This article was originally written as a chapter for Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, but didn't appear in the final version and is presented here as a Reality Sandwich exclusive.
As part of my quest to get off the grid, I met Christopher Nyerges, who runs the School of Self-Reliance, and ten other students on a Saturday afternoon at in Altadena, California for an edible plant walk. 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 on a mile-long trail hike, feeding us 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, cucumberlike roots cut from stalks of cattail; and the delicious, jicamalike fruit of the yucca flower. And he pointed out 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.
Though most of the people on Nyerge's 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 I preferred eating it 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."
"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 liked that idea. I'd noticed that the way people prepare for TEOTWAWKI (the doomsayer acronym for "the end of the world as we know it") has a lot to do with their view of human nature. If you're a Fliesian and think that without the rules of society to restrain them, some people will become violent animals and ruin it for everyone else, then you're going to build a secret retreat, stockpile guns, and start a militia. If you're a humanist and believe people are essentially compassionate, then you're going to create a commune, invite everyone, and try to work in harmony together.
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 didn't seem to be 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's 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 is a system that fulfills man's basic need for a feeling of accomplishment, especially in creating and executing a perfect plan, especially when that plan involves your hands interacting with the land.
Outside one of the homes here, for example, there's a shower. The shower is fed by a rainwater catchment on the roof. The runoff from the shower fills the pond, which supports the ducks. The ducks eat the bugs off the strawberries in the garden, which are served for breakfast. The leftover breakfast scraps are dropped into the bin of worms, which are used to feed the fish that maintain the balance in the pond. And the worm's waste, as we already know, is used to fertilize the strawberries. It's a perfect, closed, interdependent system. Man's greatest pleasure. A microcosm of planet earth.
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." He cited Cuba as a test run for this vision, explaining that when the country's oil shortage reached a critical level in 1993, the government tracked down permaculture consultants, who helped it make the transition into sustainable culture.
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 enthusiasm may be traceable to his upbringing on a sheep and cattle farm in Eastern Canada that been in his family since 1839. But, 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.
Permaculture didn't start with Stark. The term 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.
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. I'd trained in tracking and wilderness survival at Tracker School under the fearsome tutelage of Brown, the father of the modern nature-minded survivalist movement.
"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.
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."
I added learning bird calls to my survival to-do list. At times, it seemed there would be no end to the amount of things I needed to catch up on. To learn survival evidently meant to learn every essential skill that mankind had developed on its journey from homo habilis to civilized man.
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."
Like Tom Brown's mastery of tracking, Young knew 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 passing 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 sticker 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.
Photo by willsfca, courtesy of Creative Commons license.