I had a much treasured book when I was a kid—something to the effect of “How to Survive in the Woods.” It covered the basics of building shelter, finding food, starting fire, and purifying water—important skills for a ten year old.
I grew up with a few acres of bush in my backyard and I often retreated to the woods. We didn’t have enough forest in which to get lost, but I spent a good deal of time imagining I was on my own, surviving—building lean-tos, setting snares, and walking silently through the undergrowth. Sometimes I would just sit in the platform I had set up in a tree at the edge of the woods and observe, in this zone between the stifling restrictions of home and the shadowy complexity of the woods.
My memories of being in the bush are the fondest I have from childhood—it was a lonely, but comforting time. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if I ever caught something in a snare, but I enjoyed the craft of finding rabbit trails and stringing up little fishing line nooses—learning to be observant and to act as a participant in nature.
My other form of escape from a troubled home was reading fiction and my favourite book around that time was Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, the story of two boys surviving in the tundra, rafting down a river after being stranded in the high Arctic.
Now I have a good home life and while I sometimes like to retreat into the woods, I’m happy to know that I have a sheltering house, a loving family, and a well-stocked kitchen to return to at the end of the day.
And the notion of surviving in the woods still carries an interest for me. I don’t know whatever happened to my childhood survival manual, but I’ve since purchased a new volume, the SAS Survival Guide and I flip through it occasionally. I like to think that if called upon, I could rig up a deadfall trap, improvise a solar still, or find some forest edibles. I may even be able to rouse up a fire with some dry tinder.
I’ve been hesitant to write about my interest in the craft and lore of living off the land, “survivalism” having given the field an apocalyptic and fanatical face. There is the sense, in the survivalist camp, of wanting to get on with the collapse of civilization—this great leveling of society where money and influence lose their cache and people survive on their knowledge of the environment, their physical endurance, and their wits.
If we continue on our current path we may well yet be reduced to this most basic instinct, where survival will supplant consumption, as our organizing principle. But for now, I’m not willing to give up on the notion that humans can figure out how to live in a more balanced community with the rest of life.
Ultimately, though, some major reorganization of our world is in order, or, more accurately, is taking hold right now. Having the possibility to survive, even for a short time, fully outside of the support network of our civilization seems not a bad idea. (Surviving outside this support but inside the confines of the city will require a whole different set of skills and knowledge that I can only begin to imagine. If it comes to it, I would rather be in the woods.)
When I think clearly about having to survive in the woods with nothing more than a pocket knife and the clothes on my back, I know it would not be fun or romantic for long. I imagine I would soon enough be suffering from hunger, fatigue, and fear…wishing for a cup of fresh-roasted coffee and copy of the New Yorker.
What’s compelling about the notion of surviving in the woods, though, is the possibility of living a less mediated life. Humans naturally enough seek comfort and ease, but each technology we create—each car, each computer, and each industrial chicken we consume—removes us from the world…until this point where, as an entire culture, we are completely alienated from the earth and from a larger sense of life. In turn, our alienation from the world speeds our careening decent, making us blind to how ridiculous we look and act.
In the woods, removed from all of our comforts and distractions, the world drops back into place, in all of its terror and beauty. Or so I imagine.
When I was a youthful advocate for better forestry practices we used to imagine the world-changing possibilities of simply getting a bunch of corporate CEO’s to sit down in the old-growth forests of the west coast and tune in. Instead, we ended up burning out our own sense of life and connection in boardrooms and behind computers screens while clearcut logging proceeded apace.
I don’t expect I will ever have to really survive in the woods. Part of the appeal when I was a child, I suppose, was the allure of being alone. In my adulthood, I’ve cast my lot with family, community, and settledness. I will not easily let go of the life we are building here. We will continue to plant the garden and build something like a sustainable community here in our valley, at the edge of the woods. (There’s currently a very good post at Casaubon’s Book about community investment as the only plausible response to the coming poverty, as she conceptualizes it, or the latest Kunstler wherein he summarizes, again, some reasonable responses to the unfolding financial/energy/environmental/cultural emergency—and it doesn’t involve buying a hybrid car.)
I hang on to my SAS manual all the same, I keep my pocket knife sharp, and I learn about the native plants when I can. As I mentioned in writing about our potato harvest, we are a long way from self-sufficiency here, and if our food supply were to be disrupted and our meager potato harvest did run out, it’s good to know where to pick nettles and how to snare a rabbit.
It’s good to have a back up plan in mind, and a survival guide in your back pocket.
Photo: an open seed pod of the invasive Scotch Broom. The black pods heat up in the sun and explode in a spiral that scatters their seeds about.
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