Life Here: Saws and Survival

Recently I asked my partner, Peter, about saws.

“You know those saws that you can limb trees with, that have like an arch for a handle?” I asked.

“Bow saws,” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied,” Do we have one?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. “We had one lying around here, but I’m not sure where it is.”

“Well, I’m going to buy one, at Dan and Whit’s. And you should see about getting a second-hand wood stove, like one of those old Defiants.”

“Yeah, I’ve got the word out,” he replied.

The house we own was once, quite literally, a shack, and my brother bought it in 1987 for $10,000 even though it was on the river, in Norwich. Both he and my father lived here at various times, and after my father died Peter and I bought it and rehabbed it. It’s a nice, tight house now and I’d be entirely comfortable except for one thing: we don’t have a wood stove. I’ve been thinking more and more about the possibility of a national crisis of some sort (Hurricane Sandy didn’t help), and it’s clear we’d need to heat with wood should something really bad occur.

My father raised me to beware of the looming end of the world as we know it. When I was growing up, nuclear war was much more of a threat, but he also decried our modern civilization’s alienation from the natural rhythms of existence.

When I was 27, and was looking at what I should do with my life, I had a chance to get an MFA or become an RN. I became an RN because I thought nursing would be a useful skill to have should bad times commence, certainly a better skill than being able to write a really great poem.

Since then I’ve lived the better part of my life, raised a child, been a nurse in six states, written many things, and watched my father die, and civilization lurches on. At times I’ve doubted his perspicacity, but lately I’ve begun to think the only thing that was off was his timing. Doomsday prepping is back in. There’s even a show on TV about it.

Experts cite several looming problems that could reduce our busy world to silence. To me, the most alarming is a rogue electromagnetic pulse from the sun, which could knock out our power stations and fry the electronic innards of our phones, cars, TVs and radios. This is scariest to me because there would be almost no warning. Other possible doomsday scenarios are peak oil, global warming, sea rise, biological warfare, pandemics and economic collapse. All of these would result (some more quickly than others) in our having to live very different lives than the ones we live now. We would have to grow a lot of our own food, use boats, bicycles and horses for transportation, live without the most high-tech aspects of modern medicine, adjust to little or no electricity and go back to reading for entertainment. From the comfort of my propane-warmed house I sometimes imagine this would result in a more meaningful existence, but I think if it really happened I’d see the disadvantages rather quickly.

At any rate, I think about all this mostly because I’d like to have hope for my child. I am too old to make a go of it in some brave new world, but she has her whole life to live. We’ve agreed if something terrible happens she’ll come home with her boyfriend. In fact, they both have bug-out bags. We discussed the fact that they might have to bike or walk the 120 miles between Portsmouth, N.H., and Norwich, and she said they were prepared to do so.

We have many advantages here in Vermont and New Hampshire. We’ve got and probably will continue to have plenty of water. We’ve got land and livestock and the ability to grow food. We’ve got wood to heat with.

Our state is sparsely populated, and we value law and cooperation. Some of us still have the old-time skills of country people.

As far as my little plot of land goes, I’m good at growing potatoes. I’ve told my daughter that potatoes and winter squash are both great crops to use for year-round survival. The Indians certainly knew the advantages of winter squash, and the Irish proved the worth of potatoes. Both store well and provide plenty of calories. On top of that, the river offers fish (albeit mercury tainted) and scores of Canada geese. The forest is home to deer and bear.


I did go to Dan and Whit’s, and I bought two bow saws. Then I bought a bunch of matches and looked at candles. Candles, it turns out, are more expensive than I’d realized, so I’m planning to look in second-hand shops for bargains.

When I got home I added my purchases to my survival stash of beans, rice and salt. I realized it didn’t look like much, especially compared to the people featured on the show Doomsday Preppers, who have underground bunkers and garages full of canned goods. Even so, it was a start. Besides, my sister owns a bakery, and she has bags and bags of flour, nuts, sugar and oatmeal. We’ll throw in our lot together if the manure hits the fan, because the one thing you must have for survival is other people. In fact, that’s the most important part.

Sybil Smith lives in Norwich.