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.
In the end, what it all boils down to, at least for the preppers, is self-reliance—a concept as old as the human race itself. As survival blogger John Solomon pointed out in a recent column, during the Victory Gardens of WWII, Americans managed to grow 40 percent of all the vegetables they needed to survive. "My mother's parents had a 10-acre garden, and my grandfather worked at the dairy farm next door," says Hill, the former jet mechanic. "They worked by raising their own food, they had their own chickens, they canned vegetables, and my grandfather fed a family of 12 like that." But in the modern world, he says, many of those skills are easily forgotten. Today, our food comes from dozens of different sources. Most of us aren't quite sure how electricity gets from the wires to our stoves. We use debit cards to buy a can of tuna and we wouldn't have the slightest idea how to filter contaminated water. We are residents of the new millennium; we simply haven't needed to prepare.
The larger problem with the essay, and its more lasting legacy as a cornerstone of the American identity, has been Emerson’s tacit endorsement of a radically self-centered worldview. It’s a lot like the Ptolemaic model of the planets that preceded Copernicus; the sun, the moon and the stars revolve around our portable reclining chairs, and whatever contradicts our right to harbor misconceptions — whether it be Birtherism, climate-science denial or the conviction that Trader Joe’s sells good food — is the prattle of the unenlightened majority and can be dismissed out of hand.
Still, as I sat at my desk one afternoon, eyeing the colorful salads my coworkers were having for lunch, I realized the absurdity of my experiment: I live in a city with 24/7 access to fresh food and work a job that affords me the privilege of eating healthfully most of the time. Even quibbling over the nutritional content of these freeze-dried meals was something of a luxury, because I wasn’t in a position where I actually needed to eat them. Then again, you never know what’s going to happen.
On a humid day in early August, I traveled to Wild Abundance, a homesteading and primitive-skills school in the rolling green hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Founded by Natalie Bogwalker in 2012, the facility in Weaverville, North Carolina, offers courses in gardening, foraging, herbalism, tiny house construction, hide tanning, and any number of practices that might come in handy when living alone in the wilderness. It’s also a functional homestead with a sprawling vegetable garden and a series of charming hobbit-like outbuildings fanned out across a wooded hillside.
“Personal Preparedness in America: Findings from the 2012 FEMA National Survey” provides information on the status of the public’s knowledge of, attitudes about, and behaviors related to preparing for a range of hazards. The data can be used to improve collaborative planning, outreach, education, and training to engage all Americans so that they become active participants in creating communities and a Nation resilient to disasters.