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Look outside your window. What do you see? Are you staring into the windows of a 50-story high-rise apartment building? Are you looking at your neighbor’s suburban, perfectly manicured front lawn? Or perhaps you live more intimately with nature, deep in the heart of the forest.
Now imagine the rug of civilization has been pulled out from under you. It doesn’t have to be an EMP-induced nightmare, and you don’t have to be caught up in the throes of a civil war, localized rioting, or a political coup. It could be the chaotic destruction of a natural disaster, or simply an extended power outage. Are you confident that you can overcome the myriad obstacles an uncaring universe can throw your way? No matter what you’re feeling, by considering a worst-case scenario you can hone skills that have been ensuring the survival of the human race for thousands of years.
Above: You may assume that as long as you know what you need to survive — food, shelter, water, and so on — you’ll be able to handle anything that comes your way. But this is only a small part of a much larger picture. If you lack the financial means or the time of day to buy your safety with gear and supplies, or to develop the necessary skills you need to survive, it may leave you feeling overwhelmed. The solution to this dilemma is closer than you think and lies with those who have come before us: traditional knowledge.
A not so long time ago in a place not so far away, communities were savvy to the ebb and flow of the seasons, the abundance of gifts that the land had to offer, and the skills necessary to make it from one season to the next. We’re physiologically adapted to be in tune with our environment, and as tribes of humans made the change from hunting and gathering to agriculture, they settled into specific environments for the long term. Each new generation of human learned from the wisdom of their elders and discovered new ways they could adapt that wisdom to where they lived. This cycle of practiced wisdom and improvement was specific to where humans were living — this is what I mean when I use the term traditional knowledge. In other words, it’s something akin to collective fieldcraft.
Above: Knowing how to weave cordage from plants, and which plants to use, is an example of knowledge that used to be passed down through family and tribe.
Understanding a community’s traditional knowledge was expected of everyone who was a part of it to ensure their collective survival. Knowing which plants could be used as a source of food or medicine was crucial to the comfort and longevity of our species. Knowing what was edible or poisonous could keep you alive if your crops failed, or your livestock died. Cycles of the seasons took away sources of supply and introduced new ones.
Traditional knowledge isn’t restricted to indigenous people or ancient history. Today’s modern “traditional knowledge” looks more like knowing which area of town to stay away from to avoid trouble, or which dive bar to go to for information on local criminal elements. To get to the traditional knowledge that would help when the lights go black, we need only ask those who are slightly older than us. There are elderly people in every culture who remember what life was like without robotics and artificial intelligence. Even I can remember life before the internet or smartphones, which means that we’re not so far removed from becoming reacquainted with the teachings of the past. In fact, technology makes it easier than ever to rediscover the traditional knowledge of whichever region you’re living in.
If you’re able, I want you to go for a walk outside immediately after reading this article and see what’s around you. Actually see it. You may be surprised how much you go about your daily life ignoring things that may be of crucial importance in the future. Once you start paying attention to your environment, you’ll never view the world the same way.
When you go on this walk, it doesn’t have to be far, look down around your feet, on the sides of the roads, in the nooks and crannies of whatever is surrounding you. Did you find a blade of grass, or a weed growing in a sidewalk crack? Did you see a scrap of wood or metal which could be used to fuel a fire or reinforce a door? Can you spot a piece of trash that’s indicative of the type of person who normally occupies this area? In a survival scenario, keeping a mental library of these small scraps of information could pay surprising dividends.
Above: A “weed” found globally, the common dandelion has been a medicinal staple since ancient times.
To this point, let’s look at a “weed” found all over the northern hemisphere that has been the bane of lawn-care professionals for decades: the dandelion. Not only are the leaves edible and often used in mixed salads — a practice that was especially common during the Great Depression — but its roots contain a chemical that’s useful to treat many physical ailments. Drinks like tea and wine can also be made from parts of the dandelion. Nature is providing this source of food and medicine free of charge, while many backyard grass enthusiasts go to great lengths to destroy it.
Things are growing in parks and in roadside ditches that all have useful properties and could be used in a pinch to alleviate an ailment, or just make life a little more enjoyable. Anyone who has been forced to live through hard times knows just how much of a morale booster something simple can be. (Note: Do not consume or use anything that might be contaminated with toxic chemicals. You wouldn’t want to consume plants that may have been treated by harmful herbicides or insecticides. Even the simplest of mistakes can be fatal when you don’t have access to modern medical care.)
Not surprisingly, many of us living in Western cultures are largely ignoring our best source of traditional knowledge — our elders. My grandmother was in her 20s when the Great Depression was ravaging the United States. She lived well into her late 90s and didn’t survive for that long because she was wealthy. She lived by the “waste not, want not” creed. When I was young, I thought it seemed ludicrous that she refused to conform to our modern disposable society.
Sealable freezer bags were cleaned and reused, animal fat was eaten like a condiment, any type of container was saved for possible future use. Her behavior makes perfect sense knowing what I know now. If I had the frame of mind when I was younger, I'd have thoroughly picked her brain to learn what techniques she used to thrive in an era when other people starved waiting in bread lines for days — all while she was raising four daughters and a plethora of grandkids.
Entire generations of survivors of disasters past are still around. They’re a profoundly useful source of information, because they didn’t grow old making fatal mistakes. There's an old adage that says, “A wise man learns from his mistakes, but a wiser man learns from the mistakes of others.” We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, fix what isn’t broken, or waste our precious time making mistakes that could be avoided. Sooner or later, history tends to repeat itself, so it’s wise to learn from those who experienced it the first time around.
Another source of traditional knowledge making a resurgence is how indigenous peoples lived before colonialism spread throughout the world. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine how the world looked without our modern amenities. Today, we have robots on assembly lines feeding the consumer way of life; however, in the not-so-distant past, there were groups of people living off the land and trading with neighbors for things they couldn’t produce themselves. Nature was revered, and indigenous cultures lived for thousands of years adhering to a lifestyle of sustainable reciprocity. These cultures are finding their heritage fading and members of these communities have recently begun maximizing efforts to preserve the ways of their ancestors.
Above:Even modern urbanization is built on the foundations of our past. Our civil engineering developments are based on skills passed down through generations.
Indigenous cultures throughout the United States often hold workshops for those who have traditional knowledge to share the important historical practices of their culture. Where I live in upper Michigan, the Ojibwe Anishinaabe will occasionally teach anyone who cares to listen how to find and prepare wild rice from the lakes, build birch bark canoes, and even how to produce syrup from sugar maple trees. These events are almost always free and open to the public. It may be the case that you find yourself in a location that lacks public opportunities such as these. Sometimes, as the flame of traditional knowledge flickers in the winds of advancement, we must find creative ways to learn and preserve the wisdom of the past. With nearly unlimited access to vast stores of information, web archives and YouTube video demonstrations may be the best way to keep our traditional knowledge alive.
Nothing is more comforting than knowing that if the lights go out, the water stops flowing from your faucet, or the last bit of cold air dissipates from the freezer, your acquired wisdom will see you through. Used in conjunction with modern gear and skills, traditional knowledge can help alleviate the fear that comes with an uncertain future. It can protect your friends and family and make you a boon to your neighbors. Go out and start learning what it takes to live without the modern crutches we’ve propped ourselves up with. Use traditional knowledge to learn to walk with your own two legs again.
Patrick Diedrich, a retired U.S. Army veteran, holds a master’s degree in forestry, a B.S. in computer information systems and has a career background in combat reconnaissance and human resources. He has assisted in the recovery efforts of several catastrophic natural disasters and is the owner of Hemlock and Birch Environmental Services, a forestry and land management company in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.