Discovery Channel commissioned the following article to publish on JoinTheColony.com, a web site for their urban survival TV show “The Colony.” They asked me, as an urban forager, what strategies I would use to stay alive if a virus struck.
My first concern would be clean drinking water. If the electricity was out, the plumbing would be too. The safest thing you could do is catch the rain with a bucket outside or head out first thing in the morning to lick the dew drops of the leaves. As many animals do, you could also eat succulent plants that have high water content. But drinking from major waterways would be a last resort, even with filtration, because they’re notoriously contaminated with industrial pollution and bacteria.
Most people would think to raid the cache of grocery stores and gardens for food, but these are only short-term options — and they might not be options at all if the virus is food-borne, or if some of the pillagers are gun-toting crazies determined to keep the obvious food sources for themselves.
As a forager, I’d have a huge advantage: very little competition to go after the edible plants that most people aren’t aware of. These could be ornamentals that are featured in landscaping for their appearance but are secretly also food, or they can be common weeds, or they might be relatively obscure native plants that never touch the grocery store shelves.
Having attempted this sort of thing before, I know the importance of having a strategy. Inefficiency can mean death when you’re foraging. Wild edibles are spread out in small patches over large distances in an urban landscape, and they don’t have as many calories as modern processed foods, so it’s easy to burn your energy wandering around. You can end up in the caloric negative even after you’ve eaten. This is dangerous — while you can theoretically live for weeks and months without food, depending on your metabolism and your fat stores, being underfed and hungry causes stress and irritability and compromises your ability to reason, as well as your immune system. And none of that would be good stuff in a survival scenario.
Do You Know Where To Look?
The first thing I’d do is scout my neighborhood, mapping the location of every food source I find within a five block radius. This will save a great deal of time later when you’re tired and trying to remember where you saw that gooseberry shrub.
Do you know where to look? Keep your eye on street corners, overgrown yards, alleyways and vacant lots. You’ll find the most biodiversity on the edges between two kinds of habitats, like asphalt and grass, or water and a riverbank. Whenever possible, try to note patterns that can help you predict what kinds of plant foods you’ll find in unfamiliar places. For instance, pineapple weed likes dry footpaths in direct light, whereas violets grow in shadier places.
If you want a spot guaranteed to be lush with wild edibles, head to the sides of highways, riverbanks and railroad tracks. While these places are likely to contain herbicides and other chemical pollutants, I wouldn’t be concerned with long-term health problems if I were in a survival scenario. If you are, try to harvest as far back from the roads and tracks as possible, as plant-toxin levels have been shown to decrease exponentially at even small distances away from the source.
You could find cherries; wild peas (Lathyrus latifolius); day lily flowers; mallow flowers, buds and greens; yellow dock greens and seeds; wild mustards; burdock roots and stalks; wild carrot roots; gooseberry; raspberry; wild and cultivated roses; dandelion flowers, greens and roots; sheep sorel; oxalis; pine needles and more. In August, crabapples, blackberries, plums and figs will become available, and towards the end of September you can gather acorns, walnuts and chestnuts, which offer tons of calories and can be made into flour.
Fruits, nuts and roots are the most energy-rich parts of plant foods, so aim for these. While greens are abundant and do possess protein, they are comparatively low in calories and can take energy for your body to process.
Wild plants often contain medicinal compounds or have actions on the body. These are good in moderate quantities but can hurt you if you eat too much. An overdose of diuretic plants, for instance, would dehydrate you. The best way to avoid any trouble is to eat a varied diet, so try to get your food from more than one kind of plant at a time.
After scouting and mapping resources, my second strategy would be to learn from the wild animals who already live successfully in the city as hunter-gatherers. They are role models.
Learning From Animals
More wild animals live within cities than out in the rural wilderness, according to mammal ecologist Dana Sanchez, an assistant professor at Oregon State University who also works for the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Coyotes, deer, beavers, opossums, raccoons and a variety of birds and rodents get by on the fringes. If you haven’t noticed, it’s because they’re nocturnal. Night foraging is an ideal stealth strategy, a great way to avoid crossing paths with humans — and that’s something you might want to do, too, if your fellow survivors turn out to be competition.
The most successful urban animals are good at adapting to change. They share some common strategies: they aren’t picky, and they’re resourceful, Sanchez said.
“Raccoons eat pretty much anything that’s available to them in their home range,” Sanchez said. “They’re good at taking opportunities for sources for food or water. What to us doesn’t look like a resource, to a raccoon or coyote [can be] a pretty good foraging opportunity — things like bird baths, swimming pools or ponds, a bird feeder or a kitty dish outside the back porch, or garbage.”
I’d hope the other human survivors were cooperative, because community offers a tremendous resource for a forager. If you have three other people in your doomsday tribe, you could get four times as much as food in the same amount of time, and cover four times the territory.
Even wild animals that are notorious loners will band together in difficult circumstances. “It’s unusual for raptorial birds to work together, but in very arid hot food-scarce areas like the Sonoran desert, Harris hawks will hunt like a pack and share food,” Sanchez said.
My third strategy would be to think long-term. Nature is not like the grocery store, because food availability changes with each season. Spring offers greens and roots, early summer brings flowers, late summer brings berries, fall brings tree nuts and fruits, and winter is often barren. That’s why squirrels hoard acorns and pick mushrooms when they’re in season — it’s advantageous to store food year-round to avoid being subject to the whims of the calendar.
I speak from experience. When I lived off wild plants for a week in late May 2009, I got weak and lightheaded fast because I was using lots of energy but not getting enough calories from what I could find. It was a seasonal cusp — there were plenty of greens but nothing with any real caloric density. But when I did this again in November, I sailed through without any trouble because I had a whole pantry filled with the foods of the summer and fall. I had chestnut flour, dried sumac berries, dried stinging nettle, wild mushrooms and more.
Some primitive food preservation methods include drying, mashing berries into a paste and baking them, and roasting and crushing tree nuts into flour. This is another area where it’s extremely helpful to have a community to rely on. It can take days to transform a few gallons of acorns into flour even with a dozen people helping.
My first wild food week adventure also taught me the importance of learning the indigenous diet. No matter where you live, it’s likely to be very different from what you’re accustomed to. I had made the mistake of assuming that the only difference between my conventional diet and a wild one here in the Pacific Northwest would be the foods themselves — for instance, chickweed instead of lettuce and stinging nettles in place of spinach — but in fact the structure and proportions are totally different, and there’s a reason for that. Just like nonhuman animals, real-life hunter-gatherers have vastly different diets that depend entirely on what’s available. In some places, these may include foods you’ve never thought of, like the inner bark of trees and starchy roots from under-water plants. And in cold regions, the diets may be heavily meat-based; in hot climates, they may be made up mostly of plants and fish.
“The hominid diet has been enormously varied and I think almost entirely opportunistic; if we can metabolize it, we eat it,” said Cameron McPherson Smith, an archeologist at Portland State University.
I’ve focused on plant food, because if you get enough calories, it is entirely possible to be a wild vegetarian. Still, it might be interesting to know that scavenged animal carcasses are, from a hunter-gatherer perspective, an ideal way to get calories. Academic analysis of the diets of both modern and ancient hunter-gatherers shows that animal fat and bone marrow have historically been highly valued, while protein itself is less important. So if you have a choice between a muscular or chubby carcass, go for the tubby one.
It’s hard to prepare for a post-apocalyptic scenario, but from a foraging perspective, the most important thing you can do is learn as much as you can about wild food in advance. And remember to strategize: scout, map, eat the highest calorie portions of the plant foods you find, be resourceful like the animals, and store the good stuff. As the old saying goes, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.