Simple Living

With the mainstreaming of survivalism, local survivalists focus more on canning than politics

There is perhaps no better example of the archetypical survivalist than former U.S. Army intelligence officer Jim Rawles, now an author and editor of his own Rife with advertisements for wilderness survival schools, gun training, body armor, and non-perishable foods, the northern Georgia-based blog holds forth on subjects such as peak oil theory, Asian avian flu, survival guns, and bug-out routes. It is the quintessential resource for the serious survivalist seeking to prepare for come-what-may: economic collapse, World War, pandemics, visitors from outer space...

So quintessential that Rawles turned down an interview request from Metro Pulse, saying that "with my current writing schedule, I am so swamped that I only have time available to do interviews with publications and networks with national markets."

But some would say that Rawles' balls-to-the-wall brand of paramilitary disaster planning is no longer the only face of survival. In the free-market online journal TCS Daily, local law professor and blogger Glenn Reynolds writes that "[t]he kind of survival-oriented disaster preparedness thinking that once flourished in subcultures like Soldier of Fortune seems to be going mainstream."

Reynolds notes that survival kits are available now in stores like Eddie Bauer and Target and Staples; state and federal governments push survival kits on websites. (Reynolds says his brother received a mailing from the state of Ohio advising him to have a month's worth of food put away in the event of an avian flu outbreak.) There are even survivalist appeals to children, featuring fuzzy but well-prepared cartoon animals.

Survival blogger Say Uncle calls it "the mainstreaming of survivalism... it's not just for rednecks anymore." Adds Reynolds, "the 9/11 attacks, hurricanes like Katrina, and the New York and Memphis blackouts, along with scary stories about avian flu and bioterrorism, have served to remind people that things do go wrong, that government can't always help them, and that fortune tends to favor the well-prepared."

And maybe they're right. While hardcore survivalists' groups, full of right-wing commando types, have become a stereotype, there are now other, relatively ordinary folks who quietly go about the business of making emergency preparedness a part of their relatively ordinary lifestyles—without the political rhetoric or gun-toting antics.

Take Brian Woodroof, a 30-ish intern architect with a long-standing belief in what he calls simple living. "I'm of the opinion you should live within your means, not spend more than you earn," he says. "You need to live within your means because there will be times when it will be of benefit to get by on less."

Survival is one of Woodroof's interests, though it's only a small part of a larger picture. He believes simpler living can yield a multitude of benefits—remaining debt-free, living in harmony with the environment. On occasion, he's trafficked with "hardcore" members of the survival community, and found them to be a little extreme for his tastes.

"A lot of the skill sets survivalists key in on—preserving food, hunting and fishing, protecting loved ones—are the same kinds of things I look at," he says. "I guess the key difference for me is that rather than the ‘lone wolf' mentality, my goal is to be part of a community, share with others. People in a community have different skill sets, and you can make use of all of them."

Woodroof says his interest in simple living came through his mother. "She was a back-to-the-earth type, an old hippie who never grew up," he explains. He learned about the tough-guy side of survival through a nine-year stint in the Army, part of which he spent in military intelligence as a Russian, Croatian, and Serbian linguist. It all made for a formidable arsenal of skills.

"I've learned my lessons pretty well," he says. "Growing up, I learned things like organic gardening, composting. My military training gave me knowledge of firearms and how to use them. And as an architect, I'm very capable of putting together a shelter. If necessary, I can provide what I need for my family."

At his newly purchased Knoxville home, Woodroof and his wife, Jessica, have put a garden and a compost bin in the back yard; by next year, he hopes to replace most of their fresh-produce purchases with product from the garden. Next spring will see the addition of rain barrels; one of Woodroof's long-term goals is solar hot water.

Woodroof says he met many more "traditional" survivalists in the Army. "To be honest, they were mostly the lone wolf, camo-wearing, cabin-in-the-woods types. They would prefer society leave them alone. I was a little too mainstream for most of them."

For Jefferson County resident Petra Ferrell, survival skills are simply a matter of faith. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ferrell says the church has long stressed the need for emergency preparedness, for having months' worth of food stores, or emergency kits sufficient for three days of isolation.

"It's something the church has always emphasized, and in the last few years they've done so even more," she says. In her own church, the congregation has selected both an emergency preparedness specialist and a cannery specialist (Ferrell is the cannery specialist) to assist other members in their own efforts.

"This is how serious it's gotten," she continues. "I'm the cannery expert. I teach people how to cook, how to store long-term, how to locate foods for canning.

"Why has it gotten so serious? I think because of the rash of natural disasters recently that people weren't prepared for, the climbing prices of gas and food."

Ferrell has even tried to start her own secular preparedness group, meeting regularly at a restaurant off Interstate 40 exit 417. To date, only a handful of people have attended meetings, though Ferrell says the contacts she's made have been invaluable. "We've met people with many areas of expertise—the oil crisis, gardening, canning."

What she hasn't met a lot of, says Ferrell, are Woodroof's so-called "lone wolf" types. "There was only one really, who was very extreme," she says. "The others are people who are just thinking ahead. When there are sales at the grocery, they buy more."

At Ferrell's home, she works on a monthly spending plan, practices "living simply," and works toward keeping a three-month supply of non-perishable staples. "Tuna, lots of grains, legumes and powdered items. We have a small pantry for those items. Some of them, like rice and noodles, will keep for years."

As for security, Ferrell says that though her husband does own a couple of shotguns, "We're not that extreme. For that reason, I don't pay attention to the politics that attend survivalism, because I think they tend to be really extreme."