Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Before Tracker School, I never knew it was actually possible to make fire by rubbing two sticks together—despite seeing Tom Hanks and an anthropomorphic volleyball do so superbly on Cast Away. Now I knew two ways to turn sticks into lighters: the hand drill and the bow drill.
So for my first post-Mad Dog practice session, I drove to the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail, where the Gabrielino Indians once lived off the land, and I gathered branches of cedar and mulefat, along with mugwort leaves for tinder.
I let them dry for a week, then set about creating fire. To make the hand drill, I carved the cedarwood into a rectangular block and cut a small divot on top, near the edge. Then I set it on the ground and fit a long, thin stalk of mulefat over the indentation. I placed the stalk between my palms and rubbed it back and forth so that the spinning created friction and heat against the divot.
Though a lonely adolescence had given me plenty of practice with that rubbing motion, it took two weeks, and many calluses and curse words, before I was able to generate enough smoke to expand the divot into a larger, burnt hole.
After cutting a pie-shaped wedge out of the divot, I was finally ready to start making fire. After two more weeks of tediously spinning the stick, I managed to produce a small ember. I then caught it in a bed of mugwort, cupped it in my hands, and blew until the mugwort burst into flames.
I was in awe of this near-miracle of combustion. As long as I had some sort of pithy wood to work with, I would never be without fire again—which meant heat, cooking, and water purification in a survival situation.
If the hand drill is the horse and buggy of firemaking, the bow drill is the Model T—the next step up the evolutionary ladder. To make the bow, I peeled off thin strands of yucca leaf and twined them together. I then tied the yucca cord to either end of a thick curved oak branch.
To make the other three necessary pieces of the drill, I carved a rectangular fireboard out of cedar; a pointed spindle intended to spin in a notch in the fireboard to generate friction; and a small square block to hold on top of the spindle to keep it steady.
Finally, in a somewhat disgusting yet undeniably practical bit of survivalism, I did something I learned in Tracker School. I stuck a finger in my ear, fished out a little wax, and rubbed it on top of the spindle to lessen the friction against the handhold. After all it’s a renewable resource.
To generate an ember, I wrapped the string of the bow around the spindle and pulled back and forth to make it spin in the notch of the fireboard. When the yucca cordage I’d spent hours making snapped in seconds, I replaced it with paracord and ended up with this:
The faster speed and more continuous motion generated an ember much quicker than the hand drill did.
Though I was frustrated by the slow progress on my St. Kitts citizenship application (Maxwell was now claiming he had to wait for the prime minister to return from vacation), at least it gave me time to get comfortable with my first skill in the sacred order.
My initial Monday shelter session lasted from noon until sundown.
To begin the day, I wandered the hills near my house with garbage bags, collecting dead grass, leaves, twigs, and branches. Then I returned to my backyard and stuck two Y-shaped branches in the ground about eighteen inches apart and leaned them toward each other, so that the tops met in the center to form two adjacent Ys.
I nestled one end of a thick, eight-foot-long branch into the Ys and propped the other end up on a log. This would be the ridgepole for my shelter.
I leaned sticks against the ridgepole on both sides so that it began to look like a small tent. Then I covered this ribbing with branches to create a crude latticework. Finally, I dumped all the debris I’d collected on top to end up with this:
Supposedly, three and a half feet of debris will keep a person warm above thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Four and a half feet is good to zero degrees. And six feet of dry, dead debris will keep someone alive at forty below zero—an experience I hope never to have.
I shoved as much remaining debris inside the shelter as I could. Then I crawled in, rolled around to smash it flat, and filled the space with debris again. After repeating this process a few more times, I built a small door frame out of leftover sticks and leaves, then used one of the debris-filled garbage bags to seal the opening. According to Brown, a good way to keep warm in an emergency is to stuff your clothing with fistfuls of debris.
Fact: some homeless people do the same thing, but with crumpled pages of newspaper.
That night, I put on long underwear, jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt and waited patiently as Katie tried to stop me. “There are microscopic bugs living in the leaves. You’re basically sleeping on a bed of bugs. Don’t do it. It’s disgusting.”
“I’ll fumigate it with a smoldering branch.”
“You should wear a surgeon’s mask too. So the bugs and spiders don’t go into your nose and mouth.” She noticed I was laughing, then thrust her lower lip forward. “You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. I’m sure whatever they’re eating isn’t as good as your blood.”
After promising to come back inside for a dust mask if I needed one, I crawled into the debris hut. I scrunched into the leaves, pulled the garbage-bag door shut, and prepared for bed.
After an hour, I was cold, itchy, and fantasizing about my warm, clean, indoor bed with a girlfriend in it. But instead of sniveling, I put on shoes, grabbed a flashlight and a garbage bag, and searched for more debris to insulate the hut. I’d gathered most of the dead leaves near my house already, so I filled my bag with yard trimmings from a neighbor’s recycling bin, dumped it over gaps in the hut, and crawled back inside, exhausted.
But before I could fall asleep, I heard something scratching outside. The more I tried to ignore it, the louder it seemed to get, until I was wide awake, worried that at any moment a rat would burst through the debris and scamper across my face. Maybe I needed that surgeon’s mask after all.
If I’d been in a real survival situation, I suppose I would have been excited by the prospect of breakfast in bed. But since I wasn’t, I rustled the debris and shook the hut. But the scratching didn’t stop. All I succeeded in doing was shaking loose some of my precious insulation. The city had its own natural world, and in that moment it seemed much dirtier and more aggressive than the natural world of the forest.
Eventually, I drifted into a deep sleep that lasted until sunrise. It was amazing to think I’d just spent so much money on a house in St. Kitts yet was able to build this little studio apartment for nothing. All I needed now was an exterminator.
Fortunately, trapping small game was on Friday’s agenda.
Before Tracker School, I never knew that cutting a wild grapevine would produce water. Or that chewing thistle stalk (after removing the thorns, of course) would temporarily mitigate thirst. Or that the small amount of liquid in cactuses is generally too bitter to drink. Or that if I were ever stranded at sea, I could drink fish spinal fluid, the liquid around fish eyes, and turtle blood. Or that I shouldn’t eat meat when dehydrated, because breaking down food leads to further water loss. Or that sucking on a pebble with my mouth closed would conserve water and lessen the feeling of thirst.
Most of all, I didn’t know that it was possible to make water out of basically nothing. So for my first liquid Tuesday, I built a solar still.
In the morning, I dug a hole roughly two-feet deep and placed a cup in the middle. Then I grabbed green leaves and grass, and scattered the vegetation in the hole around the cup. Supposedly, if there’s no foliage, the solar still will still work if you pee in the hole. And if stranded at sea, you can place the cup in a larger container partially filled with salt water.
I covered the hole with a clear garbage bag, secured the plastic in place by burying the edges in dirt, and placed a stone in the center so that the garbage bag dipped inward over the cup.
Incredibly, when I checked the still that night, water had condensed on the inside of the plastic wrap, dripped into the cup, and produced this:
The following Tuesday, I attempted a similar process. But this time, I wrapped a clear garbage bag around a leafy tree branch. Two days later, the bag contained much cleaner, better-tasting water than the solar still had produced, though only half the amount.
I thought of all the movies I’d seen with parched men crawling through the desert, begging for water. If only they’d known how to make a solar still, then things would have been different. They’d have been begging for garbage bags instead.
THE WEDNESDAY SURVIVALIST DINNER PARTY
On Wednesdays, to make my catastrophe training a little less lonely, I invited friends over for a dinner party. Each week, I attempted a different method of primitive cooking as Katie fretted in the background, worried I’d catch the shrubbery, the house, or one of her hair extensions on fire.
Fortunately, thanks to my CERT training, I had a class-A extinguisher next to my fire pit, and I knew how to use it. I’d also bought four containers of Thermo-Gel. Supposedly, if I sprayed the chemical on the outside of my house during a wildfire or a cooking party gone wrong, it would be safe from the flames.
For my first dinner, I tried a rock boil, which consisted of heating rocks in the fire, then dropping them in a pot of water to make goat stew. I decided not to tell the guests where the goat came from.
The following week I tried coal cooking, in which I raked a bed of coals away from the flames and simply dropped raw steak on top.
Next I tried a rock grill, which was an improvement on the above procedure, because cooking steak on top of hot rocks instead of coals resulted in less ash on the meat.
Then I tried spit cooking, in which I thrust two Y sticks in the ground on either side of the fire, and impaled a chicken on a third stick that rested on top. For the first time, I noticed neighbors observing me from their third-floor window. I hoped they wouldn’t call the fire department. I was most likely violating several, if not all, of the Los Angeles fire codes.
The following week I tried a steam pit. I dug a hole in the ground, lined it with rocks, and built a fire on top. When the fire burned down to coals, I covered them with six inches of grass and leaves. Then I lowered a chicken on top, added another layer of vegetation, and sealed everything airtight with a wooden board, a tarp, and a thick layer of dirt.
For this particular dinner party, I left a note in my neighbors’ mailbox inviting them. I figured it was the polite thing to do, given that I’d dug up an area that may have been their lawn to make the pit.
And, finally, I tried a clay bake, in which I encased a stuffed chicken in an airtight dome of clay, built a log-cabin fire around it, and let it cook for ninety minutes before cracking it open.
Tried is the key word here. Because initially, every one of these simple cooking methods was a complete disaster. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise, since I can’t even make popcorn in the microwave without burning it.
The meal typically began at nine P.M. with hungry guests receiving whatever edible scraps I could gather from the under-cooked wreckage of my cooking experiment while Katie called Domino’s to order pizza.
But gradually, after enough of my irritated friends pitched in to help, I became more comfortable around the fire than I’d ever been in the kitchen. The result was some of the most tender, flavorful meals I’d cooked in my life.
At Brown’s suggestion, I built a tracking box in my backyard. It was basically a four-by-eight-foot sandbox. On Thursdays, I made prints in the sand and studied the tracks.
Sometimes I ran. Other times I moved in a slow stalk I’d learned at Tracker School. And after a few weeks, I’d clap my hands or bend down to pick up keys to see how it affected the print.
Though it seems unlikely to be able to read that much from a footprint, the impressions in the sandbox were deep and detailed. In a print like the one below, for example, the amount of sand thrown off the front of the foot tells you that I came to a sudden stop and the cracks to the left of the track are a sign that I then turned right:
Though the goal of these weekly practice sessions was to embody Kurt Saxon’s definition of a survivalist—“a self-reliant person who trusts himself and his abilities more than he trusts the establishment”—I began to notice a related and unexpected side effect. I was developing the sense of centeredness I’d noticed in some of the students at Tracker School. When I went out with friends, I didn’t need to dress up. I didn’t need to be at the coolest club in town. I didn’t need to drink. I didn’t need to talk to anyone. Wherever I went, I brought myself, and that was enough.
I was turning into either Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or the Unabomber. I wasn’t sure which yet. Especially after I started hunting game in my backyard.
PRIMITIVE HUNTING FRIDAYS
A British naturalist I’d met at Tracker School named Lee had told me that, in his opinion, I needed to master three essential qualities and three essential skills for wilderness survival.
The three qualities were nature awareness, physical fitness, and self-mastery. The three skills were proficiency in the hand drill, the debris hut, and the throwing stick. Since I’d already been working on the first two skills, mastering the throwing stick became Friday’s goal.
The steps to making and using a throwing stick are as follows:
1. Find a stick.
2. Throw it.
In a survival situation, bringing down a deer isn’t necessarily a good thing because it’s too much meat for one person. As Tom III put it, “The best refrigerator is on the hoof.” So the throwing stick is for nailing rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, and other small meals.
The sidearm throw is a Zen art and should be done by instinct as soon as the animal comes into view. Hesitating for even a fraction of a second usually means missing by a wide margin.
On my first Friday, I found the ideal stick on the side of the road near my house. It was heavy, straight, wrist-thick, and about two and a half feet long. That night, I drove to a parking lot nearby and practiced throwing it sidearm and overhead at different targets. Eventually, I could strike almost any stationary object from twenty yards away, though when I saw my first moving target—a raccoon—I didn’t have the heart to brain it. Especially since, if I did, I’d have to eat it—or serve it to my friends at the next dinner party.
I was truly regressing as a human being.
Other Fridays, I made snares and deadfall traps and planted them in my yard, hoping to catch the rat that had disturbed my sleep in the debris hut. Though the contraptions were inventive—the rolling snare, for example, was designed to send victims hurtling into the air on the end of a sapling—I was never able to catch the rodent or any of its friends, despite adding bait like cheese, peanut butter, and Bettie.
SATURDAY EDIBLE PLANT WALKS
Originally, I tried to forage for food by myself. I planned to choose an edible plant to learn about each week, then set off in search of it with a Peterson Field Guide tucked under my arm. But on my first hike, when I was unable to find more than one dandelion—I’d hoped to gather hundreds to make dandelion wine in my bathroom—I decided to seek outside help.
A Google search led me to the School of Self-Reliance run by Christopher Nyerges, who organized weekly edible plant walks in parks and forests around Los Angeles.
I met him and ten other students the following Saturday afternoon at the Arroyo Seco trailhead in Altadena. He wore a blue button-down over a white polo shirt and a straw brimmed hat with a purple bandana wrapped around it. Over one shoulder was a backpack with the tip of a bow drill sticking out. He looked equal parts golfer, zoologist, and Indiana Jones.
Nyerges led us in a mile-long loop, stopping every now and then to feed us a flower, leaf, or stem. He was an unlikely guide, because he didn’t appear to enjoy teaching and seemed irritated by questions. He did, however, enjoy having an audience to impress.
We ate the little yellow flowers of mustard plants, which were tasteless except for a slight kick on the way down; the sweet, juicy celerylike buds that lay inside the stalk of young bull thistle; the succulent, cucumber-like roots cut from stalks of cattail; and the delicious, jicamalike fruit of the yucca flower. It seemed like at least a third of the plants we passed were edible.
Then Nyerges stopped in front of what looked like anorexic parsley. I’d seen the plant often that afternoon and wondered if it was edible.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Mark Forti, a filmmaker and a regular on the walks, responded, “California parsley surprise.”
“If you eat this,” Nyerges said flatly, “you’ll be dead in half an hour. It’s hemlock.”
It was amazing how ubiquitous the plant was. If you wanted to kill someone, all you’d have to do is take them on an edible plant walk, then feed them a stalk of “parsley.” Some fifteen minutes later their limbs would go numb, followed by unconsciousness and death.
Instead of showing us how to recognize each plant and discussing their many culinary and medicinal uses, Nyerges enjoyed lording over us with his knowledge.
“See that lily?” he’d say. “Pretty, right?”
After we all agreed, he’d rub it in our faces: “If you eat that lily, you die. Most lilies will make your throat swell and suffocate you.”
A few minutes later, he was in front of poison oak. “Just standing downwind of this will get you infected,” he cautioned. “But I can eat it.”
Then he ripped off a leaf in his bare hands and put it in his mouth. In that moment, he joined the ranks of Tom Brown and Mad Dog in my pantheon of survivalist superheroes.
“How did you do that?” I asked, incredulous.
“After a while, you develop an immunity to it.”
A few steps later, he pointed out a raggedy green plant that stood inches off the ground. “You could have a party with that.” The plant, he went on to explain, was jimson weed, which can be made into a tea that causes psychedelic hallucinations (though too large a dose is fatal).
Every plant we encountered, it seemed, could nourish us, kill us, or get us high. It was like mother nature’s own ghetto.
After two months of survival cross-training and walks with Nyerges, not only did I finally feel proficient with all four elements of the sacred order—shelter, water, fire, food—but I felt more healthy, alive, and comfortable in my skin than I ever had. I’d spent most of my life avoiding long walks, manual labor, and kneeling in the dirt. If it weren’t for this training, I never would have realized that these were exactly the things my body was designed to do.