Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The other night, the power went out for several hours.  First time in a while.  We coped with it well enough, cooking dinner on the gas grill and sitting up past dark by lantern light.  But what if the power went out and never came back on?  I mean, never.

Several times a year, a bunch of us gather at a homestead in rural southern Delaware.  We work hard together, then as the evening winds down, cluster in groups to talk.  I often find myself seated with a handful of younger folk whose ideas and energy give me a lift.  This last time, the conversation centered on the topic of survival in the absence of social order.  It was fascinating to hear the various ideas and reflect on similar conversations I'd had decades ago with friends now long lost.  Even in the best of times, we are ever mindful of Chaos, the dark beast that haunts the perimeter, looking for a breach our walls.

There are two primary approaches to the survival problem.  At their most basic, they can be expressed as: a) learn a lot of skills and b) have a lot of stuff.  "Skills" can encompass everything from back woods survival to blacksmithing to medical arts to whatever is needed to rebuild civilization.  "Stuff" can be cash, gold, diamonds or stamps — or non-perishable goods, bottled water, tools, building supplies, etc.  Being in one camp doesn't preclude having some of elements of the other but judging by the heat of arguments between their proponents, you might as well try pushing Kraft Singles on a cheese connoisseur.

In my observation, there are serious flaws in both points of view.  Suppose you have all of the requisite woods lore to survive for months with nothing but your bare hands — and when the big breakdown comes, you're stuck in New York City . . .  Or, say you've got bunkers full of food, tons o' guns, megawatt generators and five miles of duct tape — and you're vacationing in the mountains when it all blows up.  Oops.

To be fair, I'm much more in the 'learn skills' camp though I do have a bit of 'stuff' here and there.  I believe, however, that there is a "middle way" that takes the best advantage of both schools: Be Resourceful.

"Be Resourceful" is a more focused version of the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared"*.  The primary skills required are observation, visualization and a healthy dose of knowing how things work.  It involves being able to adapt what you have to serve for what you need.  This kind of goes against the grain in consumer society — shouldn't we "just go out and buy" what we need?  Perhaps not.  Having grown up, shall we say, economically challenged, and the child of generations of Connecticut Yankees, we learned to make do with what we had or we did without.  But there was a basement full of tools and stuff so when beset by a burning need have something I wanted, I used my imagination to turn junk into toys — and turn my father's hair gray as I blithely scattered the contents of his workshop all over the house.

A resourceful mind causes you to save all manner of bits and pieces because they "might come in handy some day" though sometimes it may take years to find just the right use for any given part.  In every house I've lived in long enough to set up a workshop, there will be a dozen examples of something made from scraps and "adapted" hardware.  Some are stop-gaps, meant to last until the genuine article can be secured and others become an integral part of the household.

I'll give you a very high-profile example what I mean.  You may have seen the movie, "Apollo 13" (1995, Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon) which was based on an actual mission to the Moon in 1970.  During the flight, an explosion in an oxygen tank forced them to abandon the Command Service Module and cram three astronauts into the Lunar Module, a space intended for two.  This put a strain on the system that scrubbed the carbon dioxide from their breathing air, a condition that could have killed them if not corrected.  They had replacement scrubber canisters, but they were designed for the abandoned module — literally square parts that wouldn't fit into the Lunar Module's round holes.  Working with the engineers on the ground, they came up with an ingenious work-around using hoses from the space suits, storage bags, bits of cardboard and lots of duct tape (!).  Through this "kludge", they were able to survive the three day trip back to Earth.

So, how does all this apply to your life and times?  Perhaps we'll never be faced with a breakdown in our social and economic support systems but it's best not to proceed on that basis.  The truth is, there is no way of knowing what form a dramatic change might take.  Just ask the people who lived in New Orleans in August of 2005.  If I were to make a recommendation, it would be to acquire a set of "The Foxfire Books" and read them.  They are the product of a writing project started in the late '60s in which students at the school in Rabun Gap, Georgia interviewed their of elders and recorded stories and how-to information about the culture, skills and lore of southern Appalachia.  The books show you how to make a life using what nature provides.  It may not be the one true answer, but it'll get you thinking.

The power is back on again and I'm feeling just as complacent as I did before it went out.  I trust that the lights will come on the next time I flick a switch — and be bitterly disappointed if they don't.  But my world won't fall apart if that happens.  Even if the lights stayed out, I'm sure I could cope, and probably for a long time.  But you always hope you won't have to.

All the best,


* Yes, I was a Boy Scout.


  1. You don't need no stinkin' duct tape. Just watch M. Night Shyamalon's "The Village" for all you need to know.

    And let's not ever mention those we do not speak of again.


  2. You may be right but having watched on dreadful movie but Mr. Shyamalon, I'm not greatly encouraged to repeat the agony.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I have trouble dealing with heated conversations of impending doom and conspiracy theories. I don't find most of them to be really all that realistic. But you are right, in general we all will figure out how to make do with what we have and adapt.

    On the other hand, a 200 mile survival trek on foot from NYC to S. Delaware in the midst of a total breakdown of society seems kinda romantic and would make a great novel.

  4. I've found this interesting, what you're pondering here...

  5. Umm, Maggi, the novel you suggest might be a good one? It's been done; Stephen King's The Stand. Wowzers.

    Marky P, I see my pal from Australia, Ribbon hast paid ye a visit! I'm so glad...she's really grand.

    I'm coming to live with you when it all goes very dark. You're one of the brightest lights I know.