Surviving TEOTWAWKI With Style, By Susan H.

If I am to survive TEOTWAWKI, then I intend to live in a style to which I’ve become accustomed.  That is, I intend to continue enjoying music, sweets, wine, cups of hot tea in the winter, stories, plays, and humor.  I plan to keep my pets around.  I hope to do so with the full participation of my family, however it evolves over time.

I began working on maintaining this style almost 20 years ago, when we moved to a hobby farm in one of those “fly-over” states that has good soil and low population.  The farm is capable of providing the basics.  It is highly unlikely I will have to evacuate this area.  The farm has a well with potable water, in addition to multiple natural springs, and we have enough buildings to shelter equipment, family, and livestock.

When we bought this place, it was a small, row-cropped mess, with massive erosion problems.  We had scores of weeds and very little wildlife.  Of the weeds we had, few were edible, even by the standards of Euell Gibbons (as described in his classic book Stalking The Wild Asparagus.)  Although we had cattails, have you ever tried eating them?  They may sustain life, but the bulbs are by no means great cuisine by my standards.  I can’t speak personally to their use as a substitute for flour, though that may taste better than the bulbs. 

Each year I’ve worked to prevent erosion, improve the soil (with compost), and increase both plant and wildlife diversity.  After 20 years, my efforts have improved the arability of the land, decreased the erosion, and greatly diversified wildlife (especially reptiles, amphibians, and birds).

I began by planting an orchard big enough to feed my family, several other families, and roaming wildlife.  This orchard has peach, pear, apple, and plum trees.  I also planted a number of grapevines and berry bushes.  And, of course, our vegetable garden is full of heirloom varieties from which we save seed from season to season.  (I obtained the heirloom seeds, berry plants, grapevines, and orchard saplings through membership with Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decorah, Iowa.)

Then I researched wild foods native to the area (or escaped from human plantings and spread wild through the area) that taste better than cattails.  Based on that research, I collected seeds, rootings, and/or saplings (with permission from neighbors, if appropriate) and planted them on our land.  Among the wild foods I now have producing food are wild grapes, raspberries, wild plums, black walnuts, asparagus, and ground cherries.  Best of all, birds, squirrels, and other animals help spread these wild foods even more widely than I planted them.  I sometimes come upon non-poisonous wild foods, such as morel mushrooms in the spring, when I’m really lucky.  I have yet to figure out how to reproduce these where and when I want them to appear, but I’m grateful when they do show up.

All of the food varieties I grow are disease resistant, so I don’t have to use any chemicals on them.  I compost any plant trimmings, leaves, and food waste as fertilizer.  The resulting produce provides nutritious food.  But just getting enough to eat is not my idea of style.  That’s just staying alive. Style involves other things, such as sweets for my sweet tooth and wine with my dinner, and a lovely cup of hot tea in the winter.  For my sweet tooth, I have fruits, berries, and maple sugar.  Any of the fruits can be made into wine (as can the dandelions (the yellow flower only) that grow rampant). 

At the same time, I planted some 2 foot high sugar maple saplings—lots of them.  Like all types of maple trees, sugar maples can be used to produce maple sugar (the sugar maple sap is just higher in natural sugar content).  Now, 20 years later, some spiles (whittled from non-poisonous tree shoots), a bit and brace to bore holes in the trees, buckets to collect sap, and a fire of deadwood with a kettle over it are ready to reduce sap during the spring run.  (If you try this, be aware that you get only about 1 part syrup from 40 parts sap.  You should also know that this must be an outdoor operation, as the moisture resulting from reducing the sap to syrup will strip your wallpaper faster than any commercial product on the market!)  So now I have a natural sweetener for my natural sweet tooth.  And every year the trees send forth “helicopter”-like seeds that produce more sugar maples.

As for the hot tea I crave in the winter, I collect and dry raspberry leaves during the spring, just as the flowers begin to bud out.  I am careful not to strip any cane of all its leaves, but instead take a few from each plant.  I dry the leaves thoroughly (currently using an electric dehydrator, but the back window of a car sitting in the sun works quickly, too).  Then, when winter comes, I place 3 dehydrated leaves in 8 ounces of boiling water and let it steep for 5 to ten minutes.  I currently collect rose hips to make tea as well, but roses are rather fussy plants that sometimes require fungal control.  I don’t count on the rose hips to survive “the end of the world.”

One additional consideration is that the food, wine, tea, and sugar I produce can serve as a good basis for barter with neighbors.  Since you never know what you might need in the future, it seems optimal to have items to barter to fulfill those needs.

I also started my homeschooled children playing instruments from the age of five on.  We play all kinds of music and I collect books of music and lyrics of all types.  None of our instruments require power (other than lung and tongue, or finger power) to play, and together we can raise a joyful noise.  Some of the instruments are quite portable (such as the trumpet, flute, and harmonica), while others are stuck in place (my grand piano).  So another part of my style will continue uninterrupted—music whenever and however I want to play it or listen to it.  ([The famous polar explorer] Shackleton knew this when equipping his expedition to the Arctic, so I paid heed to his advice.)

As another part of homeschooling, I encouraged my kids (and myself) to memorize poetry, plays, and stories.  We spent long hours writing poetry, plays, and stories.  In addition to our original works, I built up an extensive library of useful non-fiction, and enjoyable fiction.  So the part of me that absolutely loves to relax with a good story can continue to do so—whether that story is oral, printed, or composed on the spot.

My whole family also practices creative arts for enjoyment.  One daughter knits and draws.  One paints, weaves, and embroiders.  I sew and dabble in a little bit of everything.  These arts can be useful (those cattails I don’t like to eat can be woven into nice rush-type seats for chairs), but they can also define the difference between enjoyment and drudgery in day-to-day life.  And while none of us has done significant pottery making, our piece of land even has a “red clay spot” (as identified on USDA soil survey maps).  This clay could potentially be used to produce pottery.

Now, this part may seem too girlish, but I like a place that doesn’t smell too awful.  Earlier settlers considered this when building the old farmhouse we live in.  So, while I’ve got a 5-gallon bucket, fitted with a toilet seat and kitty litter for the short survival times (such as tornado weather), I also have small lilac groves just to the northwest and just to the southeast of the house.  These are ideal settings for any future outhouses (the northwest to be used in warm weather, when winds prevail from the south and east, and the southeast to be used in cold weather, when winds prevail from the north and west).

Even my pets (a very important component of my lifestyle) have a place at the end of the world.  One dog, well over 100 pounds, is built perfectly as a draft animal.  He is already trained to harness and is learning to pull loads of deadwood from the pastures.  (We have frequent wind and ice storms, so dead wood is a seemingly endless commodity on our place.  I use handsaws to cut it up.)

Another dog, a mere 30-pounder, patrols the border of our land continuously.  Nothing gets past his attention.  And quite recently, he realized I’m starting to suffer some hearing loss.  He decided (all on his own) to be my “hearing ear” dog and alerts me to visitors, mail delivery, and the game animals (deer, geese, turkeys, pheasants, and rabbits) that pass through our place.  Our cats work to keep down the rodent population in our buildings and the garden.  And my hens provide eggs…until they provide stew meat.
As for other protein sources, we have a lot of available wildlife.  We have bow and arrows for hunting, and traps for smaller prey (up to the size of groundhogs).

Lastly, I’ve worked hard to instill a sense of humor and play into my children.  We try to find the humor in everything that happens to us (even if we need some distance before we can do so).  Then we re-tell the story, enact the story as a play, or otherwise make the humor stay alive.  For without humor, what’s the point of going on?

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