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New YorkerIf you spent the last weekend in April at the Merlefest bluegrass festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, you may have run across a tall, handsome tepee dweller in buckskins. That was Eustace Conway, an idealistic Luddite who "heritage farms" his thousand-acre tract of Appalachian land using Mennonite machinery and knows how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Conway is an eater of roadkill and a tireless promoter of life in the woods, and he is also the anachronism around whom the novelist and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert builds her new book, The Last American Man (Viking). Conway, who rode his horse from Georgia to California in a hundred and three days and has studied most of the languages of the North Carolina Indian tribes, compares himself to a Stone Age man caught out alone in modern society. But, loosened up with a little whiskey, he resorts to modern slang ("That's why they pay me the big Benjamins!" he says in response to a compliment from Gilbert), proving that he is as much showman as frontiersman.
Prehistoric diversions are about the only kind on the Shiants, Adam Nicolson's private islands in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. "Shiant" means "holy" or "haunted" in Gaelic, and in Sea Room (North Point), Nicolson tells of discovering an Iron Age house, an early Christian hermit's stone pillow, and traces of his Viking ancestors, who are believed to have first landed there in the ninth century. Since that first settlement, the islands have changed hands many times, but they came back into Nicolson's family when his father bought them for £1,400 in 1937. The book is Nicolson's farewell to the Shiants, which he plans to give to his son when he turns twenty-one. (Dana Goodyear)