Although he had a cold when we met at his office in Harlem, Dr. Redlener was a soothing presence — bearded, erudite and open to the notion that ordinary people have a central role in emergency preparedness. The government, he told me, reacted decisively after 9/11, establishing the Department of Homeland Security, so why shouldn’t everyday citizens react?
When speaking to preppers like Jennifer, Luther, and Nygaard, it can be hard to separate the more practical aspects of the lifestyle from the enjoyment that comes from doing things yourself instead of paying someone to do them. When I point out that running a small-scale farm and caring for two kids seems like an awful lot of work to do on top of a full-time job, Nygaard demures. “Yeah, it is. But I choose it. I choose to spend it like this because there are things that give me pleasure. I enjoy canning. I love seeing my work on the shelf. You grew that, and you canned it, and you get a source of pride from that.”
“If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, ‘Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’ And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.”
About a month after I left meetup 2.0 at Pizza Hut, former attendee Garland Fitzhugh called to tell me it’s become more of an ‘eat-up’ than a prepper meetup—fair, considering there’s been no local calamity to keep the group on its toes. Allen emails meeting suggestions to a prepper listserv, asking them to focus on prepping situations they can actually influence. He may as well type in Wingdings. A former Navy technician, Allen spent most of the meeting on his phone; his ears only perk up when Andrew: says something about naval intelligence that piques his interest. “I try not to do that too much,” he tells me later.
Though its light weight and long shelf life are ideal for navigating harsh conditions, freeze-dried food is probably most famous as a cultural curiosity: Like many Americans, I discovered it in a museum gift shop, gawking at the styrofoam-like ice cream that astronauts used to have for dessert. More recently, I encountered it at a disaster preparedness convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, where smiling, gray-haired preppers manned tables piled with plastic bags full of vegetables, meats, and stews.
Three hours after I arrived, Andrew: senses it’s time to wrap up, but not before breaking into one last story about the Bigfoot footprints he keeps in the back of his car. The prints were collected in Arkansas in 1956, he says, and they belong to an adult male, a juvenile female and an adult female. He says he himself came from the “drug scene hillbillies” and that his ancestors had six digits.
At the beginning of the video, I show a winter drone photo of the cabin in the snow in December. Then I flashback to the first balsam fir tree I cut down with a saw and axe near the cabin. I drag the trees into place and clear the cabin site. All summer, I cut the notches in the logs as I built the cabin up, offsite. Once I was finished notching the logs with a log scribe, saw, axe, adze and wood carving gouge, I loaded up the entire cabin of logs and moved them to my land near Algonquin Park, Ontario Canada.
This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which it enters into all lower forms. All things real are so by so much virtue as they contain. Commerce, husbandry, hunting, whaling, war, eloquence, personal weight, are somewhat, and engage my respect as examples of its presence and impure action. I see the same law working in nature for conservation and growth. Power is in nature the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul.
For Erica Nygaard, an Iowa-based mother of four who started storing and growing her own food after a divorce 11 years ago, the desire to prepare for the future stems directly from the vulnerability one can feel as a single mom. “When you become a single parent, that weight really hits you: I am completely responsible [for my children,] no matter what. No matter what happens, these four people have to be taken care of.”
There are many daily conveniences that we all take for granted; running water, electricity, gas, telephones, getting cash from an ATM machine, or even running to the grocery store to pick up milk and bread. Power outages can close grocery stores, put ATM machines out of order and prevent you from doing simple things like putting gasoline in your car.
So for the moment, people like Bedford are reteaching themselves lost skills—and in some cases, learning new ones. Bedford has read up on harvesting an urban garden, and is learning to use a solar oven to bake bread. She is ready with a pointed shot in the event she ever needs to hunt for her own food. And until then, she's got 61 cans of chili, 20 cans of Spam, 24 jars of peanut butter, and much more stocked in her pantry; she estimates she's spent about $4,000 on food supplies, an amount that should keep her family going for at least three months. Now, even if something simple goes wrong, like a paycheck doesn't go through, "we don't need to worry," she says.
If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith, let us at least resist our temptations; let us enter into the state of war, and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth. Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth's. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,--but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men's, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.-- But so you may give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.
Carry a GPS if you’re going out camping at a new location. Liquidate your investments if you foresee an economic crisis. Of course, you can’t predict all types of catastrophes. However, you’ll have a much better chance if you’re constantly aware of what’s going on around you. Simply recognizing a threat is not enough; you have to come up with a plan of action to avoid or neutralize it.
It turns out that when you're down to your last moldy hunk of bread and giardia-laced mud puddle, letting it all melt away in a cloud of smoke for a few precious moments can mean the difference between giving up and giving the rat (eating) race another go. If history has anything to say, it's more common than you think for people to happily give up MREs and gunlord harems in return for hastening their ends with carcinogens wrapped up in tidy paper packages. In traumatic situations like war, cancer sticks are often valued more highly than food. Even in the current (more or less) pre-apocalyptic global economy, cigarettes are one of the stable forms of currency.
He tells us that no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him without putting in the necessary work. You will reap what you sow. No one will hand you anything in life — you have to work for it. No one else but you knows what you are to do with your time here. No one else but you can find out what you should be doing with your time here. But you certainly will never find anything if you never even try.
After his instructional on seed saving, Nocks tells me that in 2006, God told him to move his family from a 5,000-square-foot home in Lee’s Summit to a simpler life in the Ozarks, where he now has the supplies to last himself, eight adults and nine children at least six months. “God was just leading us to be more simple-minded,” he says. Nocks isn’t alone in his migration. Preppers fear marauders: Being robbed by unprepared neighbors and even family members is a universal concern. To survive a catastrophe, Nocks says, move out of town and shut up about your stash.
During his presentation, Mr. Charles suggested that a well-prepared bug-out bag was only part of the equation; just as important was knowing where to go. “Bugging out will not be easy,” he explained. “It might take three or four hours to get out of the city. If the bridges are blocked, you might have to use a raft to get across the river. Everyone’s situation will be different.”
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
“There is a time in every man’s education,” Emerson writes, presuming, with his usual élan, to both personify his young country and issue a decree for its revival, “when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on the plot of ground which is given him to till.”
Before they were pets, dogs were workers. They can carry their own supplies without complaint (already making them superior to most humans right now), sniff out food and water, and search for and bring down prey. Some breeds, such as huskies, have been specifically tailored to bust their butts on the barest of rations. Dogs also have a long and storied history of offensive and defensive combat use, making them perfectly suited to attack anyone who thinks they have more of a right to that sweet, sweet snack cake stockpile than you do. Which is to say, your four-legged pal is just a few training sessions and a kickass set of armor away from leading you to your rightful place as God Of The Ragged Desert/Water People.
The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.
What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text, in the face and behaviour of children, babes, and even brutes! That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.
When I got into bed that night, I noticed I was feeling a little off. Though I’d technically consumed enough calories, my stomach was still gnawing with hunger, and when I woke up the next morning, I felt energyless. I phoned Dr. Lisa Young, a New York–based nutritionist and adjunct professor at NYU, with a question: Is it really possible to live off freeze-dried food?
A Prepper is not the same as a Survivalist. A Survivalist typically focuses on learning primitive and other woodsmen skills and have very little focus on actually stocking up supplies and building an extensive repository of every needful thing. Whereas Survivalists prepare and learn to live off the land, Preppers prepare to maintain their current lifestyle as much as possible. While they are not synonymous, many Preppers are also Survivalists and are very adept at living off the land. Likewise, many Survivalists are Preppers and store resources to be able to sustain their Standard of Living.
There is a downside to ordaining the self with divine authority, though. We humans are fickle creatures, and natures — however sacred — can mislead us. That didn’t bother Emerson. “Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson exhorted, “and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.” (Memo to Mitt Romney: no more apologies for being “as consistent as human beings can be.” You’re Emersonian!)
The 66-year-old tried starting his own spinoff meetup. Ozarks Resilience Group was to be a pragmatic organization that ran drills on real-life scenarios like hiking out of town with a bug-out bag. After six months of nonparticipation, he gave up. Allen estimates there are several hundred “hardcore preppers” in Springfield, but at most, there’s two dozen whom he would trust in an emergency.
Of course, one of the most rewarding things about learning to make something with your own hands is that you can pass that know-how to other people. As students put the finishing touches on their shelving units and sawhorses, I get to chatting with Kathleen Lokey, a flannel-clad farmer from Greenville, Tennessee, who works for a nonprofit called Rural Resources. Through a series of workshops and training programs, the organization equips low-income, food-insecure teens in her area with the skills they need to take care of their nutritional needs, including many of the old-timey ones Daisy Luther teaches: growing their own fresh fruit and produce, canning, pickling, and making jams.
“I have my own stern claims and perfect circle,” Emerson writes. With this one fell swoop, Emerson tips the scales in favor of his own confessional, and any hope he might have raised for creating a balance to the self’s divinity is lost. Ever since, we’ve been misreading him, or at least misapplying him. As a sad result, it has been the swagger of a man’s walk that makes his measure, and Americans’ right to love ourselves before any other that trumps all.
That spirit of self-sufficiency runs through the history of American food culture. Lydia Maria Child’s 1829 manual The Frugal Housewife, one of the first American cookbooks ever published, instructed women to contribute to their family’s finances by making sure no scrap of food was wasted: “Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints* encourages members to keep a three-month food supply on hand at all times, and even sells dehydrated food products on its official website. This Mormon connection may be why Utah is such a freeze-dried food hub: Of 21 freeze-dried food companies I counted online, 16 were from the state, and Bedford told me she first learned about long-term food storage by reading blogs by Mormon women.
Herman Melville's Moby-Dick has been read as a critique of Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance, embodied particularly in the life and death of Ahab. Melville's critique of self-reliance as a way of life is seen to lie in its destructive potential, especially when taken to extremes. Richard Chase writes that for Melville, 'Death–spiritual, emotional, physical–is the price of self-reliance when it is pushed to the point of solipsism, where the world has no existence apart from the all-sufficient self.'In that regard, Chase sees Melville's art as antithetical to that of Emerson's thought, in that Melville '[points] up the dangers of an exaggerated self-regard, rather than, as [...] Emerson loved to do, [suggested] the vital possibilities of the self.'Newton Arvin further suggests that self-reliance was, for Melville, really the '[masquerade in kingly weeds of] a wild egoism, anarchic, irresponsible, and destructive.'
he bald snow tires on my ’06 Accord struggled to achieve the grip needed to summit Len Pense’s long, steep driveway. If the grid goes down the way he thinks it will, you’d need a tank to ascend the eroding gravel path because the 83-year-old Army veteran knows exactly which oak tree he’d fell across the route, lest the marauders come for his cache of, among many other things, 44 raised-bed gardens of food. One way in, one way out; that’s what sold Pense and his wife on the 21-acre hilltop property in Strafford some 25 years ago.
Survivalists maintain their group identity by using specialized terminology not generally understood outside their circles. They often use military acronyms such as OPSEC and SOP, as well as terminology common among adherents to gun culture or the peak oil scenario. They also use terms that are unique to their own survivalist groups; common acronyms include:
“There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these. Not possibly will the soul all rich, all eloquent, with thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of voice; for the ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature. Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.
During his 45th Infantry Division, Pense taught field wiring, instructing G.I.s on setting poles and stringing wires to rig together a communications network from scratch. After the war, he was an electronics engineer in the private sector, sometimes on military contracts, learning the frailty of the nation’s power grid firsthand. On one government contract, he witnessed a nuclear warhead knock out power in Hawaii after detonating high above the Pacific.
Spurred on later by fears of the 2012 Mayan prophesies of an apocalyptic nature, the Prepper movement is seeing a lot of growth in late 2011 and into 2012. The advent of many television shows and movies that are collapse oriented has helped to nearly bring preparedness to the forefront of societal consciousness. While it is still considered “fringe” by many, the Federal Government is actively promoting preparedness through Ready.gov and many states are developing specific readiness programs.
“That’s a major problem,” says Gene Louis, a New Jersey expat who attended his first meetup in 2013 after moving to Springfield to begin ventures in real estate brokerage and digital marketing. Plus, Jersey is expensive, and he doesn’t like the fact that its residents don’t pump their own gas. “You don’t know what people are going to define as a threat, don’t know what people at survival meetings are going to talk about,” he says. “You can’t prepare for 100 percent of what’s on that list—well, you’d need to be Donald Trump to afford to.”