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Long before the introduction of agriculture, humans obtained most of their food through foraging and hunting. This section explores which wild plants you can tap as a source of nutrition.


Ahoerstemeier at Wikimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation license)

Acorns (Image credit: Ahoerstemeier at Wikimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation license)

Unprocessed, acorns are a disagreeable food source because of the high amounts of bitter tannins they contain (tannins can mess up your body’s digestive and metabolic processes). You can leach out those tannins with water: 1) Remove the acorn caps and crack open or crush the acorns with a hammer or nutcracker. 2) Grind the acorns in a blender or by hand to create as fine a mix as possible (to speed the leaching process), 3) Soak the ground-up acorns in water, replacing the water and repeating as many times as necessary until the water no longer turns brown. Once fully leached, the acorn meal can be used as flour right away, or can be dried or frozen for later use (because of the acorn’s high fat content, it spoils quickly).

On the other hand, left to dry in the sun, warm oven or food dehydrator, acorns can be stored for long periods of time (Native Americans used to store dried acorns for up to two years as a hedge against hunger).

Acorns reach maturity and fall from trees at different times, depending on the type of oak tree they come from. However, acorns typically fall during autumn or early winter.

You might want to print out some of the following acorn recipes as an appendix to this guidebook:

The entry on acorns at Wikipedia could also be a useful addition to the appendix.


Maksim at Wikimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation license)

Dandelions (Image credit: Maksim at Wikimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation license)

Dandelions, flowering plants in the genus Taraxacum, can grow as biennials or perennials and have long been considered weeds. However, the plant is not only edible but versatile and rich in antioxidant properties.

Dandelion greens are a good source of calcium and vitamin A. They are best picked before the dandelion flower blooms (they grow bitter afterward) and can be eaten fresh as a salad or cooked.

The flowers can be used to make dandelion wine.

The entry on dandelions at Wikipedia could also be a useful addition to the appendix.


Rasbak at Wikimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation license)

Lambsquarters (Image credit: Rasbak at Wikimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation license)

Also known as pitseed goosefoot, lambsquarters are a fast-growing, weedy annual found in much of North America. It’s also a pseudocereal crop similar to quinoa (a pseudocereal is a non-grass plant whose seeds can be ground into flour and otherwise used as cereals).


Wildfeuer at Wikimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation license)

Amaranth (Image credit: Wildfeuer at Wikimedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation license)

Numerous species of amaranth grow around the world, with some used primarily as a leafy vegetable while others are harvested as a source of grain. The leaves are rich in vitamins and the seeds are an excellent source of protein.



Pine nuts

“God comes to the hungry in the form of food.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

After air and water, the only thing more critical to human life is food. Food provides energy that the human body needs to maintain both its involuntary (like breathing, blood circulation, heartbeat) and voluntary (walking, cooking, speaking, etc.) functions.

The energy content of food is measured in calories, and every person needs a certain amount of calories each day to stay healthy. An average 30-year-old man who’s active for less than 30 minutes a day, for example, needs about 2,400 calories daily. The average 30-year-old woman with a similar level of exercise needs about 1,800 calories per day. In general, older adults and young children will need fewer calories a day to maintain health.

One food calorie is equal to 1,000 calories when you’re discussing a measure of energy used in physics. The physics term refers to the amount of heat energy needed to increase the temperature of one gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

People need food for more than just energy, though. Food also provides a variety of nutrients that help sustain the body’s health. These nutrients include carbohydrates, fats, fiber, minerals, proteins and vitamins.

There are two primary sources of food: plants and animals. Both derive their food energy from the sun, either directly (plants using photosynthesis) or indirectly (herbivores and omnivores eating plants, omnivores and carnivores eating other animals). Without the sun, there would be no food.

Throughout much of history, humans got most of their food by either hunting or gathering wild plants and animals. With the advent of agriculture, though, people began actively cultivating certain types of plants and raising certain types of animals as domesticated food sources.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink ;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

–“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Water is essential for life. Without water, most people will die within three days or so (though some have survived longer). That’s because water makes up about 60 to 70 percent of a human’s body, by weight.

The average needs about two liters of water per day to replace water lost through urination (about 1.5 liters per day) and breathing, sweating and defecation (about 1 liter per day). (The daily requirement doesn’t add up to 2.5 liters because we get the remaining fluid from the food we eat.)

Water covers about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, though most of that is saltwater, which people can’t safely drink. Lakes, rivers, streams and ponds that contain fresh water make up less less than 1 percent of the planet’s surface.

Water is a naturally occurring chemical substance. The water molecule is made of two hydrogen atoms bound together with one atom of oxygen. At sea level, water boils (transforms from a liquid to a gas) at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius. It freezes (transforms from a liquid to a solid) at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius.

While you need water to live, you also need to make sure your water is safe to drink. In 2005, contaminated water was responsible for the deaths of 4,000 children every day. Saltwater and urine aren’t good to drink, either: their high salt content makes your body want to put out more urine to get rid of the salt, leaving you thirstier and, eventually, at risk of dehydration.

Besides finding water in ponds, lakes and streams, you can collect water in the form of rain, condense water out of the air or dig below the ground’s surface to tap water held in permeable underground layers known as aquifers. You can draw water from such “wells” using either a pump (hand-powered or otherwise) or by drawing up buckets by hand.

There are many ways to purify water for drinking. You can:

  • Use water purification tablets;
  • Use a purifying powder known as PUR;
  • Boil water for at least one minute at sea level, preferably 10 minutes;
  • Collect dew or rainwater;
  • Build a condensation trap or solar still.

A solar still uses the sun’s heat to evaporate contaminated water, then condense it in a clean container for drinking and other uses. Review some of the following plans, decide which works best for you and print out the instructions as part of the appendix to this guidebook:

As an added reference, download and print the Wikipedia entry on water.

Toward the end of The Revenge of Gaia, climate-change oracle James Lovelock suggests that, if the worst should happen and climate change wreaks true havoc upon civilization, those left in the aftermath need a guidebook for survivors:

“What we need is a book of knowledge written so well as to constitute literature in its own right,” Lovelock writes. “Something for anyone interested in the state of the Earth and of us — a manual for living well and for survival. The quality of its writing must be such that it would serve for pleasure, for devotional reading, as a source of facts and even as a primary school text.”

One problem, he acknowledges: “No such book exists.”

Oh sure, there’s Wikipedia and Google and a wealth of resources online. But if the grid goes down and the lights go out, that virtual knowledge will be all but inaccessible.

So here’s what I’m going to do: over the next several weeks and months, I’m going to assemble the basic information we can all use in a survival situation, whether it’s a weekend without power during a snowstorm, or a generation without advanced technology after a global climate disaster. Yes, right now, it is still virtual, electronic text, but I’m encouraging you all to print out each entry as you can and assemble it, over time, into your own “Guidebook for Survivors.”

I’ll start tomorrow with the most life-essential topic of all: water.