I recently heard of an unusual historical connection between a tribe of survivors from the Trail of Tears, and those struggling with survival half a world away during the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1852.
The Choctaws were one of the Native American nations who were forcibly displaced between 1830 and 1850, along with Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Seminole and the Chickasaw nations. Basically, any land the white insurgents wanted, they took, driving out tribes from their ancestral homes; thousands died of exposure, starvation and disease on the road to their designated reserves.
But in the midst of their own sorrows, the Choctaw people heard about the plight of the Irish famine, and they responded with generosity. They collected $170 (which would be around $5,200 today) and sent it to the Irish in 1847. While gifts flowed to Ireland from various sources, the gift of this native tribe touched the Irish deeply; despite their own tragedies, they reached out and gave the Irish people hope – hope that they weren’t alone and that others cared.
Fast-forward to the Covid-19 challenges facing many Indian reservations: Many people are unemployed and barely scraping by; a lack of running water or electricity is common, so you can imagine how challenging it is for them to keep their hands clean and to be able to meet hygiene requirements – as a result, the Corona Virus has swept through these impoverished communities. A Navajo woman, Ethel Branch, started a GoFundMe, hoping to raise money to help support reservation families; she set the goal at $50,000, thinking it was far too ambitious and expecting only about a thousand dollars to come in. But the Irish heard about it, and they’ve been paying it forward, back to the people they never forgot and who they teach about in their history lessons; so far, over $5 million has been raised.
One tweetmade all the difference in this new chapter of an intercontinental friendship. This story reminds me that when we respond with empathy and generosity, even the smallest acts of kindness can encourage others, and, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep an eye out for those who need an encouraging word or deed – you may change a life.
I don’t know about you, but I love going to museums; I’ve been in huge museums such as the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Maritime Museum, all in London, or the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; but some of the best museums I’ve seen have also been smaller. The mega-museums usually have so much to see that you can really only cover a wing or two in a day; but I’m the kind of visitor who likes to sit and contemplate the exhibit a while before moving on, which means I can cover even less ground. I’ll often absorb the information and history by creating a calligram or two (such as this ammonite). Pocket-sized museums, however, can offer a lot for their size; they often tell the story of the region, or of one family that made a difference in their worlds.
Today’s tour takes us the the latter kind of museum: The Warther Museum, in Dover, Ohio, tells the story of a man and his wife, Ernest & Frieda Warther, who had passion for what they did and for their community. The museum houses the collections of buttons and arrowheads the couple collected, which Frieda mounted and arranged into designs. Ernest “Mooney” Warther was a master wood carver, and his finest work, a locomotive engine car with moving parts throughout, was deemed by the Smithsonian as a masterpiece.
To see the collections for yourself and read the story of this little gem, just click here. Enjoy learning about a fascinating little piece of history!
Today’s tour isn’t of a place, but of a group of people: Hobos. Come along with me as we explore their origins, their ethics, their slang, and even their secret language of symbols.
Hobos were migratory workers that began as displaced soldiers after the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. The conflict laid waste to large swaths of land, and many men returning found that they had no home to return to, or found families so economically devastated by the war that they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed – so those men took to the railways to take them cross-country looking for work. Before the advent of the train, these men tramped – walked – around the countryside in search of work. While railroads began in the US around 1830, they were not really nationwide until after 1910. Another group of people who took to life on the road were young men from large families; removing a hungry mouth or two could greatly benefit the family; some left with tearful goodbyes and promises to send wages when they could; others slipped out in the night and left on their adventure into the wider world.
The story goes that in the distant past, boys were often hired on temporarily to help with agricultural harvests; they were referred to as simply “boys”; but to distinguish them from other groups of workers, they were named after one of their tools, the hoe; gradually the term drifted from hoe-boy to the word we know today, “Hobo”. There is, in fact, no etymology of the word that I could find. It might also come from a railroad worker’s call on late 19th century railroads, “Ho, boy”, ho being a variation of “whoa”, used to either call attention from a distance, or as a command to stop. Perhaps the true origin of the word lies somewhere in between.
Both tramp and bum come from German, trampeln and bummeln, both referring to trekking, walking, ambling or wandering. But because both tramps and bums were associated with being lazy and opportunistic thieves, hobos carried the same stigma. Hobos, however, were honest and free; they had a strict moral code, were hard-working, and some even chose that lifestyle above their own personal wealth or position, such as James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos; he was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, but he chose instead to live as a hobo. Some simply wanted to live with no strings attached, no address to be found by state or federal government; today, we might call it living off-grid, though our contemporary version is far more luxurious than those early migrants could have ever aspired to.
Up through the 1920s, hobos defined themselves in terms of being free-spirited; but when the subculture exploded during the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Great Depression forced men, women and children onto the highways and byways looking for work to survive, the hobo popular image shifted to a symbol of poverty wracking the nation. As factories closed across the country, many had no choice but to migrate. The most famous image from that time is by Dorothea Lange, taken of Florence Owen Thompson, a mother of seven starving children, living in a shanty during a pea harvest in Nipomo, California in 1936. The photographer captured the plight of the migrant workers, prompting the government to send food to the camp; the images did not gain popularity until the 1950s, however; it was probably too painfully familiar to people to garner much contemporary appreciation. After the Great Depression had passed, and World War 2 was over, the number of hobos decreased drastically, but has never died out completely.
Today, the hobo culture continues; whether they’re called hobos, or trainhoppers, or drifters, or solo ramblers, strays, or vagabonds, it is a worldwide movement. In South America, it is estimated that 400-500,000 migrants hop trains annually in an attempt to reach the United States. As Corona lockdowns affect companies, leading to layoffs and bankruptcies, I think we’ll see a surge in the number of hobos. Every year in Britt, Iowa, a hobo convention is held, where they celebrate the positive aspects of living free, and likely discuss how to do it honourably and well. It’s a chance to connect, and to feel part of a community while still being independent. Click here to see a few images from their 2013 convention.
Hobos didn’t just try to work hard; they had a moral code of conduct that included these tenets:
Decide your own life; don’t let another person rule you or run you.
When in towns, always respect the local law and officials – be a gentleman at all times.
Always try to find work, even if temporary, and look for jobs nobody wants. You’ll be helping a business along, but you’ll also ensure good will if you return to that town again.
Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable – either locals or other hobos.
When no work is available, make your own work – use your talents.
Don’t set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos by becoming a stupid drunk.
Always respect nature – do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
If in a community jungle, pitch in and help. Help others whenever needed – you may need their help one day.
When jungling in town, respect handouts and don’t wear them out – other hobos will be coming along who may need them more than you.
Don’t cause trouble in rail yards or in towns – other hobos will be coming, and they need the goodwill.
Try to stay clean – bathe whenever possible.
When travelling, ride your train respectfully – take no personal chances, cause no problems with the train crew, and act like an extra crew member – help where you can.
Do not allow other hobos to molest children – expose them to the law – they are the worst garbage to infest a society.
Help all runaway children, and try to talk them into returning home.
I’d say that these rules are good for everyone to live by, no matter what their status or situation. Besides a code of ethics, they had a separate language. Here’s some of their colourful slang:
Accommodation Car = Caboose of a train
Bad road = a train line made unusable by some hobo’s bad action or crime
Banjo = a small portable frying pan, sometime a “D” handled shovel
Barnacle = a person who sticks to one job for a year or more
Beachcomber = a hobo who hangs around seaports or dockyards
Bindle Stick = a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tie at the end of a stick
Blowed-in-the-grass = a trustworthy, genuine person
Bone Polisher = a mean dog
Bone Orchard = graveyard
C, H & D = a person is Cold, Hungry and Dry (thirsty)
California Blankets = bedding made of newspaper
Calling in = using someone else’s campfire to warm up or cook
Catch the Westbound = to die
Chuck a Dummy = pretend to faint
Cover with the Moon = Sleep out in the open
Docandoberry = anything growing along a river that’s edible
Easy Mark = place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
Elevated = under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Flip = to board a moving train
Flop = a place to sleep, “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel
Glad rags = one’s best clothes
Graybacks, Crumbs = lice
Gump = a chicken
Honey Dipping = working with a shovel in a sewer
Hot = 1) a fugitive hobo; 2) a decent meal (“I could use three hots and a flop”)
Hot Shot = fast freight train, stops rarely
Jungle = an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate. Jungle Buzzard = a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
Knowledge Bus = a school bus used for shelter
Maeve = a young hobo, usually a girl; similar to Angelina (a young, inexperienced child)
Mulligan = a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining their ingredients
On the Fly = jumping a moving train
Padding the Hoof = travel by foot
Possum Belly = ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat)
Rum Dum = a drunkard
Sky Pilot = a preacher or minister
Spare Biscuits = looking for food in garbage cans
Stemming = panhandling or begging
Source: New Braunfels Railroad Museum, Texas
When hobos travelled from town to town, they never knew what to expect – would they be welcomed, or arrested? Out of the necessity to be prepared, a language of symbols grew: A hobo could give those who came after him a good idea of what to expect – was there work available? Would the police arrest a hobo on sight? Could you get a good meal at this house or that? The hobo would leave these symbols nearby – etched in the dirt road near a house, or marked on a stone or tree or a wall or a railcar. Here is an example of the symbols, though there are many more! Reading through them gives you a glimpse of some of the things they were up against.
In the images below, the young man getting on the train and the one cooking over a fire with a can on a stick are one and the same man – World lightweight boxing champion Lou Ambers, who travelled across the US to compete in Bootleg Bouts to earn money for his widowed mother.
I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of hobos – without the dangers of train hopping!
Have you ever started what seemed like a small project, only to realize that you’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole, ala Wonderland?
I was sitting in my library last weekend, and I glanced up at a few old photo albums on the top shelf of one of our bookcases. I’ve been meaning to photograph, restore and edit those pictures for years, so I finally pulled one down and began. It happened to be my family history album, with photographs as far back as 1890. And so it began.
The last time I wrote an article about family history, only a couple days later I was contacted by then-unknown branches of that family – distant relatives who’d been looking for that kind of missing-link information. That article was posted on a dormant blog of mine, so I’ll post it here this coming week – who knows, maybe more relatives will show up for the party!
I spread the album open on our dining table, and began taking pictures of pictures (if you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that glossy photos are the bane of restoration attempts!), then painstakingly took out each scratch and superficial film blemish caused by age and my two emigrations (first Scotland, then Switzerland). I cropped, turned, tweaked and focused until each photo was restored and properly labelled. Then I began feeding them into a digital album program – when it’s ready, I’ll be able to order a physical hardback book, and the project will be on my cloud account to avoid losing the whole project, as happened once before (I still have the photos, and the printed book, so I can re-create it, but it hurts to have lost all that work through a computer crash, pre-cloud…!).
That’s when the first rabbit hole opened. Being a writer, I’m curious by nature. Or maybe my curiosity led me into writing. Whatever. I’m curious, and I love research. I also have a lot of experience in tracking missing persons: About 12 years ago, I tracked down nearly all of my 35 former classmates from Hawaii, 1986, from Australia to Guam to Norway to Brazil to Seattle. Every evening, when my husband came home from work, he couldn’t wait to hear what I’d accomplished that day: I “bribed” a retired LAPD detective with a bar of Swiss chocolate to track down one friend who was a hermit in the Californian mountains with no phone, no internet, and no address. I had enough for him to go on, and he put legs to my work – within 24 hours, I had my man – he came down the mountain for a phone call with me. Another friend had moved out of state from the last known address, and his name was a common one – too common to find him through conventional ways. So, I put Google Earth, white pages and intuition together, with a dose of southern charm (I’m not from the south, but I can turn it on if need be!), and got the state he’d moved to from a former neighbour of his – all he knew was where he might be working. Another friend was off-grid for security reasons – and I still tracked her down (I told her, “I could tell you how I did it, but then I’d have to kill you!” 😉) Needless to say, almost every track was an adventure.
Which brings me to the present rabbit hole: I’ve begun work on my paternal family album; on the maternal side, I don’t have any information beyond my great-grandparents, but I can trace my paternal grandmother’s family back to the Danish village they came from, on the island west of Copenhagen – and once I’ve filled in as wide as I can from the emigrated side, I’ll contact the Danish records offices or cemetery of the Old Town and go back further still if I can – so far, I’m into the 1830s; hopefully, such European records survived World Wars 1 & 2.
There are a few websites that specialize in ancestry – but most of them want to charge you to see the information. I understand that a company needs to have a viable income to offset their costs, but such websites often rely on volunteer family members feeding in that information on their own dime, so I won’t support them. I have found two websites that have proven invaluable; if you want to do something similar, here they are:
www.findagrave.com is a website gathering of history and genealogy enthusiasts who photograph tombstones and gather personal information about the individual from official documents, obits, etc., with the purpose of honouring them and allowing others to find family members. It was the first time I’d seen my own father’s gravestone. I’ve been on there less than a week, and I’ve become the custodian of a dozen virtual family graves; it will be easier to add information as I come across it in research as the rabbit hole deepens. Through the efforts of complete strangers unrelated to my family, I’ve been able to fill in the blanks of missing birthdates and death-dates, as well as next of kin, and their next of kin, and so on. Another rabbit hole!
The second website is www.wikitree.com; it is a free website, like Wikipedia, but for genealogists to collaborate through, with forums and all kinds of helpful groups to get you started. So far, I haven’t needed any of the forums myself, but I’ve been busy building up the family tree and collecting pictures and information there. As I have my husband’s family tree already, it will be my next project on that website.
Keep in mind that I’m doing all of this in my spare time; I’m working on my 5th novel’s manuscript, and I have a husband in home office through the week, which means 2 meals a day instead of just 1 to plan ahead for and prepare. Someone does laundry, and cleans the house and goes grocery shopping – but since I haven’t been able to train our cats to do that, I guess it’s me, while my husband earns our keep. He earns, I spend – it works well for us. 😉
For the sake of potential relatives searching for family names online, my heritage is as follows:
Umbarger, Kuhns, Hüsler (Huesler), Aagaard (The anglicized Danish surname is sometimes misspelled as Agard or Aagard), Aaroe, Higbee, Herring. So glad I don’t have that string on my official documents! Two things can sometimes make tracking difficult is that firstly, maiden names are exchanged for the married surname, causing a break in the chain; secondly, the Ellis Island effect – officials didn’t know how to spell the name properly, so they recorded it phonetically, which makes unravelling the true path more of a challenge.
This week, the intrigue continues as I begin trying to track down the missing branches of my family. My goal is to make the album project available to even distant relatives who might be interested, although it will obviously have the emphasis of my personal perspective as far as photos go, the closer to my generation I get.
Have you done any family history research, or a family tree? Have you ever taken a DNA test? If so, what did it reveal about you and your ancestors? Please comment below!
Our next virtual tour takes us to the capital of Norway, the city of Oslo. There are many amazing places to visit in the city, from the Armed Forces Museum to the Viking Ship Museum. But by far, the largest is the Vigeland Park and museum.
The park is the life work of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the result of over 40 years’ work. There are over 200 sculptures in granite, bronze and wrought iron, from the gates, across a bridge, past a large fountain and to the Monolith mound. The museum itself was his studio, and includes many of his sketches, mock-ups, and smaller works.
Vigeland’s motivation for the sculptures was to portray the breadth and depth of universal humanity, from birth to death, in as many stages of emotions and ages as he could capture. He intentionally left the titles of his works vague, allowing viewers to interpret through their own experiences. The reason that most of the statues are naked is for that same reason – he didn’t want a style of clothing to detract from the timelessness of the collective experience of humans, regardless of culture or era, age or gender.
I have been there twice, and it will always be on our list of things to do in Oslo when we are able to go; Oslo is one of my favourite cities, which is saying a lot as my husband and I tend to avoid cities on holidays, preferring nature and out-of-the-way spots instead. But like London, Oslo is packed with history and museums. Below are two of my own pictures, taken in August 2013.
So, who was Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943)? Born as Adolf Gustav Thorsen, he became one of the most famous Norwegian sculptors, and also has the distinction of being the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His father was a cabinetmaker, and one of his brothers, Emanuel Vigeland, became a noted artist. Gustav learned wood carving at school, but the sudden death of his father forced him to leave school to help support his family. The name Vigeland comes from the area where his grandparents lived, and where he lived with them for a time. He came to the attention of Brynjulf Bergslien, a sculptor, who took Gustav under his wing. His first personal exhibitions in Norway were in 1894 and 1896.
In 1902, he was involved in the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which influenced his art by the inclusion of dragons as the symbols of sin and as a force of nature fighting against man. Shortly thereafter, the city of Oslo gave him a studio in which to work, and the location of his growing exhibition became Frogner Park, now known to many as simply Vigeland Park.
The exhibition can sometimes evoke strong feelings; I’ve heard one person call it demonic because it portrays nudity; at the end of World War 2, one critic thought it “reeked of Nazi mentality”. But I have been there, and can honestly say that both of those sentiments are unfounded. If people are uncomfortable with the human form in its simplicity, they will have difficulty understanding the thoughtfulness that went into each sculpture. As to the second critique, some of the characters are posed as wrestling with various symbols – as everyone wrestles with things in various stages of their lives. Coming from the mindset of someone still stinging with the Nazi’s rule during World War 2, it is easy to understand how they could have interpreted any struggle in that light.
Below are a few links to take during your virtual tour:
With everything that hit the fan last year worldwide, I know that many of us have been missing the opportunities to go out and get some stimulation: Restaurants in many places are closed or reduced to take-away; concerts and theatre productions are cancelled until further notice; museums are closed; if shops are open, they may be closing earlier. For many of us, our “third place” has had to close its doors to us.
So I thought I’d take you along on virtual tours: Tours of factories to see how things are made, of museums, of beautiful places around the globe, of interesting architecture, of historical moments, or of quirky bits and bobs that make this world a colourful and interesting place.
To start off our tours, let’s take a walk-through on the Titanic, as it was before it let in the passengers for its maiden voyage. It embarked on that voyage on 10 April 1912, hit an iceberg on 14 April at 23:40, and 2 hours and 40 minutes later, on 15 April, finally sank forever. The final survivor of the sinking, Millvina Dean, aged two months at the time, died in 2009 at the age of 97. What I find interesting about her story is that her parents, from Branscombe, England, were planning to settle in Wichita, Kansas – where I was born and raised. Her father had relatives there, whom they were planning to join. They weren’t supposed to be aboard the Titanic, but due to a coal strike, they were transferred to the ill-fated ship. To read more of her story, please follow her link.
If Covid’s limitations were lifted right now, and if you had a spare £86,000 ($ 105, 030) burning a hole in your pocket, you could take a real tour of the Titanic and take part in diving expeditions. But barring those two factors, I’ve found a few simpler (and FREE!) alternatives (Just click on the images below each description):
This first link is a 22-minute tour; if you are easily seasick, I’d recommend pausing it occasionally.
This second link is for a slower and smoother version, at 116 minutes (1:56).
This third link is a fascinating documentary following the lives of some of the passengers aboard the Titanic, focusing on 14 from the same Irish village. Three survived to tell the tale.
I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did; I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word in such a situation, but I hope it was at least a satisfying, intriguing glimpse into history. I’ve got slews more tours on the agenda, so buckle up!
Limbo-life goes on, but I thought I’d do a bit of dusting… of history, that is. I love historical images – they have a story that may have gotten lost over the years, or may document a significant achievement, such as the moon landings. Then there are those lovely photographs of bygone inventions: Some have succeeded into the modern era, while others were dumped somewhere along the wayside (and rightly so). Fortunately, the photo above falls into the latter category! As far as this topic goes, this is just a light dusting; there have been entire books and documentaries addressing this vast issue; if you’re interested in viewing a few documentaries on the topic, click here.
Makeup, as a topic of history, goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egypt is famous for their eyeliners and other cosmetic enhancements; lipstick may have been invented as far back as 5,000 years ago, by ancient Sumerians. The word “cosmetic” comes from Greek, and originally meant “technique of dress and ornament” or “skilled in ordering or arranging”. Natural ingredients used included charcoal, beeswax, crushed gemstones, castor oil, olive oil, milk (Cleopatra’s famous milk bath), rosewater, seaweed, fish scales (still used today), and seashells. In past ages, there were dubious forays into using tinctures of white lead, mercury, arsenic, quicklime, Belladonna, and even mouse fur eyebrows (for when the woman’s hair fell out due to using any of the above in combination…). A common insect still used in blushes and lipsticks is the cochineal, the Dactylopius coccus, a scale insect.
Probably as far back as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, there has been a fascination with mechanics, even in the beauty industry (as illustrated by the image above). Though I have yet to find images that document the attempts at enhancing a man’s handsomeness, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such inventions for women’s beauty. I think that fact simply reveals something about a deep-set, double-standard mindset that women need cosmetic improvement while men don’t *; that notion has been inescapably engrained into women for thousands of years (with the exception of the Egyptian culture, in which men used eyeliner just as much as the women). [*The two exceptions that I can find to this general trend is that men were berated in the mid-war years for being too scrawny, and they were encouraged to develop their physique; they were also ridiculed for baldness and were offered hair growth concoctions to counter the natural process.] While many of these gadgets and products have thankfully gone the way of the Dodo, some are still lurking around – and to them, I say, Shame on them for shaming natural features!
Here are a few other bygone mechanical attempts at enhancing the beauty of women:
Because the days of Sail are mostly long gone except for re-enactment vessels and small private vessels such as yachts, a great tradition is being lost to the winds of time: The Sea Shanty. Shanties were songs sung by sailors; they were sung not only for the entertainment factor, but the rhythms kept the crews in time as they hauled in anchors, drew up sails, tightened ropes, scrubbed the deck, and any number of other duties aboard their ship. Specific shanties were used for the short haul, the Halyard, Windlass, Capstan, or the Foresheet, because those shanties had the best rhythm to get a particular job done. Musicians try to keep the songs alive today, but they are a ghost of what they once were, and what they once meant and represented; they were the life blood of any Ship of the Line.
For an interesting article on shanties, including various video clips with live performances to hear the rhythms and flavour of the shanties, please click here. Take a few moments to enjoy the songs! Some of the videos are the songs sung to a series of historical images to do with sailing, so they’re a two fer!
Originally posted on History Undusted, 20 September 2015
This article* will be longer than usual, but I think it’s an important topic to address. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived the first wave of Coronavirus, lockdown, and have been able to pay your electricity bill! Woohoo! But as the old adage goes, “History repeats itself”; as you can see from the images below, we’re not the first generation to deal with the affects of a pandemic. Such moments of crisis come in various forms: The Black Death, the Spanish Influenza, World Wars, the Great Depression, stock market crashes, slumps and recessions, and now the Coronavirus. Like any challenge, how you respond to it will determine how you come through it. The title, “Preparedness”, means “the state of being prepared”: It’s not about individual actions to accomplish something and check it off a list, but a long-term mentality to develop. The current times caught a lot of people off-guard, and some people and regions are still reeling.
In Britain at the turn of the last century, farming had been in decline because farmers couldn’t compete with the cheaper imported goods; they switched from grains to livestock, and two-thirds of British foods were coming from abroad. In the months before World War 2, the British government realized that, if the very real threat of a German blockade came about, the nation would be in danger of starving to death, so they petitioned people to plant vegetables instead of flowers in their gardens, and for farmers to dust off their equipment and begin planting crops again to feed the nation. They realized that self-sufficiency in a time of crisis is the best remedy for the essentials.
In the past decade or so, there has been a growing trend toward self-sufficiency through things like living off-grid, the tiny home movement, Earthships, living debt-free with minimal possessions and minimal environmental footprint, and growing one’s own organic, non-GMO foods in urban gardens – on rooftops, in vertical boxes, on balconies and on kitchen window sills, or simply moving back to the land and acquiring the skills to return to farming.
Do you know how to grow your own foods? How to get a plant from seed to harvest? I don’t. But we have the greatest tool of any generation: The internet. Such knowledge can be passed on to anyone and everyone via YouTube tutorials, Instructables & Wikihow, and whoever’s willing to roll up their sleeves and learn.
Back in March, when Switzerland went into our first lockdown, a friend sent me a list of what the Swiss government recommends as emergency supplies for a week. This list is likely more focused on the scenario of a village being temporarily cut off by an avalanche or landslide, which is a very real threat in some areas here; it’s nevertheless a good starting point of things to think about to prepare for longer crises, such as Covid-19 has faced us with:
Water – 3 litres per person per day (extra for house pets, hygiene, etc.)
Fruit & vegetable juices
Oils and butters / lards
Sugar, jams & honey
Bouillon, salt, pepper
Coffee, powdered chocolate, tea
Pulses (dried or canned)
Twice-baked breads, crackers
Condensed milk, UHT milk
Hard cheeses (can be frozen), sausages, dried meats, jerky
Special foods for infants and pets
Transistor radio, torch (flashlight) & extra batteries
Candles, matches, lighters
Gas canister for camping lights and / or grill
Soaps, loo rolls (toilet paper), hygiene articles
Extra prescription medicines, aspirins
Bandages, gauzes, salves, first-aid supplies
Facemasks, hand disinfectants, disposable gloves
That last item was certainly felt here if you didn’t have it: hand disinfectants went off the shelves fast, and when they returned, they were four times more expensive than before. We had some on hand, so we were able to bridge the gap in the empty shelves and can wait until the prices go back down.
Consider How & What You Eat
Below are a few areas to think about when preparing for times of crisis; some of these points may be logical and daily practice for some of you, but others might not have had someone guiding them:
Go through your cupboards and make an inventory of what you have; move the oldest to the front, so that they’ll be used first.
Your food budget probably won’t allow you to buy supplies for months all at once, so learn to think ahead as you do your normal shopping: Look for foods you usually eat and buy them double, or in 3-for-2 sales packages. Stock up gradually, and as you cycle your consumption (oldest first), replace them when you can; this will give you buffer room in a time of shortage.
Make a list of what you usually like to eat: Cross off the following: restaurants, take-away, deliveries, pre-packaged meals, frozen dinners (they’ll be crossed off for you anyway, come next lockdown…). What do you have left? Those things crossed out will (should) be the first to go any time things are tight financially. Cooking at home is far more economical, healthy, and psychologically fulfilling.
Learn ways to store foods longer-term than fresh: Canning, dehydration, freezing, jerky, fruit leathers, etc. The principle of “oldest first” applies to these goods, too.
Don’t buy foods you don’t eat. If you’ve never eaten beans in your life, don’t hoard cans of them. Don’t buy things you’ll never use, and use the things you have. If you have foods you’re not sure how to prepare, find out – Pinterest, Google, and dozens of websites will guide you.
I have two dehydrators, and I use them frequently; there are some staples that I always have in dried form – onions, potatoes, dried fruits, tomatoes, etc. The flavour is amazing, and the nutrients are retained during the slow drying process. I store all my foods in bail lid or mason jars (click here to see why); it looks appealing, and I can see exactly what I’ve got. If you’ve never dehydrated, it might be something worth thinking about – if you don’t have space/budget for a dehydrator, there are instructions for doing so in your oven or outside if you live in a sunny, dry environment.
Build Your Resources
What would happen if, for whatever reason, the internet were to go dark, or your connection becomes unreliable? I’ve heard a joke that says Italians can’t speak if you make them sit on their hands, and I think the same could be said that nowadays, many people can’t think without Google or Wikipedia. So build your resources; start getting books on topics like emergency first-aid, foraging plants for your region (and do your local parks have walnut trees, apple trees, stinging nettles or edible greens?), gardening, household repairs, and even novels for a bit of an escape. And add a cookbook or two while you’re at it – e.g. the kinds that show you how to cook on a shoestring budget, how to prepare foraged foods, or how to preserve foods.
During the first wave of the Coronavirus, hospitals here were put onto “triage” mode – that means only patients were getting treated who had life-threatening issues. A broken arm isn’t life-threatening, so you may be stuck with one for weeks on end until your doctor has an opening. Would you know how to treat it in the meantime? A friend of ours here had to experience that first-hand, so be prepared just in case. Hopefully you’ll never need those skills or bandages, but to need them and not have them is worse.
It’s fairly inevitable that an economic depression is on the way, with so many businesses and individuals in some countries having survived on the “just now” principle – just enough revenue to pay the bills, with no buffer in the bank account (and many stores were operating on the same principle, which is one reason why shelves emptied so fast when supply lines broke down). Many people will be faced with unemployment; so use the time wisely by learning a new skill or honing a dusty one. The more you learn about a new skill, the more you’ll also learn about yourself. Someone who is motivated to learn something new has more self-confidence, will be more attractive for potential employers, or will even enable you to step out entrepreneurially. It will give you more job flexibility and more enjoyment. Not all skills have to do with monetary gain; some are for pure enjoyment, such as learning to play an instrument, which will bolster your mental health, enabling you to face things more squarely.
Think Outside the Box
What happens if the monetary system breaks down? Remember that adage about history? There have been times in recent history when a country’s currency had become less valuable than wallpaper – and people used their banknotes for that purpose. Banknotes have only been accepted as currency just over 300 years – a blip in history, really. So how were things traded before that? Sometimes with pieces of silver jewellery (called “hacksilver”), or gold, but often it was a matter of bartering – trading skill or service for service or skill: One neighbour might know how to do plumbing, and you might know how to upholster chairs. If you have marketable skills, consider tutoring online or via Skype or Zoom. Essential in this principle is getting outside your comfort zone and getting to know those you live cheek by jowl with. How many people, who live in an apartment building (block of flats) have no idea who their neighbour is, beyond their name?
True, in Corona times social distancing is important; but get to know the neighbours anyway: Talk to them in passing; perhaps even introduce yourself with a short note of introduction, telling them who you are, what you do, and your hopes that community can grow in your building. If you already know your neighbours, let them know that you’re willing to help out – offering help first makes it easier to ask when you need it, and makes them more eager to help in return.
I hope this helps; it’s easy to lose perspective in times of crisis, and the more prepared we are with the essentials, the faster we’ll be able to get our feet back under ourselves, and the more secure and less stressed we’ll be in the long run.
[*The original draft of this article was cleverly DELETED by WordPress’s new editing program in the blink of an eye, with NO draft backup, because they went and messed with a good thing again and completely changed their entire post layout function; apparently they have yet to learn the meaning of the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.]