One of my first curiosities about the world involved how to live in it. I don’t mean how to make enough money to buy things, or how to farm or hunt in the modern way, dependent on all sorts of equipment you can’t make yourself. I wanted to know how to live, by just going out and finding your own way.
Even in the old days, that was a hard life. People from the first nations on this continent often didn’t survive to a ripe old age. Starvation was common, even when game was abundant. Game gets smart and moves on to safe places. People survived by storing food, both for the trail and for the winter, and making up shortages in any way they could. Most people today don’t face that challenge because our preparations involve cash in the bank and a visit to the grocery store when we need something. Today, if you still can food from your garden and stock up winter supplies you could be Mormon, live in the wild part of Alaska, or maybe you’re just a crackpot eccentric. Not too many regular people still do these things.
I’ve started doing these things again, this past year, not as a hobby or for entertainment but out of necessity. Times are hard here, in this country and this state and right here in this household. I’ve only been this poor once before, and I didn’t have so many bills then. Around here, people are grocery shopping on $30 of food stamps every week. Wow, I wish I had $30 to spend on food, but I’m self-employed and trying to keep some emergency funding in the bank so I’m not eligible for that sort of help. I live on about half that.
I do that by using every damn trick I’ve learned in my 60 years of survival training. If I’m out running and I see an edible plant beside the road, I stop and eat it. If there’s a lot of the wild food, I’ll take some home. It hasn’t been a good year for acorns, but I’m keeping my eye out for them, because even though acorn bread is tough to make, it’s pretty darned nourishing. I haven’t hunted for years and I don’t feel like shooting things any more, but it’s rutting season for the deer and I may come across a fresh kill laying beside the road someday. I do carry a knife and it’s possible the neighbors will see me trotting down the road with lunch laying across my shoulders this fall. I’m not passing up opportunities.
I’m also making my own opportunities by growing my own food, something I have tinkered with unsuccessfully here for about eight years. This spring I had to decide between not gardening and gardening seriously. Gardening always costs money, and if you don’t get any food out of the project you’re better off working at something else that makes money. But because friends encouraged me, I tried again, and this year I had success for the first time by going back to something the Aztecs and Mayans used to do. I built mounds, because most of the time this local area is a genuine swamp. When later in the summer the drought dried it all up, the mounds continued to grow food. I’ve been living off the garden this year and expect to keep doing that, through the winter, because I’ve put away quite a bit of canned food.
That’s just the basics, there’s plenty more that I’ve pulled out of my hats, and I’m actually having a pretty good time. When I’ve been the poorest and the most challenged by life I’ve actually had the best experiences and learned the most. I’ve also been the most scared, and this time it’s no different. I can sit here and wonder how in the hell I’m going to pay bills and buy oil for the furnace and still have enough to live on, and feel pretty horrible about it. Then I get up and figure out something I can do, and I do it. But like a lot of people today, I wake up in the middle of the night now and then with a lump in my gut, worrying about the future.
The last time I was this poor, I had a dream about it. I’m part Indian and I still dream in the old way, talk to my ancestors and all that, and I do take it seriously. In this particular dream I was sitting on the edge of cliff and talking with one of my Elders, an Indian fellow who dressed in the old way and looked like he’d just stepped off the plains of 1650. I was explaining to him how tough things were and how I worried that it would all fall apart and I’d wind up living in a tent beside the road someplace.
He kind of grinned and then said, “You know, Jimmy, in the old days a lot of us lived in tents.”
I will always remember that.
Things here at The Marked Tree are changing, not so much about vacations as about living in the real world, enjoying life anyway, and finding ways to get by.