• Colin Phelan

Era COVID: Growing Interest in Forgotten Skills / A Collective Journey Towards Self-Sufficiency

Updated: Jun 30

DANBURY, CT--The other day I lay on my driveway basking in the sun. As I rested there with my hands by my side, analyzing my backyard’s foliage, I wondered: “How do branches know where to grow on a tree?

In a moment of pandemic-inspired pondering, I began thinking about how a tree stretches itself toward the sunlight, and how the basic instinct of flora and fauna – of trees and humans – is to seek out the most successful way to survive.

As I thought about trees for the first time in a (presumably) very long time, I realized I knew little-to-nothing about the tree I was even looking at. And in the quasi-apocalyptic spirit I and probably many of us are now in due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I sensed this was a problem.

I decided to go on a walk-slash-run. I wanted to get my blood flowing and lessen my anxiety. As my feet struck the pavement, I began considering some hypothetical situations. If things got much worse would I be able to fend for myself using but the resources around me? Would I be able to find subsistence through the trees and plants? If things got bad, worse, if my families’ jobs were unable to be done remotely, would I be able to forage the plants of Danbury?

Apparently, I am not the only one experiencing new survivalist instincts. Confined to our homes during this pandemic, we’ve been seeing our immediate environment in a new light; gardening, foraging, and even learning basic survival skills are becoming increasingly popular. For many they’re hobbies or coping mechanisms; for others it’s in preparation for a radically altered world order; while some are compelled to do so because of financial stringency.

Regardless of the reasons, the pandemic is changing the human relationship to the environment, redefining the way we understand our localities -- and maybe even ourselves.

“Since quarantine I’ve found I want to find any and all ways to minimize my anxiety,” said Keri Dyer, a health and wellness coach from Missouri, who has approached her garden with newfound vigor since the pandemic started. “Looking at beautiful flowers and knowing you can grow your own food (to limit exposure) was intriguing. It definitively has allowed me to stop and smell the roses, literally.”

However, during the pandemic – and the quarantine – gardening is a more moderate example among other emerging interests related to attaining self-sufficiency through the environment.

“Wildman” Steve Brill, who leads foraging expeditions throughout the northeast, says that despite his tours being cancelled, book sales from his website have spiked in recent weeks.

Colloquially known as “America’s Go-to Guy for Foraging,” Brill’s books include titles such as “Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants” and “Foraging New York: Finding, Identifying, and Preparing Edible Wild Foods.” He’s been hosting foraging seminars throughout the Northeast since the 1980s, and once was arrested in Central Park for eating a dandelion.

As New York became America’s epicenter of the novel coronavirus, demand for Brill’s books began to skyrocket.

“Once events were cancelled and people were advised to stay home.” Brill said, “I began getting more sales in a week than I’d been getting in a month.”

Online search data supports this shift. GoogleTrend has found an increased interest in these facets of self sufficiency, with search terms such as, “foraging,” “edible plants,” and “wild edible plants,” all reaching unprecedented highs in recent weeks when compared to the frequencies of the past five years.

As many scour their backyards or local parks they’re also increasingly using wild plant identifying apps, such as PlantSnap and PictureThis. Both of these tools continue to rise the charts on the Apple Store, the latter of which has attained the number one spot of Free Education applications, even ahead of the ‘Google Classroom’ app.

“This was an amazing app, especially during shelter in place. I had my kids identify and map out all the plants on our property. We even discovered some plants we could forage,” reviewed one of PictureThis’ application users on April 16th.

Brill anticipates that his new foraging app set to release in June, which is an updated version of his App launched in 2011 called Wild Edibles Forage, will achieve similar success, especially if quarantine conditions continue.

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When I returned home from that anxiety-easing walk-slash-run, having somewhat subdued my worries, I immediately walked in on my 92 -year-old grandpa watching a National Geographic show about people surviving in the Alaskan wilderness. This didn’t help. They were prepared. I was not.

Despite my youth, when push comes to shove my ninety-two-year old grandpa – a former 18-wheeler trucker and avid fisherman – had far more practical skills than me. While the goal in the family, as in many families, was to load-up on degrees, to become people of letters, some semblances of education have inevitably been lost.

After a military career in the 1940s, and a life on both the road and the water, he’s been insistently supportive of my academic pursuits. Little does he know how genuinely wanting I am of his skills, ones which he himself seems to increasingly devalue; his knowledge of the varying fish of the Atlantic seaboard, and during what seasons, at what depths, and with which hooks to catch them; his ability to back-up trailers of any size, full of supplies, into orange-cone demarcated parking spaces (he was even once a champion of his trucker association’s rodeos back in the 1960s and 1970s); his knowledge of electric circuits and carpentry, skills acquired in passing during his youth living in New York City’s meatpacking district, much before it became the wealthy enclave of today.

These feelings – these questions of knowledge – have been further amplified by the fact that many professions have been deemed ‘essential’ whereas others have been deemed ‘unessential.’ Compare, my sister who grinds away in Boston as a nurse – an essential worker -- working 48+ hours a week and putting her health at risk, with other professions -- those deemed ‘unessential’ – which work remotely and often get paid more. To classify those professions under the umbrella of ‘unessential’ as unimportant is not completely accurate, but the label itself carries insinuations with it. Are we being useful, not only to others, but to ourselves? Why do we place such a monetary premium on learning these profit-wielding professions which, over decades and even centuries, have constructed sophisticated languages and methods but may not be contributing much to our society? Ones which, when push comes to shove -- when a pandemic strikes – lose some of their value, or at the least the veneer of their value.

Big, complex questions to wonder, with no simple answers. And on the topic of self sufficiency, in foraging, consider the irony surrounding those farmers and factory workers (such as those in meatpacking plants) who have been deemed ‘essential,’ who put their lives at risk for the sake of putting food on our tables; without them, many of us would have no choice but to gather food for ourselves.

With so many of us now facing such existential questions, others are also seeking out advice. According to survival-book authors Laurence Gonzales and Jim Cobb, who have both written numerous books about survival skills and the survival mindset more generally, both of their book sales have increased substantially since early March when the pandemic became a more fatal reality.

Yes, sales of the books have increased and yes, it is because of the pandemic. People are scared. They may have food, they may have guns, they may even have toilet paper. But most of the time they do not yet have a good understanding of what's going on in their heads,” said Gonzales, author of the book Deep Survival, which isn’t about skills such as making a fire, but about the science of decision making under stress.

Cobb noted similarly, that since the pandemic struck in the U.S. his numerous survival and prepper books have sold many more copies, just as he mentioned that people have been “sending me emails or contacting me via social media, asking for advice on this or that. Some of them, I think, just want to be assured that they’re moving in the right direction.”

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Driven by these feelings, this mania, this urge to become more self-sufficient, I attended a mushroom foraging seminar – yes, one through Zoom -- hosted by Greg Marley through the Camden Public Library Association. As Marley, who leads Mushroom identification seminars and tours across New England and has written several books on the topic, discussed the upcoming mushroom foraging season, he noted the surge in interest in the practice; the ninety-nine other virtual attendees, more than usual for one of these sessions, affirmed this. Again, I felt as if I had been situated as a part of a collective awakening.

As I listened to Marley, I wondered if I should commit to the self-challenge I had thought up prior: using but the resources around me, would I actually be able to fend for myself? Would I be able to find plants to eat? Could I turn dandelions into pasta and cherry blossoms into sakura syrup? Could I skin the bark from trees and find the thin, edible layer that I learned about in middle school biology? Could I walk Danbury’s streets and parks and... forage?

At the same time, though, as I listened to Marley it all stopped. The energy stopped. The typing, the googling, the flipping through pages of Lofty Wiseman’s S.A.S. Survival Guideand Cobb’s Prepper’s Long-Term Survival Guide, it all stopped. I realized that, to test myself in such a way, to embark on an experience in foraging, in practicing self-sufficiency from my home, comes from an extreme position of privilege.

As I write, many have even begun foraging practices to compensate for shrinking – or nonexistent – incomes. As journalists in the New York Times have reported, cut off from normal supply routes, many Native American Communities have revitalized old seeding, storing and foraging methods as they are financially burdened, miles from a grocery store, and with access to only a few, at-best mediocre medical facilities. In other places, such as the southern Indian state of Kerala, the stringent lockdown has similarly forced many to scavenge their local environments for food.

Thus, my experiment lies on one end of an extremely polarized spectrum. Whereas I am just interested in this sort of exercise – in learning about edible flora and foraging opportunities in my backyard and testing myself in an attempt to improve myself during this interlude – some are actually being driven by necessity to do just that.

As I still contemplate whether or not to commit to this endeavor I am also reminded that I have society’s safety net. I have learned those proper languages these past few years and so even if all this drags on, if a vaccine is not approved for another 18 months, I may be openly embraced into our remote sector mashing data and spreadsheets instead of hunting and gathering my own food. As journalist Stephen Crane concluded after his “Experiment in Misery” living among the homeless in gilded-age New York City, can an experiment be a true experience if the experimenters’ reality is never truly the same as those in misery?

The rising interest in gardening, foraging, and the acquisition of survival skills is all a part of a broad awakening, a new connection many have made not only with their local environments, but with themselves. As new gardening aficionado Devon Hellman of Danbury, Connecticut reflected, “I had been feeling so disconnected from the earth and so distracted by technology and I thought that having a gardening project would force me to slow down.”

Hellman, who was recently laid off from her job because of the pandemic, said that her garden offers solace amidst the uncertainty and stresses of our times. As she added via email, “What’s better to take this virus off our minds but LIFE itself!”

Only time will tell if these changes and newfound interests persist into our post-pandemic world.

“People being people, once this crisis passes, a lot of them will go back to living the way they did before. Meaning, they will lose interest in preparedness,” said Cobb.

While Gonzales said that, “People will certainly regard being self-sufficient as much more important than before,” he quickly added that he was unsure how long these skills will retain their prominence.

Even as I myself have been actively learning from Cobb’s books about survival prep and keeping my eyes peeled for spring morels on my daily walks, I, like others, may soon revert back to my old ways in the post-pandemic world. My grandfather will soon pass away, and absorbed into what we deem the progress of civilization I too may increasingly devalue the skills that got my family to the year 2020; as we normally do, we prefer that which is easy, and providing and caring for ourselves poses a stark challenge to such a life.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to be optimistic about our future, about what we will have learned about ourselves and our local environments in the wake of this pandemic. As Gonzales and Cobb both noted, events such as Katrina or 9/11 did in fact change the perceptions and world-views of many; to what extent, though, is still debated.

Education about self-sufficiency is essential for our future, but we need not rush our pursuit towards self-sufficiency. To do so would in fact only add to the hysteria and as Cobb said, “there’s a lot more to self-reliance than spending money. Learning skills like home canning, first aid, gardening, budgeting, water purification, and even a bit of wild edible foraging. That’s the stuff you should learn.”

Like other knowledge, these skills are not attained overnight and are not instantly gratified in one swoop at the grocery or hardware store. The hysteria, the rushing, they may just be ways through which we compensate for our sometimes imbalanced lives, our straying from basic skills which gotten us to where we are.

And although only a scarce few will ever be able to live off the land Bear Grylls style, that is not realistic, nor is it the goal. If we learn even just a little from this pandemic and pass some skills down a few generations, come the next life-altering event, hopefully we as a world may be a bit more prepared. That’s the value in having formed a new relationship with our localities, our environments, and even ourselves, all of which we may have previously ignored or taken for granted.

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