are the forest floor,” Eustace said. “And let’s tell the others what we see and feel. Let’s explain what is happening to us.”
They lay there for some time in the soft forest duff, Eustace and the five-year-old child and described what they saw and felt. How the sun hit their faces for a little while and then shade came with the waving of the branches above them. They described dead pine needles falling on them and the drops of moisture from past rainfall landing on their cheeks and the insects and spiders marching over their faces. It was amazing. The children were mesmerized. And then of course they all wanted to be buried.

This made me want to be buried in the forest duff too!

That oneness that comes from being in and with Nature | Harihar Fort, Maharashtra - India
That oneness that comes from being in and with Nature | Harihar Fort, Maharashtra - India 

On consumption patterns
I hoard. But I used to hoard a lot more before. After I quit my job in December 2014 and while packing for a seven month project - during which I travelled through 6 Indian states in 6 months – I realised there was so much in my wardrobe and bookshelves that needed doing away with. That’s when I really downsized my belongings for the first time! Living out of two backpacks and a suitcase for seven months taught me that I needed much lesser – even after discarding some of the earlier stuff. So now, every few months I look through my belongings and let go of some of them. Books have been my most prized possessions. They still are. But I give my books away now. As I do with the other things. Nostalgia works well for the memory; not so much in the physical realm!
Or like Eustace says: “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle are good ideas but those three concepts should only be the last resort. What you really need to focus on are two other words that also begin with R – Reconsider and Refuse. Before you even acquire the disposable good, ask yourself why you need this consumer product. And then turn it down. Refuse it. You can.”

And that’s where I am at – reconsidering and refusing.


On travel
From bewilderment to envy, I get a whole range of reactions from people if I mention to them that I’ve quit my job and I’m currently traveling. That I still have to find work to afford my travels is lost on them merely because I don’t have a permanent desk-job – words that still send shivers down my spine. The curiosity stems from the need to know how I afford my lifestyle (among other things)! Though I wonder why it’s hard to believe that travel is my only expense and investment – on myself and for myself.

And then this paragraph from The Last American Man left me smiling:
Scott Taylor, a student with Eustace during those years, remembers… “I was nineteen and so was my wife, and we had this little apartment we were trying to set up to look like the home of a typical middle-class American married couple. We were imitating our parents, not even thinking about our lives with any kind of depth. Then I invited Eustace Conway over one day and he walked around quietly, looking at everything, and said, “Man, you guys have a lot of material possessions.” I’d never considered that there was another way to live. Eustace said, “Just imagine if you took all the money you’ve spent on these things and travelled around the world with it, instead, or bought books and read them. Think about how much you’d know about life.”

Then there are also questions on how safe it is to solo travel within India in spite of being a woman. I recently got asked by someone who posed to be a freelance writer to name a place that I felt hostile in. When I let the gentleman know that no such place existed, he seemed very disappointed! A couple of days after that abrupt conversation, I stared at these lines for a long time: 
“We do not change our course because of goddamn racial prejudice. What have we learned so far on this journey, people? Who has not been kind to us yet? Black, white, Hispanic – everyone’s been good to us. And if we start dodging people out of fear, then we’ve destroyed everything we supposedly stand for."

Taking the paths less trodden and experiencing places and people for what they are - not what we're told they are | Gujarat - Madhya Pradesh border, India
Taking the paths less trodden and experiencing places and people for what they are - not what we're told they are | Gujarat - Madhya Pradesh border, India


And some more nuggets in between
I bumped into an ex-colleague at a friend’s birthday about two months ago and while catching up with everything I had been up to since quitting the job, he remarked “So you’re traveling and making a living, huh?” To which I heard myself say, “No, I’m living and making it happen”. I was stupefied at my own answer because for a brief 15 seconds I had four pairs of eyes staring at me.
My stupefied state was further heightened when many weeks after that incident I was staring at this line in the book: “Not making a living,” he wrote, on his first trip to Alaska, “just living

"I wish I could do what you're doing", they said. And to every last citizen Eustace had replied, "You can."
"I wish I could do what you're doing", they said. And to every last citizen Eustace had replied, "You can."

The book did something for me. I not sure what that something is yet.
Somewhere I guess a part of me was relieved that people like Eustace Conway not just walk the planet but also choose to be written about – it sure works as great PR for the Turtle Island no doubt. He isn't without character flaws of his own. And no, he isn’t the only one. Neither is he one among a few. There are many silent warriors of the earth who are doing their bit – either at an individual or a community level – and most of them choose to live as recluses. And each of them inspire – however we may stumble upon them and learn about their ways. And bring a little bit of that to our own lives.

Psst! Until I read this book, I also didn’t know that ‘planet’ meant wandering body!



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