a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I stand looking at hundreds of boxes of shotgun shells in bins on both sides of the aisle. There are lots of people around me, mostly men, some in camo, some in jeans, some in business attire. I am wearing my “Science is not a liberal conspiracy” T-shirt partly covered by a colorful, vaguely ethnic poncho, and have gotten some oblique looks, though most of the shoppers are engrossed in their shopping and ignore me.
How did I end up here, in the ammunition department at Cabela’s, shopping for shotgun shells? Last month my brother died and left me a 1930s era single-barrel 20-gauge shotgun. I’ve never owned a gun. I’ve never shot a gun.
Growing up, my parents took me along to pick wild asparagus and the wild purple grapes that grew along fences where we lived in eastern Ohio. Dad made wine with the grapes. We always had a garden and mom canned tomatoes, sauce, and jam and jelly. Dad and my older brothers went hunting, and we would eat the rabbits they brought home, picking out the bits of lead shot mom had missed preparing them.
Dad’s friend, Carlos, tapped the maple trees on his farm and boiled the sap to maple syrup over a wood fire. We searched for morel mushrooms in Carlos’s woods in early spring, my mother standing still and searching a small area, joking that she was waiting for the mushrooms to pop up.
As a teenager, I was fascinated by the books of Euell Gibbons and taught myself a good deal about foraging for wild food. I read about the homesteading movement and was a back-to-the-land wannabe. I researched how to build with logs, how to establish a safe water supply, and fantasized about living a Thoreau-like existence in a cabin built with my own hands.
Along with this desire to live off the land, my reading from childhood on made me think about what it would mean to live without the things we all take for granted. It was Anne Frank’s diary that made me consider how precious something as simple as a piece of paper, or a pencil nub, could be when there was no way to get more. Fahrenheit 451 showed me a world where written knowledge was destroyed, where books were crimes.
Another thing that came from reading science fiction and history was an understanding of the fragility of civilization. My childhood experiences reinforced that understanding.
My best friend in elementary school, Peggy, was the child of two Holocaust survivors. Her mother had been hidden with a Christian family in Poland and survived because of their kindness and her blond hair and blue eyes. Peggy’s mother was the only member of her family who survived. Peggy’s father, a doctor in our small town, had been a resistance fighter in the Warsaw ghetto as his people were taken by the Nazis from their homes to death camps. He was captured and imprisoned in a series of camps until liberated by American GIs. He had a number tattooed on his arm.
Peggy and I would go to the Jewish hospital with him on summer mornings and hang out in the lab and the cafeteria while he did rounds. Sometimes he took us to the wards and introduced us to his patients and the nurses. His kindness and commitment to his patients, in spite of the suffering and terror he had endured, inspired me to become a doctor myself.
Of course, we were in elementary school in the late 1950s and early 60s, when it was routine to have nuclear bomb drills during the school day, when school basements were full of barrels of water and emergency food, and when people built and stocked bomb shelters in their backyards. By the age of nine or ten, I knew that sometimes the world could fall apart and that being prepared for that might make one more likely to survive.
I pick out some boxes of 20-gauge birdshot, some buckshot, and wander around the huge store. The pine forest and floral meadow scented candles in this temple to the gods of camo make me laugh. I migrate towards the fishing gear and start picking out packets of hooks and bobbers. The pond on my land is a great resource and fish are a good source of protein. I want to be ready.
Ready for what? Well, the zombie apocalypse. The end of civilization as we know it. Loss of the power grid. Mass civil chaos. Genocide. War.
If you know me, you know that I am basically an optimist, a pretty cheerful person happy with my life. But under that optimism, I am acutely aware that civilization can unexpectedly crumble into chaos.
I have watched the world and seen how the relatively modern and westernized nation of Yugoslavia, recommended by my then-husband’s uncle as a vacation destination in the 1970s, fell into civil war over religious and ethnic differences a decade and a half later.
Radovan Karadžić, a Bosnian Serb politician who was convicted of war crimes after the Bosnian War, was a physician, a psychiatrist, and an educated man, yet he promoted the concept of ethnic cleansing, initiated the Siege of Srebrenica, and committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims.
In 1994, using the media, church, police, and military, extremist factions of the Rwandan government, themselves members of the Hutu tribe who had been oppressed until the overthrow of the Belgian colonial government, systematically targeted and killed Tutsis. The means of murder were brutal and horrifying with about a million people shot, hacked, and burned to death, accompanied by widespread rape, not only of Tutsi woman but also of moderate Hutu women who were married to Tutsis or tried to protect them.
I was horrified, though not entirely surprised, by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by right-wing extremist Tim McVeigh and accomplices in 1995. These people were willing to slaughter children in the day-care center to make a political point against the United States government. McVeigh was heavily influenced by “The Turner Diaries,” a violent novel about “race war” beloved of white supremacists and members of the racist Christian Identity movement.
Clearly genocide and mass murder were not only problems in distant places.
Then there were the natural disasters. After my divorce from their dad in 1984, I moved with the kids to be closer to my parents. We lived at the small motel they ran in a North Carolina beach town while I worked as a Physician Assistant in nearby Wilmington. During those first months we went through a category 2 hurricane. Dad didn’t want to evacuate, and since mom, who didn’t drive, planned to stay, I figured the kids and I should stay as well.
We had a scary night. Our place was in pretty good shape, but the town’s water tower was destroyed by the storm, and the electrical system was badly damaged. The island we lived on was cut off by National Guard troops at the bridge to prevent looting. We lived for a couple of weeks with very limited water, no electricity, and minimal access to supplies.
After that I was always sure to have plenty of non-perishable food, pasta, canned goods, rice, and dried beans. I started accumulating flashlights and dynamo crank operated radios. I periodically checked batteries to be sure we had enough. I had a box of candles and matches and stockpiled small propane tanks to run the camp stove, just in case.
Even during medical school, as a single mom living in a small condo with two kids, I was always sure to have supplies tucked away but accessible, so that power outages and other emergencies were never an issue. We were ready.
In 1994, after I left residency and was working as an urgent care physician, a hurricane damaged my house in Durham and cut power for eleven days. I became a resource for my neighbors, doling out batteries and other items from my informal stores, lending out the camp stove and propane, allowing people to cook thawed items from their freezers on my gas stove, and take showers from water heated by gas. My tendency to be prepared was vindicated and reinforced. I replaced what was used and bought more supplies and equipment for future emergencies.
After the second World Trade Center bombing, I made some changes in my life, leaving the company I had worked at for years and starting my own practice with friends. I also decided to move to the country and build a passive solar house and have gardens, orchards and farm animals. Part of the reason was to give my grandkids a place in the country to play outside without fear, but I wanted a house that would be livable without electricity, chickens who would provide fresh eggs, and fresh vegetables and fruits that I could use and share and preserve for future use.
During the years since I’ve lived in my house, there have been ice storms, power outages, and hurricanes, events that have tested my preparedness, but I did not feel pressure to do more preparing than what I’d always done.
There seemed to be two political arcs, though, that pushed other people into prepping. The increase in pressure for equal rights for women and minorities and the LBGTQ community clearly threatened the belief systems of many Americans, and the election of our first African-American president generated the Tea Party movement, shifting the Republican Party towards the racism and conspiracy theories of the far-right fringe.
I like to surf the web, looking up information on preparedness. Sometimes I end up in places like FEMA.gov, but at least as often I find myself at the sites of right-wing conspiracy theorists who are preparing for the government to seize their guns or for the United Nations to impose a world government. They are preparing not just for survival, but for resistance against what seem to me the imaginary forces that want to control them and take away their rights. Some of these sites are overtly racist, but many have the racism and hatred veiled, though clearly present.
I feel vaguely guilty when I visit these sites, worrying that my click somehow supports their world view. I also wonder how they developed these same prepping instincts that I’m prone to. I do not think it was by knowing holocaust survivors or reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
I sometimes buy items that they recommend, but never through their websites. Recently I have been researching how to store food for years, ordering Mylar bags, oxygen absorbers, and non-perishable grains and beans to save in sealed five-gallon buckets.
During the Obama administration my prepping was low-key, though the stores of batteries and flashlights, candles, waterproof matches, water purification chemicals and devices, a comprehensive first aid kit, and assorted medications were always ready. The pantry was full with dried and canned foods being regularly used and replaced.
In the past few years though, really since waking up on November 9, 2016, I have found myself wanting to be sure that I have enough food to survive a crisis that lasts longer than a week or two. I have bought and stored more than a hundred pounds of food in ways that should keep it usable for years, giving me the ability to feed my kids and grandkids for a while in the event of an undefined disaster.
My son teased me with holiday presents of a scary looking sheathed survival knife and a LifeStraw water purification device. He didn’t know I already owned both.
I’ve Google-searched “liberal prepper” and “feminist prepper.” I am not the only one. As the anxiety of the gun owners and conspiracy theorists has abated with the election of Trump, people like me are coming out of the woodwork and onto the web, sharing their thoughts and anxieties. We are worried that the divisive rhetoric of current politics, and the emergence of white supremacists from dark corners into the daylight, will spill into civil unrest and violent action against minorities and immigrants, or that Trump’s confrontational approach to diplomacy will result in war. We are worried that weaknesses in our infrastructure will be attacked by the nations he is insulting and provoking. We are worried about the very fragility of civilization that has lurked in the back of my consciousness since childhood.
So, I am now a gun-owner. A gun can be used for hunting to provide food. A gun can be used for intimidation and protection. I do not kid myself that one old lady with a vintage single barrel shotgun will have much impact in a real emergency, but it seems like a reasonable part of preparedness. I still haven’t shot the gun, though that is coming. I will learn how to use it safely, and keep it locked up where the grandchildren cannot get to it. I have no particular fears that the government will come confiscate it. I can imagine, though, that I will be identified as a member of the opposition and that the secret police will drag me from my home in the middle of the night.
But I do not want to be that person who hides in her compound until it is safe to come out. There will be, already have been, actions that must be opposed and protested. There will be people who need protecting. I want to be part of that. I will share what I have and use my knowledge and tools to help my neighbors, North Carolina country folks, black and white, and to fight against chaos and against hatred. I do not forget what neighbor did to neighbor in Germany and Bosnia and Rwanda.
Realistically I know that all my preparations are unlikely to be needed, and that if they are needed, the likelihood they will help me and mine survive are low. Still, there is comfort in being prepared, especially during times of uncertainty and change, as these times most certainly are.
The number of items in the fishing department is a little overwhelming. Cabela’s is as big as Walmart. After considering the many choices, I decide not to buy rubber worms since they may deteriorate in storage and I reach for a bass lure that looks like a frog right as a tall man in camouflage pants and a khaki tee-shirt standing beside me throws one in his basket. He nods at me as if to acknowledge my wise choice of fishing lures. I smile and turn my cart towards the checkout counters.
Deborah Morris is a physician and teaches at the Methodist University Physician Assistant Program in Fayetteville, NC. She writes mainly non-fiction and memoir and has had pieces published in The Examined Life Journal, Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, GreenPrints, and other publications. In addition to teaching and writing she is interested in gardening, mycology, and permaculture, and spends as much time with her grandchildren as she can.