Friday, 1 February 2013

The Essential Apocalypse Skillset

Let me tell you a story.

Several years ago, I was painting the bathroom of a house in Bristol. The window was open and it was a pleasant sort of day and people were wandering past. Around about four o’clock I heard a couple of sets of feet come down the hill and then stop.
“Look, cherries!” said one voice (female, mid to late teens).
“No, I don’t think they are. They can’t be.” Said the other, doubtfully (ditto).
“Well, they look like cherries. Let’s try them!”
“No, they are probably berries. Completely different. Some of them are not red, they are blackish. They are probably poisonous.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose so.” (disappointed)
The feet moved on. I looked out of the bathroom window at the large and heavily laden cherry tree leaning over the wall of the garden opposite and wondered what the world was coming to.

Red Sky in the Morning, Shepherds Warning ((c) N Slade)

I am actually still wondering. When my grandfather was a child, he and his brothers (and a dog) ran pretty much wild over north London from Wood Green to Hampstead in one direction and to the Lea Valley in the other. They scrambled and scrumped, fell in ponds, hit things with sticks and helped themselves to whatever was not nailed down or closely guarded by [insert early 20th Century Cockerney cliché of choice]
When I was a child, we picked nuts, mushrooms and blackberries from the fields and hedges; radishes and blackcurrants from the garden; bilberries from the hills and threw ourselves into every moving body of water or up every available mountain without let or hindrance. Once we even found wild honey in a fallen tree.
I read the blog of m’esteemed colleague Mark Diacono recently...well about last July... and very interesting it was too. It was all about sustainability, crop growth and if I busk over much of the content the essential survival of the human race*. In more recent news the story was that half the world’s food is thrown away. Seriously? How can this possibly have happened? (And, to quote Mrs Bennett in Pride and Predudice, what will become of us all?).
I was left thinking ‘when the revolution comes...’
When the revolution comes...what?

Well, the people who can’t spot a cherry tree at twenty paces (or more) and the people who won’t eat a turnip because it is a bit cracked, or a spotty apple, are going to be truly buggered.
When the revolution comes, the skills that go with finding your own food (or indeed useful parts of your anatomy with both hands), growing your own food, remembering that water is not necessarily clean, endless and drinkable are going to be quite useful, actually. Initiative and practicality – and frankly having a bit of old-fashioned common sense – are going to reap dividends. I am not being smug about an unorthodox upbringing which, retrospectively, seems to have involved spending a lot of time getting wet. I’m not for a moment suggesting that urban kids all need to know how to forage for pignuts or select the correct edible lichen. But I have no bones about encouraging an ability to spot luxury tree fruit without a polythene wrapper.

Apparently a society is only three meals away from anarchy, so in about two and a half meals time when we all sit up and realise that we have carelessly thrown away the next three, then what?
For those of a paranoid bent who revel in an imagined or real dystopian future, I prescribe gardening, foraging and cooking skills. Forget stacking tins of beans and petrol in a bunker. How long do you actually want to live and what will you do when your hoard runs out? Fundamental needs include food, water and shelter. So better add basic carpentry and rope-making to the list of common sense basics.**

In the meantime it is time for an idiocy review.*** When this much food gets wasted and thrown away – perhaps not even harvested – all other conversations about food security are rendered virtually meaningless. Throwing away veg because they are misshapen is lunacy: as my foodie friend Deborah Robertson says – it is food not a fashion contest. Or to put it another way, a knobbly potato looks just great souped, mashed, chipped or Dauphanoised. They are all the same under their clothes.
Vegetables are alive things grown outside. They are going to be uneven, cracked, blemished or even (whisper it) a little bit eaten by animals. Get a sharp knife, a good cookery book, light a fire if you need to and get on with it.

Art on Fire. (c) N Slade 

 PS, some time back I said my next blog post would be about the devastation slugs wreaked upon my squash crop. I’m bored of that now but let it just be said that it was not a terribly good year.


*I am not going to reiterate the science, apart from to say that it is a pretty complicated chemical, climatic, geographic and cross-species equation but anyone who thinks that the outputs of using chemical fertiliser on land are energy-neutral in terms of input should perhaps do a spot more research.

** they tell me you can use nettles to make rope, if you were wondering.

***While we are on basics and the apocalypse is still pending, and while we are waiting for the next e-coli etc outbreak, I would like to take this opportunity to mention that one can substantially reduce ones chances of pathogenic bacteria in food if you cook it hot, eat it fresh and don’t spray with faecal waste or raw meat juices before serving. Just saying.


  1. Oh God please bring back common sense ! Thank you for this.

  2. Pleased to be y'colleague...

  3. Hello Naomi,

    A very enjoyable read which struck several chords with me.

    Best wishes

  4. may be that the human race survived its foraging, exploratory past by being a little cautious about what it put in it's mouth if it didn't expect to find food in the place it appeared?

    Isn't that perhaps the biggest skill we need to encourage our children to have if they are to survive the world's apocalypse ?

    Mind you - encouraging your friend to try a little nibble is possibly the way to exercise that caution.....?


    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thought about this some more so amended it!

      This is very true and one should indeed be a cautious forager, to survive.

      But what troubles me is that people could consider a fruit tree an unexpected place to find tree fruit.

      I think there is a real issue with people being many degrees removed from the origin of the things that they put in their mouths and being blindly trusting of the newly conventional suppliers of food. The horsemeat-in-burger scandal illustrates that beautifully – packed, sanitised, all nastiness executed a comfortably long way away: yet it is not what it purports to be. (Vegetarians are still laughing).

      If people are so detached that they don’t know food, they won’t know poison either and that is a bad place to be, although rich with possibilities for Darwin Awards. On the one hand I know an eminent horticulturist who has a nibble of virtually everything in his garden to see how it goes. On the other, I was reading in Kew magazine the other day about a plant that ‘trains’ rodents distribute seeds without damaging them. Bite the seeds and they get a mouth of mustard oil so they don’t do it twice, eating the fruit and spitting out the pips. Are we, with our learned ultra-conservatism, smarter than a mouse with a full tummy?

      One can miss out on a lot of casual joy if one is equally scared of cherry plum and cherry laurel. In our past I think that there would always have been one pioneering monkey that would have a nibble while the others watched, and if he seemed ok they’d eat the food too. But now the early filters of ‘this one good, this one bad’, ‘eat sloes not briony’ seem to be missing, replaced by a widespread societal fear. And, as far as our society goes, this it is a state of affairs that, on an evolutionary level, makes the individuals concerned less adaptively fit.


  5. My goodness, I do love these debates! It's all about connecting with nature isn't it? Going beyond the superficial (packaged foods) to find whats real. Isn't this a metaphor for so much in society anyway...?