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The way Eustace Conway sees it, there’s the natural world, as exemplified by his Turtle Island Preserve in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And then there’s the “plastic, imitation” world that most other humans inhabit.
But the border between the two has always been porous — uncomfortably so these days.
When Conway — known today as a star of the History Channel reality show “Mountain Men” — bought his first 107 acres in 1987, his vision for Turtle Island in Watauga County was as “a tiny bowl in the earth, intact and natural, surrounded by pavement and highways.” People peering inside from nearby ridges would see “a pristine and green example of what the whole world once looked like.”
Since leaving his parents’ suburban home at 17 and moving into the woods, Conway has been preaching the gospel of “primitive” living. But over the past three decades, those notions have clearly evolved.
Conway has ditched his trademark buckskins for jeans and T-shirts. Visitors to Turtle Island are as likely to hear the buzz of a chain saw as the call of an eagle, and interns learn that “Dumpster diving” is as important a skill as hunting or fishing.
And then there are the TV cameras, which he’s used to convey his message of simpler living for two seasons of “Mountain Men” — a role he concedes is oxymoronic.
“I think television’s terrible,” the 52-year-old woodsman says with a chuckle. “So it’s definitely a paradox.”
But it’s all part of a complex dance. For Conway and Turtle Island, sustainability has come to depend on interns and apprentices, and on tax-exempt status from a regulatory system he openly despises.
It also depends, increasingly, on a steady stream of paying campers. And that is where Conway’s peaceful coexistence with the “modern world” broke down.
Acting on a complaint about alleged improper building, officials from the Watauga County Planning and Inspection Department raided Turtle Island last fall and found dozens of structures without required permits. Citing numerous potential health and safety code violations, the county attorney gave Conway three options: Bring the buildings up to minimum state standards, have an expert certify that they already met code and obtain proper permits, or tear them down.
What ensued was more than just a battle of government versus an individual. It was also very much about the lines between what is real and what is “reality.”