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Living the Dream?

January 21, 2019

A friend of mine made a comment in passing to me the other day. I had mentioned an upcoming building project I was going to undertake on the farm, and he said, “Man, you’re living the dream!” The problem with that is not that it is wholly untrue. The life I live IS the stuff of dreams for most people, from all walks of life, and all areas of the social, economic, and political spectrum. It is what they DREAM about doing.

I constantly see books on the shelves of a acquaintances and friends, and social media posts all over, on the subjects that I live daily: everything from shooting and physical fitness training to small-scale livestock husbandry, organic and permaculture gardening, alternative housebuilding and self-reliant energy production, etc.

So, how did we manage to escape the grind of dreaming about it, and start living it? It’s really pretty simple: We stopped dreaming, and started doing. It really doesn’t matter if we’re talking about becoming an expert—or even just a better—shooter, becoming more physically fit for survival, building a food storage system, growing (some or all) of your own food, or any other aspect of preparedness and life: In the end, you just have to say, “Fuck it!” and start moving.

One of the most tedious tasks we performed as young Rangers and SF NCO, was one that was loathed by most, but which I loved: conditioning road marches. I’m a reasonably big guy, and—until I learned HOW in my late 30s—running just hurt. But, throw the big green tick on my back and tell me to start walking? Hell yeah! I can do that! Let’s face it, 10, 12, 15, 25 miles of walking fast, with 45-65# on your back, is B-O-R-I-N-G…and it hurts. Most guys HATED road marches. I looked forward to them. It really is a matter of, if you just pick up one foot and move it forward a couple inches, gravity—and you intuitive urge to not eat pavement—will take care of the rest. You just start walking. After the first step, it’s just momentum.

Where to Start

It’s passe to say, “at the beginning,” but it’s true. I’ll let you in on a hint: any book, article, or lecture that says to start your preparedness journey by “buying or building a 72 Hour Kit” is full of shit. It’s some fuck knuckle that’s never done a damned thing, and is regurgitating other bullshit from other fuck knuckles that never did shit.

That’s not to say that tools don’t matter. They do. We’re the tool-making ape.

The problem is two-fold:

1) if you don’t know WHAT to do, or HOW to do it, then you don’t know WHAT you need in the way of tools (When I started building our house, I bought a BUNCH of tools that I ended up not needing for that project. It was an expensive lesson).

2) If you’ve never tried different techniques and tools, you’re starting the kit-building process from a position of unconscious incompetence.

In the early days of the blog, I mentioned, on multiple occasions, that despite the exhortations of the old-time bushcraft/survival writers like Kephart and Sears, about the supremacy of the hatchet and axe over the “tomahawk,” I had always preferred to carry a tomahawk for woodcraft use. It has a better edge profile, and took an edge better, than any axe I’d ever owned. I’ve owned and used a LOT of axes over the decades. Everything from modern brand name axes to antiques of unknown pedigree, pulled off the dusty back shelves of barns and small-town flea markets and antique shops, then cleaned up and sharpened.

About seven years ago, I did the unthinkable: I broke down and dropped almost $200 on a Gransfor Bruk Scandinavian Forest Axe. My wife thought I’d lost my damned mind (I know this, because she told me so, multiple times). While my wife is generally right, in this case, she was dead wrong. I’d taken the advice of a number of experienced people I trusted, and went ahead and bought it. That axe exists on a completely different plane of existence than any other axe, hatchet, or tomahawk that I’d ever touched. It was THE AXE of which boyhood woodcraft dreams are built. It was the axe I’d dreamed of, since I was an eight year old kid, when I discovered Nessmuk for the first time, tucked away on the shelves of our little small-town library. I’ve still got that axe—and I’ve collected five or six other Gransfor Bruks and Wetterlings axes as well—and I’ve learned through doing, that I’ll continue to buy more, as I can squirrel away a little money here and there to do so.

Here’s the thing though: if I was just going off what some knucklehead in some random click-bait Internet article told me, and built a 72-Hour kit with some big box hardware store hatchet in it, without getting off my couch, I’d have never learned what absolute pieces of shit most axes are (with the possible—probable—exception of some handmade, artisan crafted examples that are far too expensive for me to ever consider actually hitting a piece of wood with, I’ve yet to see a modern American-made axe that wasn’t a runny diarrhea piece of shit).

I didn’t do that though. I went out and started DOING STUFF. I cleared brush. I built woodland shelters and slept out in them. I limbed firewood: You know, all the stuff an axe actually gets used for in a survival situation?

It’s the same thing with the poor schmuck that goes out and buys the Magnesium bar with the ferro rod embedded, that Coghlans makes, and you can buy in the sporting goods section at WalMart. Dude tosses it in his “Bug Out Bag” as an “emergency back up fire starter!” Of the hundreds—literally—of people I’ve met who’ve done exactly that, I’ve met less than a handful that have actually gone out, into the woods, and managed to actually build a fire with it. It CAN be done—as long as you prepare the fire bed first, and magnesium tinder burns so hot that it requires a significantly different fire lay than using flint-and-steel, matches, or even just a ferro rod with some petroleum jelly infused cotton balls do.

I learned that lesson on the side of a wet, snowy mountain in the Tetons, at 5F….fortunately, neither myself nor my date were actually in a survival situation yet, AND I had my flint-and-steel kit with me, so after three magnesium flare-ups burned straight through my fuel lay, and into the wet mud below, I pulled out the flint-and-steel, and had a mug of tea brewing three minutes later.

I don’t really remember it, but when I was a kid, apparently we had goats. I remember our laying hens, all the way through high school, but I don’t remember the goats, and I don’t really remember fuck-all about HOW we cared for the laying hens, except that they were free range, and we never really got a LOT of eggs from them.

So, when my wife and I decided to get our first flock of laying hens for the farm, I didn’t really know shit, except what I’d cobbled together from reading dozens of books on the subject over the years. I built a “chicken tractor,” and we bought a bunch of laying hens at the local poultry sale barn. They’d eat bugs and grass, and I’d toss them some laying mash each day, and water them. We got eggs. It was great.

Then, I heard them going apeshit out in the yard one night, around 0200. I grabbed my flashlight and my Glock, and went running out there, naked as the day I was born…and found a skunk in the chicken tractor…I managed to shoot the skunk, without shooting any chickens, then went back in the house to get dressed, found a shovel, and disposed of the skunk’s carcass…and several dead hens.

So, I went back to the sale barn and bought a half-dozen more hens.

Did you know chickens are fucking racist!? I didn’t, but apparently it is true. We had a bunch of Rhode Island Reds, and I replaced them with basic, white Leghorns. I tossed them in the tractor, went to bed, and woke up the next morning to find out I had fewer chickens than before the skunk went to work. The Leghorns had slaughtered half the remaining flock of Reds.

Whoops.

After a series of further mishaps, I finally broke down and built an actual hen house, and replaced the entire flock of hens, from a nearby farmer. I locked them up in the hen house that night, fed and watered them, and went to bed. Having built the Fort Knox of fucking hen houses, they were all still alive the next morning (I’ve yet to find anything, including snakes, getting into the chicken house). So, I fed them again, and then opened the door to let them out to free-range, just like all my neighbors do…and half of them decided that night they’d rather sleep in the trees. Of course, within a week, we’d gone from 18 laying hens to 3. Raccoons and possums climb trees too, and they do it while the hens are peacefully, blissfully asleep…

So, I bought MORE chickens…and kept them locked up for a couple of weeks, as my neighbor suggested when I asked what the hell was going on. We’ve lost one hen since, but I think she was just old. Even in January, in the middle of a cold snap, we’ve been getting more than enough eggs to feed our family of five, and still have a basket of eggs sitting on the counter in the kitchen to give away to kith-and-kin.

I’ve got dozens of books on small-scale poultry raising and the backyard laying flock. I’ve read them all, multiple times over the years. I still didn’t really start to learn a damned thing until I actually started DOING stuff. I’ve since gone back and re-read parts of some of them, and realized the books weren’t wrong…I just lacked the frame of reference of experience to actually understand what they were saying.

So, Again, Where Do I Start?

You start at the beginning. You start doing. The 72-Hour Kit myth is bullshit, Survival skills are simply living skills. You want to know where to start? Start by doing. Get off the couch, go outside, and do things.
Grab a lighter, and go start a fire, outside, without using paper or diesel (“Special Forces Fire Starter” is useful as fuck, but I learned how to build a fire the right way before I started using it.) Grab a Boy Scout Handbook from back in the 1940s (you can find them for about a dollar at used bookstores), if you don’t know how to lay a fire.

Then, go buy a ferro rod, and some tinder cubes (better yet, make your own out of petroleum jelly and cotton balls!), and start a fire with that. Now, do both again…in the rain, after it’s been raining for a day or two. It doesn’t require a two-week vacation to plan an expedition: walk out in your fucking backyard, and JUST. DO. IT!

Now, try it with traditional flint-and-steel and/or a bow drill.

Cool. Which method worked best for you? Which got a sustainable fire going the soonest? For me, flint-and-steel works better than all other methods, including a lighter, except for a lighter, paper, and a couple gallons of diesel fuel…or a propane weed burner.

Great! Now you KNOW what type of fire starting method to add to your “72-Hour Kit,” and you know that you can, in fact, actually use it, under adverse conditions, to get a fire going. You’re not dreaming or fantasizing about it, you’re doing it.

What about shelter building? Have you ever actually built a brush lean-to, let alone slept in one? In a rainstorm? JUST. DO. IT. You’ll quickly realize the value of a ¼ pound piece of plastic sheeting folded up in a pocket…or you’ll learn to just ignore being wet and cold, despite your “shelter.”

You want to learn to garden? Grow a fucking garden. Lack the space for a garden? Plant some tomatoes in a bucket. Join a neighborhood community garden, and you’ve got the double-whammy: You’re growing your own food, learning that skill, and you’re building frith with others in your community who are actively interested in raising their own food. Some of them might be somewhat left-of-center politically, but a) who cares, and b) if they’re independent minded enough to be growing their own food, they can’t be THAT statist, or they’d rely on the government to do it for them.

If you think you’re going to “bug out” of danger, whether man-made or natural disaster, what happens when the roads are gridlocked—or just shut down by the authorities—and you can’t drive? How much does that stupid fucking store-bought 72-Hour Kit actually weigh? How far can you walk, in 72 hours, carrying that weight? Does the kit even have adequate calories to support you walking for three days?

Test it.

Take a weekend and go to a nearby National Forest. Camp near your car, but camp using the shelter provided in the kit, or by building an improvised shelter with materials from the kit. Each day, get up and walk until noon, carrying the pack. Then, turn around and walk back to your car. How far did you cover? How much of the food did you eat? My guess, based on what I’ve seen in the kits I’ve examined? If you’ve never done this before, you’ll have ate every bit of food in that bag by the end of Day One. That’s why we camp near the car…so if the shelter doesn’t work as advertised, or you run out of food before 72 hours is up…you don’t need to be rescued by SAR. Instead, you can climb in the car, drive home, and dump that piece of shit kit in the trash where it belongs, get online, and start researching backpacking information….to discover what people that actually live out of their packs, while covering lots of miles, carry and do…but, until you get out and actually do it, you’ll never realize there is a hole in your armor. Stop Dreaming. JUST. DO. IT.

—————

I despise television and movies. My wife can occasionally convince me to sit down and watch a movie, but rarely. This is not because I am concerned that Hollywood producers and writers are trying to subvert me. My values are well-established, and are reinforced daily, by interactions with the people of my clan that share those values. Even when we do watch a movie with the kids, we discuss any values-based issues that may arise, so they learn what our family’s cultural values are. When my grade-school daughter asks my wife, “Mom, can be buy my friend a gun for his birthday? He’s eight, and doesn’t own one, and everybody needs a gun!” I know we’re doing alright. When my pre-school age daughter falls down on a hike in the woods, then jumps right back up and says, “I okay. I not b’eeding!” I know we’re doing okay. When they go out together to feed the chickens and rabbits, and collect the eggs, with minimal or no supervision, I don’t even worry too much about the computer “pad” that Santa Claus brought them.

I despise movies and television because they tacitly encourage people to dream about doing things, instead of getting out and actually doing them. There’s an older movie though, with Anthony Hopkins, and—I think—one of the Baldwins in it. I don’t recall the name (The Edge, maybe?). Hopkins is a rich older dude with a love of old books. He ends up in a survival situation in the remote Alaskan Bush, for some reason (plane wreck, maybe? I haven’t seen it in at least a decade). He uses the knowledge he acquired from reading the books to survive, but not before he has the epiphany that he should have actually practiced the stuff he learned before he needed it.

I’d never really understood how much the books and articles I read on different subjects promote dreaming about doing stuff instead of actually doing it, either. One of my goals for our farm is an increasing move towards permaculture type food forests and silvopasture. I was talking to my buddy Greg Hamilton recently. Greg is a fellow former Ranger and SF guy, who is one of the owners of Insights Training, in Tacoma, Washington. Like me, Greg is in the process of building a very self-reliant small farm, and, like me, has more than a passing interest in permaculture applications for the farm.

One of the things we noted, in our conversation, is how many of the books and articles about permaculture have been written by people who have taken a PDC (Permaculture Design Course), but had never actually done any of the things they were talking about!

Food forests can work…there is plenty of actual, documented experience and evidence for it, both currently and archaeologically. Silvopasture damned sure works. But, if you want to figure out how? Reading books written by theorists who’ve never actually planted a food forest, will not get you there. You have to kill a couple hundred dollars worth of berry bushes, because you planted them in a spot that was too shaded.

You’ve got to kill a half-dozen $50 fruit trees, because you dug the planting holes with the sides too smooth and clean, and the trees ended up root bound in the hole, or you put manure on them that was not completely composted, and burned the roots up with nitrogen. You’ve got to lose a handful of $80 heirloom apple trees, because you didn’t bother fencing in the orchard, and your neighbor’s cows got out and ate the fucking trees…

It’s not all failures though. My favorite ethnic food is bratwurst and sauerkraut. You know what I discovered this year, finally? Homemade sauerkraut is an entirely different food than even the organic, all-natural stuff from the hippie co-op! It’s amazing, and I only ruined one crock full of cabbage figuring out how to do it right.

Homemade, fermented dill pickles, with fresh dill and garlic cloves, cucumbers, and some salt? Entirely different than the shit you buy at the grocery store. The best part? Neither the pickles nor the sauerkraut took me more than a half hour of actual work to make. The longest part was waiting for them to ferment.

I made three GALLONS of pickles…for about a dollar worth of salt, because the salt is the only part I couldn’t grow on the farm (And, in fact, you could grow the cucumbers, dill, and garlic, on the balcony of an inner city apartment with a little bit of work).

I “knew” the stuff was possible, theoretically. Until I did it though, I was just dreaming about it. Now? I don’t have to fantasize about food preservation. I don’t have to worry about “what will I do if my freezers die because the power goes out?” I KNOW how to ferment for food storage, because I’ve done it.

————–

Yeah, but John, you’re talking about a lot of money and time to get started! No, I’m not. I’m talking about re-stacking your priorities. If you genuinely believe that difficult times are upon us…or in the near future…or possible within your lifetime..you can sit around and fantasize, and dream about what you would do, or you can start doing things.

Give up an hour of television or video games each night. Stop buying Starbucks on the way to work, and spend that $7-8 on more useful items and materials. Stop dreaming. JUST. DO. IT.

—————–

So, my friend wasn’t entirely wrong…I am living the dream that lots of people dream about…but I’m not living the dream. I’m just living, because we DO.

JUST. DO. IT.

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9 Comments
  1. KJE permalink

    Can’t say enough about the Scouts (social concerns aside), if you can get your child in a troop with a solid outdoor program, you’ve got a built in reason to practice skills.

    A few years and some articles back (maybe a living the infantry dream article) JM made reference to sleeping in “the ranger taco.” I had to do a little research to get the idea.; poncho, woobie, and casualty blanket.

    Last year, my son joined the Boy Scouts. The first merit badge he worked on was Wilderness Survival. Before that outing we practiced setting the taco up at home.

    The boy had to build a shelter and sleep out in it overnight. He spent a few hours building his improvised shelter before evening chow.

    (Besides that he had to try purifying water, building ground signaling for rescue, starting a fire using items other than matches, and work on some first aid skills).

    I took the opportunity to build a shelter of my own nearby his. When done it didn’t look much better than his 12 year old efforts.

    When night came, we both wrapped up in the tacos. It was early May in Wisconsin.

    Rain came in overnight. Some other boys bailed out and returned to their tents. Other than making sure they got back to their tents ok, it was a reasonably warm and dry night for me.

    The next morning I had to wake my kid up. He was as dry as he could be, (and pretty much happily out cold from doing all those things the day before).

    He got the badge.

    He’s now 12. I’ll see if we can try doing it again this year and practice the skills and keep it going.

  2. NWAPrep permalink

    This post should be required reading for those getting into preparedness, homesteading or much of anything really. I do not disagree with any point you made. Great information. Getting out and doing it is the only true way to learn or test your methods and gear.

  3. If you haven’t done it yet, you don’t really know how to.

    I’ll trade you recipes on pickles and ‘kraut. If you didn’t already know, the 100% foolproof way to make a good pickling brine every time. Dissolve enough salt in the water to just float an egg.

    • I’ve read that. I had forgotten it. I just poured a fuckton of salt in, added a bunch of fresh dill and a couple crushed cloves of garlic.

  4. Rusty permalink

    JM,

    Do you have any plans for a blog post on what actually worked for you in raising chickens? I’m drawing up plans for a coop & run to put into use this spring.

  5. DAN III permalink

    John,

    What a darn, good essay of common sense derived from practice and in turn, experience. Thank you for taking the time to write this essay.

  6. Greg Dodd permalink

    Great post.
    Too many times we substitute spending money on things that interest us instead of doing things that interest us. It’s a lot easier to watch someone on television build a fire, buy a ferro rod online and sit on the couch pretending we are competent than it is to go outside and make that fire with a ferro rod. Taking the kids out side and helping them make a fire with a ferro rod is much more rewarding than watching someone else do it on TV but it takes a bit of effort.
    Thanks for the blog post and reality check.
    Greg

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