Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Re-learning the "Lost Art" of Survival

Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and other books. He teaches urban and outdoor survival skills. See the schedule at]

“Survival” is a broad term that ties us all together.  In fact, in the broadest sense, just about everything we do is about survival.  Well, maybe not today because we’ve grown so technologized and specialized that we take everything for granted as we’ve forgotten our roots.

Think about it.  The rise from foraging to agriculture, and then farming, and food storage and processing.  That’s all about food, a basic of survival.  The development of villages, towns, cities, was all about pooling our resources so we could all work together for our mutual survival and upliftment.  With towns, and many people packed together, you need some sort of guidelines, thus, the development of government, and police, and fire departments, and even the building and safety departments of most cities.  The building industry with all its aspects is all about our mutual survival.  At its very essence, the large hardware stores are all about our survival from the little things to the big things, like fixing roof leaks.

So much has been developed over the last few hundred years for our basic survival that we tend to forget that someone or someones had to DO all those steps to make survival possible, and easy.  We have traveled a long path down the road from our grand parents who were still rural, and who knew how to live in the woods, and who knew how to use a rifle and an outhouse and raise food.  And the further we traveled down the technology path, the less we seem to know how to do the most very basic tasks that ensure personal survival and strength. 

What does one do?  How should you go forward in this ever-more complex and ever-more dangerous world.  You begin by educating yourself: Reading the books, and the magazines, and watching the Youtube channels, that cater to this specific interest.  And you should join like-minded groups of individuals who are working to learn these lost arts and forgotten skills.

And yes, obtain the gear and supplies that you need, just in case you can’t get to the store after an emergency.

Most important is to expand your perspective and raise your awareness.  I want you to read just a few books and try to grasp the deep message that each contains.  Consider their messages “survival tools” for your future.  I am only suggesting a few books here, but each is a valuable tool in understanding the world we live in, and understanding our future.

“The Twilight of American Culture” by Morris Berman  is a thoughtful look at the decline of western civilization, and what can be done about it, if anything.

“Language in Thought and Action” by S.I. Hayakawa is perhaps the single best book about how the words we choose affects our reality, and how we can improve our ability to think and communicate.  And isn’t communication a major “survival tool”?

“True Believer” by Eric Hoffer is perhaps the quintessential book on mass movements and cults, and teaches you “how to believe.”  Though written decades ago, this provides unique insight to today’s terrorist movements, and other forms of mob mentality.

“Democracy is Self-Government” by H.W. Percival is a must-read if you are to grasp what is wrong with modern politics. The author shows that individual self-government is the only path to real democracy.

And last, “The Art of Loving” by Eric Fromme shares how love is the answer to the problem of human existence, and he attempts to define the many real and counterfeit forms of love.

Yes, have your knife, gear, and pantry of food, but don’t stop there.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Grid Down! Now what?

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He has taught foraging and survival skills classes since 1974. He can be reached at]

There are any number of possible reasons why the electrical grid could go out, anything from an accident, to sun spots, to terrorism.  How would that affect our life?

Even 50 years ago, temporary blackouts were not all that disruptive to everyday life. Indeed, to children, they were exciting times when you got to use lanterns and candles at night. Phones still worked, since most phones were simple rotary style.

In my household, we still had hand-cranked coffee grinders, wheat sifters, mixers (for batter), and can-openers. We had very few electric food processing devices, and we got by just fine.  We had no electric yard tools then, all manual rakes, brooms, clippers, edgers, lawn-mowers. None of the insane blowers and weed-whackers. All our tools were manual too: hammers, saws, pliers, levels, etc. 

Today, you can get an electric model of just about anything, and computer chips are everywhere.  The up-and-coming generation knows nothing else, which is perhaps one of our greatest dangers. 

Most folks, even if they grew up in the city, understands that there should be a backup for when the power goes out.  But too many young folks know no other way of life but the all-electric driven lifestyle, controlled and powered by the all-powerful, all-seeing I-God (oops, meant I-pod), with all of its minions through it’s spider-like Web.  There is even the chief high priest of this new world, ready and waiting to answer your every question: Rev. Google!

If the grid goes down, for whatever reason, the world of Eagle Rock and beyond will be a very different place, maybe temporarily, maybe long-term.  There really no way to predict what would happen, but there are various ways to prepare ourselves, mentally and physically.

Just walk through your home and look at everything that is controlled by electricity. What would your day be like if there was no power?  Some things would be hard, or impossible, to replace without electricity. But many other electrical functions could easily be handled with manual tools, or “old-fashioned” technology.

Lights are easy.  My mother always had a good supply of candles, lanterns, and flashlights, and whenever there was a blackout, the house was fully lit! 

You should never be unable to process your meals if the power goes out.  Go to any kitchen supply shop and make sure you have manual can openers, juicers, coffee grinders, egg beaters (hey, a fork works fine!), grinders, slicers, etc. Whatever it is you do in your kitchen, you should be able to do without power.

A refrigerator won’t work without electricity, so unless you have some solar panels on your roof, you’ll want to store plenty of non-refrigerated food. This means pickled, dried, and canned.   This is also one of the big pluses in having a backyard and neighborhood garden, as well as backyard chickens.  Your food is fresh, and local, and not dependent on transportation systems. 

Home heating and cooling is a big topic, and if all houses were built with thicker, more insulated walls, and white heat-reflecting roofs, and big overhangs, etc., much of the cost of heating and cooling would be unnecessary.  I spent considerable time discussing this topic in my “Extreme Simplicity” and “Self-Sufficient Home” books, both of which can be reasonably obtained on Amazon. 

I spent a year and a half back in the late ‘70s as a squatter, and practiced a lot of the ecological-living methods that are becoming very popular today. We recycled everything, cooked on a wood stove, grew a lot of our food, recycled all household water, and even used (for a part of the time) a compost toilet.   Had the grid gone done during that time, it would have been just an inconvenience.  I wrote a book about that experience, called “Squatter in Los Angeles,” which is available as a Kindle book, or download from the Store at

During my time as a squatter, I had the advantage of living in a house that had been built with thick walls, a flat south-facing roof, and large overhangs.  Due to its position in a wind path, and its good construction, we never used any heaters or coolers. Well, we didn’t have any anyway, but that’s beside the point. The roof, once painted white with a liquid rubber roofing product, made the place about 15 degrees cooler in summer.

I grew much of my own food, sent the bath water out into the garden, and even experimented with a composting toilet.   I raised some ducks, grew corn, bean, squash, and tomatoes.  I used a wood stove that a neighbor let me borrow, and I fertilized with the wood ash. 

I learned on the job how to live better for less, and discovered that I could live well by looking to the past. We did have a used refrigerator, though it barely worked, so we learned to buy most of our food in a form that didn’t require refrigeration.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for most people in a grid-down world will be that the infrastructure around them will not work, or will change rapidly into something that does work. There will be barter, and things will get very localized.  How could you ever prepare for such an eventuality? One way to prepare is to always read American Survival Guide, as well as staying alert to local and world events that could impact your way of life.

You should also learn pioneer and survival skills, and  get to know any of the various groups who practice one or more of the many survival skills. Find them on-line, or at Meetup.  And there is no shortage of Youtube videos and books to help you along this learning path. 

Let me know if you have questions.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Survival Value of Coins

We’re all so busy, rushing around from place to place in our modern world that we forget things have not always been like this, and – if history is any clue – things will not always be like this either.

Money makes our day-to-day life go forward, and most of us handle most of our transactions these days electronically, or with plastic.  (Does anyone write checks anymore?)

With even a simple blackout, most businesses are unable to function.  They couldn’t take your money if they wanted to, because their registers are all requiring electricity.
With a severe blackout, credit cards would be useless, though some merchant (and fellow traders) might accept paper currency.  At least for awhile, regular coinage would be accepted, because somehow tangible coinage in the hand will be regarded as more “real” than a check or paper money. 

If we were to fall into some long term breakdown (caused by natural forces, or man-made causes, or some combination), life would still go on and people will need some medium of exchange.  And they will find some medium.  In the short term, coinage will work, even the “junk metal” modern coinage, so it’s a good idea to have rolls of halfs, quarters, even dollars on hand.

In longer term situations, people might demand silver, meaning, pre-64 coinage from the U.S.  Copper and silver bullion pieces might work too, if you had the foresight to purchase these when they were readily available.

Gold is always touted as the survival metal, and yes it has stood the test of time because of its true rarity, and its incorruptibility, and its intrinsic actual value.  Nevertheless, look at the current price of gold.  Even if gold is “only” a thousand dollar an ounce when you read this, how many of your daily purchases approach a thousand dollars?  Not many. Even if you had 1/10 ounce coins, how many of your daily purchases are around a hundred dollars?  Granted, some will be.  But the 1/10 ounce gold coin is very small, and easy to lose.  It is probably a good idea to have some, because you can pack a lot of value into a little piece, but it’s not likely to be a coin of daily exchange in a survival scenario.  Gold does better in “normal” times when you can readily sell it on the open market for cash. 

But because so many of use these days more and more use plastic and electronics for paying bills, there is less and less hard currency in circulation. That means that if we were to experience some sort of currency collapse, coinage would disappear somewhat quickly. What then would people use for trade?

Again, we look to the past for clues.  Anyone who lived through WWII, or any of the other “small wars” all over the world, knows that basic commodities that everyone uses go into short supply.  Food, coffee, medicine, toilet paper, fuel, etc.  The items of everyday use become the items that everyone wants and needs, and these become tradable when the dollar dies.  Tradable items might also include sewing kits, first aid supplies, beer and alcohol, seeds, and maybe ammo.  Ammo makes a good trade item because it has different sizes that you barter about, but in the real world, most people want to keep their ammo, so other consumables will be highly sought as trade.
Use your imagination, and experience.

I have always enjoyed coins.  Not necessarily collecting, but learning about them, admiring them, learning their history, taking time with them, getting to know them, cleaning them, putting them into their right place in your collector’s book. 

Coins have rich intrinsic stories, and learning each coin’s history clue excites real collectors. Yes, perhaps some people make money with coins, and that was part of my early interest in coin collecting as a hobby.  You aren’t collecting buttons or bottle caps, but something that has a universally-acknowledged value. At the very least, coins are never worth nothing, and do not fall below their face value.

Like most collectors, I started with pennies, because pennies were cheap and you could buy rolls for 50 cents, and search through them for ones to fill the spaces in your book.  You learned real quick which ones were hard to get and rare: 1909SVDB, 1914D, 1931S, and perhaps a few others. Zinc pennies from the war were always interesting, and it reminded you that wars affect the availability of metals.  Indian head pennies were somewhat uncommon, and not necessarily valuable, but I always saved each one I ever found.

Coins are great conversation pieces, domestic or foreign. Everyone deals with coins all the time, so everyone is interested in at least a few coins.  Buffalo nickels are universally admired, and have long been used to adorn hat bands and belts.

Everyone likes the real silver dollars that were so long a part of American coinage, and visitors to Las Vegas back in the day would bring home silver dollars to give away or to collect.  Though only 90% silver, those beefy dollars reminded us that there was intrinsic metallic value in the coins.  They are still highly prized and only go up in value as silver rises.

Some years ago, I operated a farmers market and would get change for the farmers each week at the bank.  One farmer would consistently ask me to purchase rolls of half-dollar coins for him. More often than not, the bank didn’t have them, even though they are still produced.  Because they are not commonly used, most banks simply don’t stock them.

I asked the farmer why he wanted an “odd” size coin. He told me that the main reason is that people remember him from spending 50 cent pieces because they are not common.  He told me that people would often smile seeing them, and somehow that exchange of a half-dollar cemented friendships. He also said that occasionally he still finds silver coins.

I found that amazing, so I began to try it.  When receiving a half-dollar coin, people will feel it, hold it, look at it, and often smile, even laugh. “I haven’t seen one of those for awhile,” they’d laugh. 

I have had an occasion where someone thought they had received a dollar coin, and tried to give me change as if I’d paid double. In another case, as a joke, I told asked the person behind the counter if they would accept “Hawaiian money” as I placed the Kennedy half-dollars on the counter. “Oh, no, we can’t accept that,” said the worried clerk.   I didn’t think I’d have to explain that Hawaii was part of the U.S., and that I’d just made a joke, but the clerk was a new immigrant to the U.S. who had never seen a half-dollar, and didn’t know that Hawaii was part of the U.S.  To my amazement, I had to take back the half-dollars and pay with other money.

There was a coffee shop that I used to frequent, and I had begun paying with half-dollars.
After a few days, I came again to the shop and the proprietor asked me, “You were here two nights ago, right?”  ”Yes,” I said, “how did you know?”  “Because I found half-dollars in the cash register,” the proprietor told me. 

But another aspect that I found even more interesting is that because half-dollars are not commonly circulated, you occasionally may find silver coins in the rolls you get from the bank.  One Christmas, I actually got several Franklin halfs and 1964 Kennedy halfs, which are 90% silver. I assumed that some boy stole his father’s coin collection and spent the money, and the merchant who received it just took it to the bank with all the other change.

Though 1964 was the last year that there was a 90% silver Kennedy half, there was 40% silver in the halfs from 1965 through 1969.   This meant they were worth more than face value.  If  you know the spot price of silver, you can simply do the math to see how much just the silver is worth in, say, a 1966 Kennedy half.  Certainly more than 50 cents.  But I’d collected so many of these 40% silver coins that when I needed money to pay for a trip to Mexico a few years ago, I sold them all for over 10 times what I paid for them, and paid for the trip.  That wasn’t a bad investment.

Coins (and paper currency too) tell the history of a country, its politics, its ebb and flow of culture. I once had a Nazi silver coin that I’d purchased at a coin show, but I found its “atmosphere” unpleasant and quickly got rid of it.  I am still a bit amazed that Chinese currency retains the face of Mao, who was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 100 million Chinese. But he retains a bit of a mixed reputation among Chinese.

Sure, you can say it’s only pieces of metal, but they are so much more. They are living pieces of history, bringing the past alive, and giving you great conversation pieces.  And, equally important, if you’re ever broke, you can just sell your coins, or barter with them when the valueless Federal Reserve Notes are no longer accepted.