Reimagining American Community

be-preparedOne of my best friends in the world has, in recent years (after their third kid was born?  their fourth?) become a bit of a prepper.  He’s always leaned that way, in his love of old-fashioned crafts and… hand grain mills and things. When he was twelve, he tapped the maple tree in his parents’ yard and boiled the sap into syrup, and it’s really only gone downhill from there.

But after he started visiting websites like The Survival Mom, this morphed into a self-conscious Preparing for Miscellaneous Disaster by Becoming as Self-Sufficient as One Reasonably Can, in a suburban house in Holyoke, MA. (I have watched many an episode of Good Neighbors with him, as inspiration.) Among other things, he has put himself under the mentorship of Professor Jan Dizard of Amherst College to learn to hunt: he grew up vegetarian, but this did not last, and he and Professor Dizard have on a number of occasions gone out into the woods of Western Massachusetts to bag game birds, and they talk about black powder and things like that.

He knows my own proclivities this way: for my birthday several years ago, he and his wife, also a dear, dear friend, took me to a patch of ground under some power lines in the woods near the Amherst campus, where he had found a patch of wild blueberries, and we foraged.  The berries were tiny, half the size of one’s pinky nail, and delicious. Their daughters, my Goddaughters, ate more berries than they put in the tupperware, which is the traditional Blueberries for Sal pattern, so that was all right.

My dad has also always been a bit of a prepper: the paradigmatic what-to-prep-for item for him is a renewed Nazi seizure of power, which is the basis for his NRA membership, and which he is wont to bring up at odd times to explain things like his love of having many jars of peanut butter on the shelves.

On one level, prepping is a way to give a social and political context to one’s inherent attraction to lacto-fermentation or handspinning, and you know, I’m deeply sympathetic to that.  But as it turns out, post-Sandy, I am in the position to report that understanding the niceties of sauerkraut preparation is not (for a certain kind of disaster) the crucial skill.

In the Aftermath, I started to make some notes about what actually seemed to be the most helpful things that people had done, or… states of being that they were in that had the greatest impact on their ability to not have a horrible time of it themselves, and actually be able to help others as well.

Look, buy lots of cans of black beans if it makes you feel better, and if you’ll eat them eventually anyway.  Learn to weave.  But get some perspective before you do other things. Please do not convert your life savings into D-cell batteries, for example, on the assumption that they will be the Currency of the Future.

Given all this, here is your Top Ten List of Ways to Truly Prep:

  1. Become solvent.  In general; like, get out of debt, get some savings.  And then get some cash out.  This is not the most important thing but the intro pointed so directly here that I couldn’t resist.  Seriously, you know what’s useful in an emergency?  Ready cash.  Because all the food in your fridge will spoil, and you will have to get new food.  And if for example you can’t get to work for a couple of weeks, or work can’t open because its internet doesn’t function, you will find that living from paycheck to paycheck has not been the best strategy.
  2. Don’t be an emergency.  This is related to the above, but it’s not identical: what you should be thinking about here is what you can do now not to be an old person who will need a medical evacuation.  Or a young person who will, for that matter.  So, for now: drink plenty of milk to avoid osteoporosis; eat healthily to avoid heart disease and diabetes, and quit smoking.
  3. Do your best to become someone who will have enough strength and stamina to, for example, schlep gallon jugs of water twenty blocks and then up sixteen flights of stairs.  This is, again, related to the above: when infrastructure breaks down, one becomes very aware of the limitations of one’s own body.  And if you can’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to extend help to others.
  4. If you are in an evacuation zone, freaking EVACUATE already.  This is not the time to whine about Michael Bloomberg’s bossiness.
  5. And yes, fill your bathtub with water.  You probably need more water than you think you do, and fewer hand tools.
  6. And yes, get yourself a hand-cranked radio.  Because your iPhone will very quickly morph from being a crucial source of information to being an interesting artifact, a beautiful example of early 21st century industrial design, which might at some point have electricity inside of it again.
  7. Already be connected to your family, your friends, your neighbors.  I suppose this should have been obvious, but: the time to figure out whom you can reach out to for a place to stay, or to whom you ought to be reaching out to make sure they’ve got heat, is not AFTER a disaster.  These are the people you’re already motivated to care about: care about them before a storm surge takes out everybody’s wifi, and you will still care about them after they have no wifi.
  8. Already be connected to institutions.  This was interesting.  All kinds of …groups, from stores to churches to library systems, repurposed themselves quickly as disaster response units, in the days after Sandy.  Apparently what a group is originally designed for is not actually as important as that it exists at all, and if group dynamics are good and people have each others’ email and the tendency to use it, it’s pretty darn easy to move from being a PTA to being an evacuation team.  Again, should’ve seen this coming: consider all the boat crews who, between May 27th and June 4th, 1940, switched over with aplomb from fishing for pollack in the English Channel to evacuating Allied soldiers from the beaches at Dunkirk.  For that matter, consider the particular boat crew which, we are told, circa 27 AD switched from fishing for tilapia in the Sea of Galilee to fishing for men in the streets of Jerusalem.  If you’re a crew, the lesson seems to be, you’re a crew.
  9. Be alert, be aware, consider problems that you hear about your business.  This is a practice that you can engage in before a crisis occurs as well.  Wake up. Take out your earbuds.  Pay attention.
  10. Finally, be prepared to have your character revealed: your own tendency to just not bother, to not help, to want to nest rather than quest, to not want things to be your business.  And when you do notice this in yourself… realize that it’s time to change.
About the Author
Born and raised on Manhattan, a small island in the Atlantic, Susannah Black received a degree from Amherst College and another one from Boston University. She has written for The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Amherst Magazine, The L Magazine, and (in her young and foolish libertarian days) National Review. Having moved back to the New York area, she is now taking her stand in Central Queens, helping to run a sort of boarding facility/rental commune/household for her relatives and friends out of her great-grandparents’ big old house. She is also obsessed with tall ships and in the summers can be found helping to sail a schooner in New York Harbor. She blogs at