Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“some kind of survivalist”

I was asked if I’m “some kind of survivalist” recently. If you’ve known me for ten years or more, this is surrealistically funny, but it’s a funny question anyway.

Let’s take a walk…

It is in our nature to survive and procreate. Did you eat today? Have you recently participated in any act that could possibly introduce a new mini-you into the gene pool? Does that make you a survivalist? Do you pay a little extra in loss of mileage by carrying a mounted spare tire, jack, and lug wrench in your car? Does that make you a survivalist? Am I a survivalist because I have AAA? Or because I carry a cell phone? Does deciding not to do my shopping in the bad part of town after midnight make me a survivalist? Aren’t we all survivalists to some extent?

Okay, okay, I understand the premise and I was being asked if I am a paranoid kook with a bunker under my house stocked with canned goods and ammo. I should probably start with the truth, but it’s much more entertaining to play devil’s advocate.

When did the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared” get demonized? No, I have no such bunker. I have food that I have canned and, sure, I have ammo. More than that I have a freezer stocked with food, a generator to run the freezer and refrigerator and fuel to run it in the event of a power outage, a couple hundred gallons of water in rain barrels, maybe a dozen oil lamps and enough oil to keep ‘em lit. I try to keep some emergency cash on hand in a fireproof safe and I keep emergency supplies in the car. I also have two vegetable gardens and half a dozen laying hens.

Now, if you just read the last paragraph without any other context, I can see how the average American might start to draw a mental stereotype. To my credit, I have a very earth-drawn wife who helps me keep things in perspective, so even if I were to suggest something such as a bunker it would likely get vetoed for being kooky. So let’s examine the “kooky” things that got through:

First off, my family and I enjoy camping, hiking, and hunting – all of which require a bit of preparedness. I put together a few things in the event that something goes wrong and one or more of us end up being in a place longer than anticipated. To me this is common sense. Hunting requires ammunition – be it arrows or bullet cartridges – and it tends to be cheaper to make your own, so I am learning to do so. There is an element of Do-It-Yourself involved that is all about economics. I like jerky, but it’s expensive. I can make it for a fraction of the price (and without all the chemicals), so why not make it myself? Same with beer, ammo, and many other things (before even taking external costs into account), plus it’s just fun.

When we lived in North Carolina, “hurricane lamps” were handy because hurricanes tended to happen and it’s nice to be able to see when the power goes out and the sun goes down. Flashlights and battery-powered lanterns are fine for short-term situations, but if you’re going to be without power for days, oil lamps do a better job with less waste. We acquired several oil lamps and a habit to stock up on oil while we were living in North Carolina. Ebay, craigslist, freecycle, and your local consignment shop are all great places to find some really cool oil lamps for only a few bucks. Now we’re back in the Northwest and when it’s a little chilly in the spring or fall but not cold enough to light up the woodstove a few oil lamps can make all the difference. So we like oil lamps.

When we got back to the Northwest we were confronted with some of the same power outage problems from hurricane country for different reasons. We were informed that the house we were moving into had not had power the previous three Christmases due to an outdated infrastructure. We bought a generator that fall, but no one knew what was to come that first winter.

The fireproof safe? One night in North Carolina, the apartment building we lived in caught on fire due to an electrical short. While the fire did not reach our apartment, our home did trade a tobacco bouquet for a more industrial scent after that. I am told it was entertaining watching me run keyboards and guitars from our apartment in bare feet where, at one point, carrying something through the glass storm door that I was unaware was closed at that moment, I cut my feet pretty badly. We later realized neither my wife nor I had thought to grab our wallets and we didn’t have a card or cash to buy bandages for my feet. A short time later we bought a fire safe to keep documents and cash and we tend to keep some essentials in a dedicated spot near the door. We also maintain renter’s insurance. Learning experience.

The freezer came from a family we knew in the area who was moving and generously gave it to us. When we discovered a local butcher that sold grass-fed beef packages when available, we decided to save up and stock up as we needed because the grass-fed beef sells out quickly. We save money and support a local and more sustainable beef market.

As far as canning and freezing goes, that is really about local, sustainable food and gardening. Of course, in the long run, all of that is about surviving on this planet, so I suppose it might be a survivalist thing in a weird, long-term global way. We grow veggies and buy local produce, but it’s all only available a short time of the year, so in an effort to eat more locally and sustainably, we started canning and freezing foods. Initially, we tried to not eat too much of what we had preserved in case of snow and floods and ended up with an abundance. We quickly discovered how easy it is to can and freeze enough food to feed a small family for a few weeks (or even months) and cut the grocery bill, all while eating better.

The rain barrels are more quirk than practical, but only because we live in a rainforest. We have four barrels that cost us $50 total – two 35-gallon barrels and two 55-gallon barrels. I have done some limited experiments with hoses and fittings and we currently conserve about 180 gallons of water at a time. If we had the storage I am quite confident we could gather more than ten times that amount just from our roof, but that is just not cost effective. Why? Because what we pay just to have water service is about four times what we pay during a heavy usage month. We get our water from a local system (which is great! – it’s local, but again, we live in a rainforest) and the infrastructure costs a lot more than the water. As a result, unless we turn our water service off, it would take years for the rain barrels to pay for themselves even if we never turned on the tap. The rain barrels are more about interacting and sharing notes with a friend from Portland who is actually saving a lot of money with his rain barrels, conserving water, and helping to curb flow into the overwhelmed storm drains. Our barrels support the garden and grass for the chickens, both of which need the most water during the driest months, but they aren’t really saving us any money.

Hopefully the progression of these things now seems rather ordinary. There is more to the story, though.

Here is what happened last winter:

We had a snow storm that shut down the Puget Sound area for two weeks in early December. The snow came and no one was too surprised, but then it kept coming. Then the temperature stayed low and the snow hung around. Here in the Northwest, in the rare event that snow comes, it might stay a couple days at best (or worst, depending on your perspective, of course). Usually, it comes down and there’s not enough time or snow to build a snowman before it’s filling the storm drains. Last winter we had two weeks of snow that shut us down. Christmas shopping and a two week shut down cleared out store shelves at a surprising rate. The snow was gone by Christmas and we had power on Christmas Day, but as it melted, we had flooding. As a result, there were no shipments from the east, which was closed due to snow over the pass, the southern route was flooded, and we don’t appear to get groceries from Canada or the Pacific Ocean. We all saw exactly what happens to a grocery store when nothing comes in for three days and the store shelves were virtually empty a second time. Again, we learned to do the Boy Scout thing and be prepared.

This year the weather here has been mild. The east coast has been beaten up by winter storms, but the Northwest has been pretty mild (I am knocking on the wood desk top right now). We actually have carrots that were planted late last fall and given up on that are coming up now. We have used about a third less firewood than we did last year, but winter isn’t over so it’s too early too say just how well we did.

Next year may not be so kind.

All in all, we are trying to be sustainable, eat local, and be prepared. Is that “some kind of survivalist”? Yes, it is some kind. Mostly it’s about living better on less money – not necessarily a bad thing in the current economy. If some people see that as being “kooky” what can I do?

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