THE LOST CHAPTER - Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss

Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)


The following may or may not be a cut chapter from this book


I may or may not have flown to Toronto, Canada on July 18.

At which point I may or may not have stayed at my friend Will’s house, and borrowed his parents car to drive to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where I may or may not have searched for the tomb of someone who had died between the ages of four and ten.

I may or may not have found the granite grave marker of Peter Reynolds, beloved son of Nancy and Jerry Reynolds, born July 2, 1977, died May 18, 1987. I may or may not have written the information down on a notepad.

I may or may not have then gone to Citimail Box Rental on Queens Street and taken out a mailbox in the name of Peter Reynolds.

I may or may not have gone to the website of the Office of the Registrar General and downloaded an application for a replacement birth certificate, visited a genealogy website to find the birth dates and cities of Nancy and Jerry Reynolds, and filled out the form.

I may or may not have called the Vital Statistics Agency to make sure they didn’t store birth and death certificate information on the same system, and then sent them my form along with a money order for thirty-five Canadian dollars.

The birth certificate may or may not have been waiting for me in the mailbox when I next returned to Toronto, at which point I may or may not have sent a copy along with an application form to the Social Insurance Registration office.

A social insurance number and card may or may not have been waiting for me in the mailbox when I returned a month later, after which I may or may not have gone to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and taken a written test to obtain a learners’ license.

I may or may not have taken Will’s old University of Toronto identification card, peeled off the lamination, changed the name to Peter Reynolds, replaced the photo with one from my old college ID, and relaminated it.

At this point, I may or may not have gotten passport photos taken, had one of the photos signed by both the photographer and Will, and sent my original birth certificate and copies of my learners’ license and school ID, with Will serving as a guarantor of my identity, to the Passport Canada office.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Will may or may not have said. “My mother’s gonna kill me if I get sent to jail.”

After taking all these steps, I may or may not have received a Canadian passport with my picture on it over the name of a dead child.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think that, somewhere in Toronto, there is a mother who loved and lost Peter Reynolds. And, to her, I apologize. What I may or may not have done was wrong, not to mention risky. I should have trusted Maxwell.


I cut the following sections to just a couple paragraphs in the final version of the book. Here’s the full, previously unpublished text.


Though most of the people on Christopher Nyerges’ edible plant walks seemed to be naturalists, there was one student who I thought might be a survivalist. He appeared to be in his 20’s, with long hair, a beard, and a sticker from the movie The Big Lebowski on his backpack

“So are you into a lot of the survivalism stuff?” I asked.

He rankled at the question. “I wouldn’t say I’m a survivalist. I don’t believe in hoarding guns and that whole selfish us-against-them mentality.”

“I guess survivalism has that sort of stigma.” He had principles. I liked that. “But I see it as just learning skills to get by in case the system breaks down.”

“Well.” He paced ahead of me, suddenly breaking eye contact. “I am worried about peak oil. Very worried. Because when the oil goes, everything else goes: transportation, food production, heating, our whole way of life. People don’t realize how much oil goes into everything.”

“So are you learning these skills so you can survive after the crash?”

“Sort of. I have about a month and a half left in L.A. Then I go to San Francisco to live in a commune sort of thing.”

“Is it all survivalists there?”

He stopped, plucked a leaf of curly dock, and took a small bite from it. It was a good source of iron and vitamin A, though tasted better cooked. A month ago, I probably would have thought curly dock was one of the Three Stooges.

“They’re not really survivalists,” he responded. “It’s something called permaculture.”

“What’s permaculture?”

“It’s about sharing with other people and learning to live in harmony with the land. I guess it’s a little like survivalism, but with a sense of responsibility to nature and humanity.”

I asked him where I could find the permaculturists, and he recommended checking out Quail Springs near Santa Barbara and the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, near San Francisco.

I researched both when I returned home and noticed that where survivalists are essentially reactionary, making preparations and then waiting just in case the system breaks down, permaculturists weren’t waiting. They were already living off the grid.

“If you try to do it alone, you’ll most likely end up in Waco,” said Warren Brush, the first permaculturist I called the following day. He was the founder of Quail Springs and, like many others in the movement, a former Tom Brown student. “To best explain what we do, we’re not an eco-village. We’re not a commune. We’re a pioneer species trying to repattern human habitation in a way that will provide resources for generations to come.”

Brush went on to explain that many of the activities necessary to become self-sustaining were actually illegal, such as elements of rainwater harvesting, which he’s actually been fined for. Evidently, the government owns the rain and, in Colorado for example, it was illegal to take any of it. So he’s been teaching how to get around some of the regulations.

“There’s this complacent bubble that’s about to pop,” Brush warned before hanging up. “The clock is ticking faster every day.”

There is a group known as freegans. They live off the waste of others. Based in New York City, its members strive to disconnect from the economy and live almost entirely through what they call urban foraging - or, as it’s more commonly known, dumpster diving.

If the permaculturists had their way, the freegans would be extinct. Because the permaculture dream is to create a waste-free world, where everything is used to create life - even our own waste.

In the outhouse at the Commonweal Garden, a permaculture community operated in Bolinas by the Regenerative Design Institute, there are separate holes for urine and fecal matter. A sign above them explains that the urine is composted in straw and then used in the garden for growing vegetables. Meanwhile, the solid waste is dropped in a bin, where it is consumed by worms, whose droppings are used as a fertilizer for apple trees and strawberry patches.

That is what permaculturists mean by waste-free. One man’s shit is another man’s food.

Here’s the modern environmentalist argument in sixty seconds: Since 1960, the world population has doubled, which means three billion more mouths for the planet to feed. To cater to all these needs, we’re plundering the ocean, the soil, the forests, and, especially, the fossilized remains of our predecessors on this planet to an unprecedented degree. And by burning coal, oil, and gas, not to mention nuclear fission and all the waste products of our consumer society, we’re reducing - if not destroying - the earth’s potential to produce more of the resources that sustain us. Supposedly, for every truckload of product most companies produce, they create 32 truckloads of waste.

And the environmentalists are not wrong. But rather than complaining about this system, permaculturists are simply building another one, which doesn’t commit any of these environmental crimes. It’s a perfect, closed, interdependent system. Man’s greatest pleasure. A microcosm of planet earth.

The term permaculture was coined in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia, who wrote extensively about creating self-sufficient agricultural systems that reflected the balance of nature. Today, although this figure seems hard to believe, according to Warren Brush and others, there are 2.5 million practitioners of permaculture in 135 countries, who’ve created some 850,000 projects.

I met James Stark and his wife Penny, who run the Commonweal Garden, in a large yurt there. Wearing black jeans, a carefully shaped grey goatee, and a thin black bolo tie, Stark didn’t look like a back-to-nature type. But he runs classes here on farming, bee keeping, and nature awareness, in addition to workshops on subjects like non-violent communication - a model of positive, compassionate, non-coercive, and non-judgmental social interaction developed by Marshall Rosenberg.

Stark said he was currently working on a project to create 10,000 edible gardens in communities, which “will be essential when the shortages start happening.”

Ideally, he’d like the Regenerative Design Institute to be the Johnny Appleseed of the movement: continually training people, then sending them into the world to spread the word and nourish the land. In the world of the future, he sees everyone growing apples and vegetables in their lawns, instead of carefully landscaped gardens that look pretty but nourish no one.

“It’s incredibly empowering when people realize they can feed themselves, and don’t need to be dependent on the corporations and Safeway and restaurants,” James said.

His particular anti-establishment bent may be traceable to his upbringing on a sheep and cattle farm in Eastern Canada that had been in his family since 1839. However, unable to compete with modern industrialized agriculture, most of the farms in the community were sold during his lifetime, including the majority of his family farm.

As I left the yurt to wander around the garden, an instructor approached me. He appeared to be in his forties, but had a boyish face and haircut.

“I heard you met Tom Brown,” he said.

“Do you know him?”

“I was actually Tom’s first student. We met on a street corner thirty years ago.”

I stared at him, in shock for a moment. This man-boy was Jon Young, whose voice I’d been listening to for months on a cassette series he created, the Kamana Naturalist Training Program, and one of the people I’d been looking for in my search for self-sufficiency mentors.

“I’ve been doing your Kamana program!” I sounded like a fan, a naturalist groupie. “Do you have some time to talk?”

Young said his house was two hours away, and he was preparing to move. Though he may have meant those words as discouragement, I decided to take them as a yes and told him I’d meet him there tomorrow to help him move.

After all, who’s going to turn down free labor. It was very permaculture of me.

As I left the Commonweal Garden, I heard a woman leading a tour group. She was recommending a book called The Dying of the Trees by Charles E. Little. “These books will make you want to do something before man destroys the planet,” she preached to her assembled audience. “Rather than waging a war against nature, man must return to it.”

I’d heard similar words so many times from so many different mouths in the last few months. I wanted to interrupt, but I bit my tongue.

Every time I watch a global warming documentary, every time I read the signs in a national park, every time I talk to environmentalists, I feel the same frustration. I understand their points, but their premise is flawed. It seems arrogant to say that everything not just on this planet, but in the universe, is natural, yet that man somehow defies nature or is not part of it.

Is it because we are able to shape our environment? Beavers building a dam shape their environment, as do birds building a nest.

Is it because we hurt our environment? So do predators like sharks, viruses like avian influenza, and vines like liana, which are strangling trees in the Amazon and contributing to global warming.

Is it because we are the only animal on the planet that reflects on its own existence and believes in a God? Not all of us do. And there are other animals that have unique traits too: the tuatara is the only animal with three eyes, but it’s not unnatural - it’s just different.

So if we are to admit that mankind is part of nature, I thought as I drove off the dirt roads of the Commonweal Garden and back onto the pavement, spewing exhaust into the atmosphere, then why is anything that we do wrong?

Some say we are destroying the earth, but we are fortunately not that powerful. We can only change parts of the earth and the environment, so that they are no longer sustainable to human life. But the earth will go on. For a while, at least.

Like a fruit fly, like a human being, like a species, like a star, like a sitcom, the earth has a life cycle with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That end may come from a black hole, a planetary collision, or, most likely, the sun when it evolves into what’s known as a red giant and engulfs the earth in five billion years. But that doesn’t mean that the sun is bad or evil or unnatural. It’s just living its life and doing its job.

So who is to say that we are not just doing the job that nature assigned us. And maybe the permaculturists and activists and politicians who complain of global warming and overfishing and deforestation and toxic waste dumping are actually standing in the way of nature.

When it comes down to it, what we are doing is not unnatural. It is only inhumane. Because the only people we’re hurting are ourselves, our descendants, and our most closely related life forms.

The Earth will be just fine. It has always had and will continue to have climactic changes that support some life forms and make others extinct.

And if the Earth isn’t fine, then that’s just part of nature too. Nature knows no catastrophes. Only man does.

And when we’re gone, the universe won’t miss us. It doesn’t know about things like good and bad. It just knows creation and destruction. So don’t waste your time looking for the meaning of life, because there is none. There’s just a process of life.

The next day, I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, down the Pacific Coast Highway, and, at San Gregorio Beach, turned left into the forest. Young’s directions were written with the eye of a naturalist, with instructions like, “Turn left at the hill covered with Monterey pine trees.”

I eventually arrived at a 41-acre spread nestled in a riparian valley of oaks. Young walked outside to greet me, and led me down a small incline to a grove of old-growth Redwoods, in the center of which stood an ancient stump with a hollowed-out center large enough to sit under. He didn’t say anything about helping him carry moving boxes, so I didn’t remind him.

“Do you hear that?” Young asked as we sat in the dead leaves and pine needles. The air was still and fragrant. The ground was soft and giving. The deciduous canopy arched over us like a cathedral, echoing with the sharp, high whirr of a bird call.

“That’s the sound a Steller’s jay makes when it’s warning the rest of the forest about a predatory bird,” he said. “If it’s a Cooper’s hawk, we’ll know because the whole forest will go quiet for a good 100 yards if it’s hunting.”

Young said he first met Brown when they were teenagers, and bonded because they both felt the human race was destroying the planet. When Young told his new friend he’d even contemplated suicide at one point, Brown responded, “Don’t kill your physical self. That’s not the problem. Kill your society self. Go live in the woods. And if things ever get really dark, you could always trade your life for a vision.”

Young went quiet after this story, and began listening intently to the environment. “Do you hear that redtail hawk call?” he asked. “It means there’s a golden eagle nearby, so maybe we’ll get to see one.”

Just as Tom Brown had mastered tracking, Young had learned the language of the forest. And I wanted him to teach me to be fluent.

To do this, he said, I needed to learn nature awareness instead of nature skills. When I asked him the difference, he explained, “Unlike skills, awareness requires time and saturation.”

He stopped to listen to the forest again, then asked, “Do you hear that?”

I listened for the sound of another bird, but all I could hear was a helicopter chopping the air overhead.

“That’s the sound of the new owner of my house checking out the property,” he said. “He’s a billionaire named John Doerr, who bought a lot of acreage around here. I’m not too happy about having to leave. I’ve put a lot of work into this land.”

He looked up at the redwoods and oaks, which had started growing centuries before he’d arrived here. Evidently, some of the locals believe Doerr is trying to buy land and water resources to prepare for an ecological apocalypse.

“And so he’s kicking you out?” I asked. “Doesn’t he know that you would be his greatest ally if anything happened?”

“I know. I’ve tried to reach him several times, but I’ve never been able to get past his people. There’s another billionaire who moved out here and is stocking up also.”

What’s up with all the billionaires, I wondered. Did they have some sort of inside information that we didn’t? Were they connected directly to God or the government or al Qaeda? Or were they just seeing the same signs in the world, the economy, and the environment that I was?

When I tried to get in touch with Doerr afterward and check Young’s information, his receptionist gave me perhaps the most metaphysical rejection I’d ever received. He was, she said, unable to talk due to “the realities of time.”

Not one to let the spacetime continuum stand in my way, I found a speech Doerr made at the TED conference in Monterey, CA in 2007, which began with the words, “I’m really scared - I don’t think we’re going to make it,” went on to discuss potential global environmental catastrophes, and ended in tears.

So he was one of us.

As we sat comfortably under the canopy of leaves, unaware of the realities of time, Young told me of a Mohawk belief. According to his explanation, when people are born, the creator hides a gift in them. But they can’t see their own gift, nor can their parents. Instead, it’s the responsibility of others in the community to see that gift and help bring it out. This is because that gift doesn’t belong to the person who possesses it. It belongs to the community.

And that is permaculture. It is about letting go of ego, selfishness, and possessiveness, and realizing your full potential by working in harmony with others and the earth instead of against them.

The peak-oil guy with the Big Lebowski backpack was right, I thought as I left Young’s house to visit a community farm nearby: This is a more fulfilling way to survive than buying a shotgun, sitting on a box of MREs, and yelling “get off my land” at innocent passers-by. It’s only in the movies where one man survives alone. In the real world, survival is a team sport.