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I've been reading Elizabeth Gilbert's superb new book, The Last American Man, about Eustace Conway, a modern-day American mountain man who makes his own leather pants out of the skins of deer he kills with a bow and arrow. Conway lives off the land on 1,000 acres of pristine forestland near Boone, North Carolina, where he teaches survival skills to seekers like himself. The failure rate is high.

Yesterday, over coffee, I told a young man about the book and about Eustace. He thought about it for a minute, then said, "That makes me feel ... I don't know ... hopeful."

That was precisely the author's sentiment on first meeting Conway. "My initial reaction on witnessing Eustace Conway's life was relief," she says. "Thank God there was one truly resourceful and independent wild soul left in this country. Because, at some deep emotional level, Eustace's existence signified to me that somehow it's still true, that we Americans are, against all other available evidence, a nation where people grow free and wild and strong and brave and willful, instead of lazy and fat and boring and unmotivated."

The Last American Man is both comforting and disturbing. It set me thinking obsessively about my three sons and which, if any, survival skills they will bring to adulthood. But even more, it sent me on an obstacle course of obsessive thinking about all the undervalued domestic skills that have almost been lost in the passing of the past two generations of American women.

I have a garden that feeds us fresh greens, beans and squash a few months a year. I love it because of the physical labor involved; because I have to dig and turn dirt, use tools, get down on my knees, haul heavy loads, bend over and sweat. I crave it because, unlike the rest of my life, it actually feels like doing something.

For the most part, though, I live with a nagging fear that I can't really do much of anything. I can think. I can craft sentences. I can share ideas. But I can't fix my leaking faucet, can't repair the windshield wipers on my car, can't take raw materials and weave them into something useful.

My mother grew up on a subsistence farm with a passel of brothers and sisters. Everybody worked, even the youngest kids. All the girls were taught to embroider, knit and crochet, and were expected to perform the daily tasks of milking the cow, churning, and carrying in kindling for the fire. While the boys worked in the fields, the girls fed the chickens and gathered eggs, shelled beans and peas, shucked corn.

My mother washed milk bottles and was assigned the task of cleaning fruit jars for canning because her hands were small enough to fit inside the wide mouths. She has often described to me how her hands and arms ached on days when her aunts baked cakes and she had to cream the butter and sugar together. Warm hands were considered the best tools to soften the homemade butter. She squished and squeezed, squished and squeezed, and couldn't stop until the mixture reached the light, silky consistency her aunts required. Then they added flour and milk, and she beat the batter in a large bowl -- hundreds of strokes, by hand. Her impeccable instincts for making good food with whatever is at hand has never left her.

When I was growing up, I took it for granted, even resented the fact that my mother sewed all my clothes as well as those of my sisters. She made our dresses, even tailored and crafted our winter coats, sometimes whipping up hats to match. She took pleasure and pride in doing this. A corner of our living room was always covered with tissue paper pattern pieces, pinned to precisely cut swatches of fabric.

I learned from her how to cook a few labor-intensive things -- buttermilk biscuits rolled from a stiff dough, homemade chicken and dumplings -- but, for the most part, her skills are lost to my sisters and me, and to my daughter.

The older I get, the more I am haunted by the knowledge that my mother, in her mid-70s, is far more self-sufficient and skilled than I am.

I look at my sons and wonder who will teach them how to drive a nail. Will they ever need or want to wield an ax? I look at my daughter and know that she has not even inherited stories, memories of physical work from me, as I did from my mother.

My mother's, grandmothers', aunts' and great-aunts' domestic skills inch closer to obscurity every day, and I am struck with the vastness of that void, amazed at the eerie silence of this departure.

So it is comforting for Elizabeth Gilbert to bring this conversation into the open with her book. I hope it will be a hit in coffee klatch book clubs across America, raising a discussion about both "the last American man" and the equally compelling subject of the last American woman.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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