As I type this, I’m gazing out my window for the second day in a row at over 6 inches of snow that’s fallen. It’s beautiful and fun, obviously. But since I live on a steep hill, it also comes with some challenges.
Yesterday, when the storm started, I made a quip on my personal Facebook page that it was time once again for the game of watching cars attempt to get up or down the street. Because every year, people just have to tempt fate. Sometimes, a contender looks good—good momentum, good form. Clearly, they’re in it to win it. But then, the momentum slows and then stops. All is quiet for a moment and then the front end of the car begins to slide to one side or the other as it begins a perpendicular descent down the hill. Good times, good times.
As I watched from the warm comfort of my home, I saw something new yesterday. I saw a young man abandon a car and hop in another car that had barely made it up the hill itself. In his hands was the tell-tale red vinyl carrying case for pizza. Now, setting aside my feelings about the nutritional worth of pizza, what we had here was someone who lives up in this treacherous neighborhood who deliberately called for pizza knowing damn good and well that the roads were impassable and dangerous. Because if they weren’t, you know, they probably would’ve driven to a restaurant themselves.
This inspired a bit of a Facebook rant from me. Why would you do that to somebody?
But the bigger issue here is that we no longer know how to take care of ourselves. Our families. Our communities. We are all dependent on a system that proves to be quite fragile when the ish hits the fan. Our little snowstorm is a small example, but it’s an important reminder.
The difference between me and the pizza orderer is that now that I’m Paleo, my fridge, deep freezer, and pantry are always stocked with staples. Even if I’m not in the mood for something, chances are, I have plenty of healthy items around. On this particular occasion, I had several cuts of meat brought up from the deep freezer: chicken, lamb, ground beef, and short ribs. In addition, there are always eggs. My crisper drawers are stuffed with farmers’ market goodies like cabbage, leeks, carrots, kale, parsnips, and herbs. In my pantry, I have onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, coconut milk, and nuts. I can always whip something up.
This is not how a lot of Americans live today, which is kind of shocking considering that so many pantries are full of processed items that need only be reconstituted with water to be edible. We are so divorced from how to take care of ourselves that we just assume that should there be a problem, someone will provide.
Let’s take an extreme example: The Siege of Leningrad during WWII. Hitler had surrounded the city (now St. Petersburg) and squeezed off all supplies coming in. By the first winter of the siege, hardship had found the citizens. From Wikipedia (bold mine):
The two-and-a-half year siege caused the greatest destruction and the largest loss of life ever known in a modern city. The 872 days of the siege caused unparalleled famine in the Leningrad region through disruption of utilities, water, energy and food supplies. This resulted in the deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians and the evacuation of 1,400,000 more, mainly women and children, many of whom died during evacuation due to starvation and bombardment. Economic destruction and human losses in Leningrad on both sides exceeded those of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Moscow, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation, especially in the winter of 1941–1942. For example, from November 1941 to February 1942 the only food available to the citizen was 125 grams of bread, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other inedible admixtures, and distributed through ration cards. For about two weeks at the beginning of January 1942, even this food was available only for workers and military personnel. In conditions of extreme temperatures and city transport being out of service, even a distance of a few kilometers to a food distributing kiosk created an insurmountable obstacle for many citizens. In January–February 1942, about 700–1,000 citizens died every day, most of them from hunger. People often died on the streets, and citizens soon became accustomed to the sight of death.
Reports of cannibalism appeared in the winter of 1941–1942, after all birds, rats, and pets had been eaten by survivors. Hungry gangs attacked and ate people. Leningrad police even formed a special unit to combat cannibalism. This unit resulted in 260 Leningraders being found guilty of and put in prison for the crime of cannibalism.
Now there’s a story to make you appreciate even the crappiest life. In a smaller example, 2013’s fires in the Sierras of California, near Yosemite National Park, threatened the greater San Francisco Bay Area’s water and electricity. I can guarantee that had that been the case, I would’ve had a house full of friends and family, since I only live 5 hours north. As Joel Salatin, prominent farmer and activist, is fond of pointing out, each municipality has about 3 days worth of food for its population, and that’s it. Even with all that crap sitting on the shelves of every convenience store, grocery store, and Wal-Mart, things devolve into desperation pretty quickly. Think how anytime there’s a hurricane, the store shelves are cleared in a matter of minutes. Speaking of hurricanes, remember Hurricane Katrina?
Another example—travel. I don’t go anywhere anymore without significant amounts of food. We usually get vacation rentals at our destination so we can have a kitchen, so if we’re in the car, chances are I have a big cooler and a few shopping bags worth of food with us. If we were to get stuck someplace or have an accident in a remote location, we’d be fine for at least a week, potentially more, on that food. This is not an impossible occurrence here in the same region where this very thing happened to a family. Even if it’s just a day of air travel, I bring substantial snacks with me in case of delays, and they have certainly come in handy. You just can’t trust what you’ll be able to find, if anything, when you need it.
Now, just because I’m typing this doesn’t mean I’m in the clear. We’re fine for short, isolated events like this. Unless the electricity goes out for a significant amount of time, because there goes the fridge and deep freezer. Unless the gas mains go down, in which case we won’t have heat or a stove for cooking. Unless the municipal water goes dry, and then that would get interesting. Don’t even get me started on sanitation systems. I’m learning about the wild edibles here, but during winter, we’d be depending on animal foods for the most part.
If the worst happened, we might fare better than the average American. We’d get a crash course in hunting and trapping, because we’re surrounded by deer and squirrel. And we have a water filter and plenty of creeks nearby. Our bodies are used to intermittently fasting, and we can go without food longer than the average person because our blood sugar isn’t constantly crashing. Our bodies are strong and can handle having to trek distances. But things would get uncomfortable and challenging pretty fast. I’m hoping that our new adventure on acreage will help remedy some of that, since food self-sufficiency is part of the plan.
Most people assume they will just adjust and be fine with big changes or emergencies. Over and over again, this has proven to be false. In the case of food shortages, if you don’t figure out a solution quickly, you won’t have the brain capacity to deal with any other troubles that arise. Even if (especially?) you live in a high-rise in a city, building in self-sufficiency and learning some basic skills are worthwhile. (Might I recommend getting good at running stairs?)
So there’s a general sense of short-term preparedness. This can be remedied by simply making sure you always have at least a few days’ worth of healthy foods around. Keep in touch with a weekly weather forecast so that you have a sense of any upcoming storms. Think about what you might need to do to get food if you can’t drive. For me right now, it would involve a snowshoe or cross-country ski of about two miles to the nearest grocery store.
Then there’s longer term preparedness, and that gets a lot more complicated, but it’s a smart idea to consider it and have a plan ready for you and your family. I highly suggest getting to know the natural world around your town for food and water sources. I’ve given a few examples here of why it might be necessary, but many, many more abound. People throughout history have been displaced by natural disasters, war, environmental degradation (think Chernobyl), and resource depletion (there are many towns in the United States that cannot drink the water that comes out of their tap). Don’t get paralyzed into complacency.
What are some things you could do to become more self-sufficient and weather the storms of life?