The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States

As lockdowns ease precariously across the world, we  continue our Outbreak series of reflections on the pandemic with a story from the Dark Mountain archive. Charles Hugh Smith recounts how in a times of conflict and confusion the prudent path lies in fostering community and flexibility.
is a writer, journalist and financial commentator. He runs the OfTwoMinds website and is the author or numerous books, most recently Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power and A.I. in a Traumatized World. This essay first appeared in Dark Mountain: Issue 2.
When people start talking about the coming bad times and how best to survive them, I soon find myself shaking my head. It’s not that I want to be difficult, but I can’t help cutting against the grain when my experience runs counter to the standard received wisdom.

If you’ve followed discussions of peak oil and economic collapse across the internet, you probably know the kind of ‘survivalist’ wisdom I have in mind. In its full-blown version, it runs something like this: Stockpile a bunch of canned or dried food and other valuable accoutrements of civilised life (generators, tools, firearms) in a remote area, far from urban centres, and then wait out the bad times, all the while protecting your stash with an array of weaponry and technology.

Now while I have no problem with the goal, I must respectfully disagree with just about every assumption behind this strategy. In fact, if anyone asked me for advice on riding out the difficult years ahead, I would recommend  almost exactly the opposite. Once again, this isn’t because I enjoy being ornery, but because everything in this strategy runs counter to my own experience in rural, remote settings.

You see, when I was a young teen my family lived in the mountains. To the urban sophisticates who came up as tourists, we were ‘hicks’ (or worse), and to us they were ‘flatlanders’ (derisive snort).

Now the first thing you have to realise is that we know the flatlanders, but they don’t know us. They come up to their cabin, and since we live here year round, we soon recognise their vehicles and know about how often they come up, what they look like, if they own a boat, how many are in their family, and just about everything else which can be learned by simple observation.

The second thing you have to consider is that we have a lot of time on our hands. There are plenty of kids who are too young to have a legal job, and many older teens with no jobs, which are scarce. After school and chores, we’re not taking piano lessons and all that urban busywork. And while there are plenty of pudgy kids spending all afternoon or summer in front of the TV or games console, not every kid is like that.

So we’re out riding around. On a scooter or motorcycle if we have one, but if not then on bicycles, or we’re hoofing it. Since we have time, and we’re wandering all over this valley or mountain or plain, one way or another somebody is going to spot that trail of dust rising behind your pickup when you go to your remote hideaway. Or we’ll run across the new road or driveway you cut, and wander up to see what’s going on. Not when you’re around, of course, but after you’ve gone back down to wherever you live. There’s plenty of time; since you picked a remote spot, nobody’s around.

You see, what you think of as remote, we think of as home. This is our valley, or mountain, or desert, all twenty miles of it, or what have you. We’ve hiked around all the peaks, because there’s no reason not to and we have a lot of energy. Fences and gates are no big deal, (if you triple-padlock your gate, we’ll just climb over it) and any dirt road, no matter how rough, is an open invitation to see what’s up there. Remember, if you can drive to your hideaway, so can we. Even a small pickup truck can easily drive right through most gates (don’t ask how, but I can assure you this is true). If nobody’s around, we have all the time in the world to lift up or snip your barbed wire and sneak into your haven. Its remoteness makes it easy for us to poke around and explore without fear of being seen.

If you packed in everything on your back, and there was no road, then you’d have a very small hideaway–more a tent than a cabin. You’d think it was safely hidden, but we’d still find it sooner or later, because we wander all over this area; maybe hunting rabbits, or climbing rocks, or doing a little fishing if there are any creeks or lakes in the area. Or we’d spot the wisp of smoke rising from your fire one crisp morning, or hear your generator, and wonder who’s up there.

When we were 13, my buddy J.E. and I tied sleeping bags and a few provisions on our bikes–mine was a crappy old three-speed, his a Schwinn ten-speed–and rode off into the next valley over bone-jarring dirt roads. We didn’t have fancy bikes with shocks, and we certainly didn’t have camp chairs, radios, big ice chests and all the other stuff people think is necessary to go camping; we had some matches, cans of beans and apple sauce and some smashed bread. (It didn’t start out smashed, but the roads were rough).

We camped where others had camped before us, not in a campground, but just off the road in a pretty little meadow with a ring of fire-blackened rocks and a flat spot among the pine needles. We didn’t have a tent, or air mattress, or any of those luxuries; but we had the smashed bread and the beans, and we made a little fire and ate and then went to sleep under the stars glittering in the dark sky.

There were a few bears in the area, but we weren’t afraid; we didn’t need a gun to feel safe. We weren’t dumb enough to sleep with our food; if some bear wandered by and wanted the smashed bread, he could take it without bothering us. The only animal which could bother us was the human kind, and since few people walk ten or more miles over rough ground in the heat and dust, we’d hear their truck or motorbike approaching long before they ever spotted us.

We explored old mines and anything else we spotted, and then we rode home, a long loop over rutted, dusty roads.

You get my point: however well-hidden your hideaway, the locals will find it. Any road, no matter how rough, might as well be lit with neon lights which read, ‘Come on up and check this out!’ If a teen doesn’t spot it, then somebody else will: a county or utility employee out doing their job, a hunter, whoever.

It’s not just us ‘hicks’ who understand this kind of thing. Consider the philosophy of Taoism, which developed during an extended era of turmoil known as the Warring States period of Chinese history. One of its main principles runs something like this: if you’re tall and stout and strong, then you’ll call attention to yourself. And because you’re rigid – that is, what looks like strength at first glance – then when the wind rises, it snaps you right in half.

If you’re thin and ordinary and flexible, like a willow reed, then you’ll bend in the wind, and nobody will notice you. You’ll survive while the ‘strong’ will be broken, either by unwanted attention or by being brittle.

If you’re thin and ordinary and flexible, like a willow reed, then you’ll bend in the wind, and nobody will notice you. You’ll survive while the ‘strong’ will be broken, either by unwanted attention or by being brittle. If the chips are down, and push comes to shove, then what we’re discussing is a sort of war, isn’t it? And if we’re talking about war, then we should think about the principles laid down in The Art Of War by Sun Tzu quite some time ago.

The flatlander protecting his valuable depot is on the defensive, and anyone seeking to take it away (by negotiation, threat or force) is on the offensive. The defence can select the site for proximity to water, clear fields of fire, or what have you, but one or two defenders have numerous disadvantages. Perhaps most importantly, they need to sleep. Secondly, just about anyone who’s plinked cans with a rifle and who’s done a little hunting can sneak up and put away an unwary human. Unless you remain in an underground bunker 24/7, at some point you’ll be vulnerable. And that’s really not much of a life – especially when your food supplies finally run out, which they eventually will. Or you run out of water, or your sewage system overflows, or some other situation requires you to emerge.

So let’s line it all up. Isn’t a flatlander who piles up a high-value stash in a remote area, with no neighbours within earshot or line of sight, kind of like a big, tall, brittle tree? All those chains and locks and barbed-wire fencing and bolted doors just shout out that the flatlander has something valuable inside that cabin, or bunker, or RV.

Let’s say things have gotten bad, and the flatlander is burrowed into his cabin. Eventually some locals will come up to visit; in a truck if there’s gas, on foot if there isn’t. We won’t be armed; we’re not interested in taking the flatlander’s life or goodies. We just want to know what kind of person he is. So maybe we’ll ask to borrow his generator for a town dance, or tell him about the church food drive, or maybe ask if he’s seen so-and-so around.

Now what’s the flatlander going to do when several unarmed men approach? Gun them down? Once he’s faced with regular unarmed guys, he can’t very well conclude they’re a threat and warn them off. But if he does, then we’ll know he’s just another selfish flatlander. He won’t get any help later when he needs it; or it will be minimal and grudging. He just counted himself out.

Suppose some bad guys hear about the flatlander’s hideaway and stash. Now, the human animal is a much better predator than it is an elusive prey. It is large and poorly-camouflaged, lacking the keen senses of smell and hearing of a goat or a wild turkey, and it’s usually distracted and unaware of its surroundings. All you need to stalk any prey is patience and observation, so no matter how heavily armed the flatlander is, he’ll become vulnerable at some point to a long-range shot. (Even body armour can’t stop a headshot or a hit to the femoral artery in the thigh.) Maybe he stays indoors for six days, or even sixty. But at some point the windmill breaks or the dog needs walking or what have you, and he emerges–and then he’s vulnerable.

So creating a high-value horde in a remote setting is looking like just about the worst possible strategy in the sense that the flatlander has provided a huge incentive to theft or robbery, and also provided a setting advantageous to the thief or hunter.

If someone were to ask this ‘hick’ for a less risky survival strategy, I would suggest he move into town and start showing a little generosity, rather than a lot of hoarding. If not in town, then on the edge of town, where you can be seen and heard.

I’d suggest attending church, if you’ve a mind to, even if your faith isn’t as strong as others’. Or join the Lions Club, the Kiwanis, or Rotary International, if you can get an invitation. I’d volunteer to help with the pancake breakfast fundraiser, and buy a couple tickets to other fundraisers in town. I’d mow the old lady’s lawn next door for free, and pony up a dollar if the elderly gentleman in line ahead of me at the grocery store finds himself a dollar light on his purchase.

If I had a parcel outside town that was suitable for an orchard or other crop, I’d plant it, and spend plenty of time in the local hardware store and farm supply, asking questions and spreading a little money around the local merchants. I’d invite my neighbours into my little plain house so they could see I don’t own diddly-squat except some second-hand furniture and a crappy old TV. And I’d leave my door open so anyone could see for themselves I’ve got very little worth taking.

I’d have my tools, of course; but they’re scattered around and old and battered by use; they’re not shiny and new and expensive-looking, and they’re not stored all nice and clean in a box some thief could lift. They’re hung on old nails, or in the closet, and in the shed; a thief would have to spend a lot of time searching the entire place, and with my neighbours looking out for me, the thief is short of the most important advantage he has, time.

If somebody’s desperate enough or dumb enough to steal my old handsaw, I’ll buy another old one at a local swap meet. (Since I own three anyway, it’s unlikely anyone would steal all three because they’re not kept together.)

My valuable things, like the water filter, are kept hidden amidst all the low-value junk I keep around to send the message there’s nothing here worth looking at. The safest things to own are those which are visibly low-value, surrounded by lots of other mostly worthless stuff.

I’d claim a spot in the community garden, or hire a neighbour to till up my back yard, and I’d plant chard and beans and whatever else my neighbours suggested grew well locally. I’d give away most of what I grew, or barter it, or maybe sell some at the farmer’s market. It wouldn’t matter how little I had to sell, or how much I sold; what mattered was meeting other like-minded souls and swapping tips and edibles.

If I didn’t have a practical skill, I’d devote myself to learning one. If anyone asked me, I’d suggest saw-sharpening and beer-making. You’re legally entitled to make quite a bit of beer for yourself, and a decent homebrew is always welcome by those who drink beer. It’s tricky, and your first batches may blow up or go flat, but when you finally get a good batch you’ll be popular and well-appreciated if you’re of the mind to share.

Saw-sharpening just takes patience and a simple jig; you don’t need to learn a lot, like a craftsman, but you’ll have a skill you can swap with craftsmen and women. As a carpenter, I need sharp saws, and while I can do it myself, I find it tedious and would rather rebuild your front porch handrail or a chicken coop in exchange for the saw-sharpening.

Pickles are always welcome in winter, or when rations get boring; the Germans and Japanese of old lived on black bread or brown rice and pickled vegetables, with an occasional piece of dried meat or fish. Pickling is a useful and easy-to-learn craft. There are many others. If you’re a techie, then volunteer to keep the network up at the local school; do it for free, and do a good job. Show you care.

Because the best protection isn’t owning 30 guns; it’s having 30 people who care about you

Because the best protection isn’t owning 30 guns; it’s having 30 people who care about you. Since those 30 have other people who care about them, you actually have 300 people who are looking out for each other, including you. The second best protection isn’t a big stash of stuff others want to steal, it’s sharing what you have and owning little of value. That’s being flexible, and common, the very opposite of creating a big fat highly-visible, high-value target and trying to defend it yourself in a remote setting.

I know this runs counter to just about everything that you’ll see recommended on the survivalist web forums, but if you’re a hick like me, then you know it rings true. The flatlanders are scared because they’re alone and isolated; we’re not scared. We’ve endured bad times before, and we don’t need much to get by. We’re not saints, but we will reciprocate to those who extend their good spirit and generosity to the community in which they live and in which they produce something of value.


IMAGE: Kahn & Selesnick
The Augury of Collapse
If you are to see that which is to come, you must stop the world; you must take your feet off the pedals of the Earth and stop it spinning. If you are in the grocer’s, stop pushing your cart and stare off into space, oblivious to the other shoppers. If you are walking down the crowded avenue, stop, lay down in the middle of the sidewalk, and watch the clouds slowly pass over the tops of the old tenements. Abandon your tools and walk down to the water’s edge. As the momentum of the world slows for just one infinitesimal moment, others will join you until everyone is staring off into the distance, waiting for that incomprehensible event we have all felt lurking beneath the surfaces of our lives to finally reveal itself.

Nicholas Kahn & Richard Selesnick are a collaborative artist team who work primarily in the fields of photography and installation art, specialising in fictitious histories set in the past or future. Kahn & Selesnick have participated in exhibitions worldwide and have work in over 20 collections. In addition, they have published three books with Aperture Press: Scotlandfuturebog, City of Salt and Apollo Prophecies.


Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.


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  1. Thank you for bringing the wisdom of Tao into this writing. We forget our humanity and its protective benefit in times of scarcity, confusion, and bewilderment. We spin with the spin of fear, and this piece reminds us we don’t have to.

  2. Great summary. I grew up in rural Lancashire in ths UK, and this resonates so true. “Local’s” know who is local and what is going on across a much wider area than any urban dweller can comprehend. On the roads neighbours were acknowledged almost every time with a friendly wave or a hat tip, or whatever came to mind – and got a response. That is how a community builds and sustains.

    The hardest thing for new arrivals to learn is this network. In most cases it it passed down from parent to child, So if you are starting out from scratch as a new resident this can be daunting, but persevere, engage/support local events (no matter how bizzare to you they may seem), and in a few years you will probably be incorporated into the fabric of the community.

    Woops, got your tractor /car stuck in mud? No problem, call a neighbour not the rescue service!

  3. Thank you for the comments, and I am very appreciative of Jed’s commentary about networks and self-help / aiding others in a local web of trust and honor. warm regards, charles hugh smith


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