Zadie Smith considers herself to have no survival instinct. I stock survival guidebooks on my bookshelf. But are we really that different?by Cal Flyn / November 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who passively fear disaster, and those who plan for it. During this crazy year—especially the time when supermarket shelves were empty and borders were closing—I think we all found out which kind we are.
While reading Zadie Smith’s recent pandemic-inspired collection of essays, Intimations, I was intrigued to discover that she considers herself to have “no ‘survival instinct,’ nor any strong desire to survive.” Especially, she adds, thinking shiveringly of grim post-apocalyptic fantasies like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, “if what lies on the other side of survival is just me.” In a crisis—Smith imagines armed men marching up the stairs, fighter jets strafing the ground behind her—she might just lie down and wait to die, she writes.
Plenty of others—and, in the past, I have considered myself among them—flatter themselves that such a disaster might be the moment when they come into their own. With a little preparation, a bit of planning and timely practice, perhaps we would be able to bring things back under control, at least on a domestic scale. To think so requires, as became obvious to me in March, an inflated sense of one’s own abilities. But this fantasy of ourselves as eternally capable, calm and effective is, I think, why preparing for hypothetical disasters is such a satisfying thought exercise in calmer times.
What else could explain the mega-bestselling survival handbooks by woodsman Ray Mears and his ilk? Rich and I keep a copy of Mears’s Essential Bushcraft on our bookshelf. I consider the guide, a handbook of sorts for outdoor survival, a guilty pleasure. When life feels dull and static, or when I’m overworked, I like to flick through its pages and remind myself of the best way to build a solar still, distil drinking water from seawater, or snare a rabbit. Just in case. These particular “skills” of mine are strictly hypothetical, although I do know from experience how to start a fire in the rain, rig a tarp shelter between trees, and dig a snow hole (for shelter in extremis).
But in what conditions, exactly, might these skills come in useful during a real-life, modern disaster? My handiness with…