Self-Reliance, Taoism and the Warring States

Because the best protection isn’t a 30-room bunker; it’s having 30 people who care
about you.


This week’s focus is on self-reliance, a more complex topic than it may seem. Today’s essay was first posted here on Of Two Minds on June 27, 2008, and it has elicited quite a bit of commentary over the years. I’ve edited it slightly for today’s post.

I’m not trying to be difficult, but I can’t help cutting against the grain
on topics like surviving the coming bad times when my experience runs
counter to the standard received wisdom.

A common thread within most discussions of surviving bad times–especially really
bad times–runs more or less like this: stockpile a bunch of canned/dried food
and other valuable accoutrements of civilized life (generators, tools, canned
goods, firearms, etc.)
in a remote area far from urban centers, and then wait out the bad times, all the
while protecting your stash with an array of technology (night vision
binocs, etc.)

Now while I respect and admire the goal, I must respectfully disagree with just
about every assumption behind this strategy. Once again, this isn’t because I
enjoy being ornery but because everything
in this strategy runs counter to my own experience in rural 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 realize 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 recognize their vehicles and know about how often they come up, what they look
like, if they own a boat, how many in their family, and just about everything else
which can be learned by simple observation.

The second thing you have to consider is that after school and chores (remember
there are lots of kids who are too young to have a legal job, and many older teens with no jobs,
which are scarce), boys and girls have a lot of time on
their hands. We’re not taking piano lessons and all that urban busywork. And while
there are plenty of kids spending all afternoon or summer playing videogames, 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, then somebody will 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.

Your hideaway isn’t remote to us; this is our valley, mountain, desert, etc., all 20
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, then we’ll just climb over it) and any dirt road, no matter how rough,
is just 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.

What flatlanders think of as remote, we think of as home. 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 eventually find it anyway, 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 3-speed, his a Schwinn 10-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

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 10 or more miles
over rough ground in the heat and dust,
then 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. In summer, we took countless hikes
over the mountainous wilderness behind his family cabin.

All of which is to say that the locals will know where your hideaway is because
they have lots of time to poke around. 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 your road, then somebody will: a county or utility employee out doing
his/her job, a hunter, somebody. As I said, the only slim chance you have of being
undetected is if you hump every item in your stash on your pack through trailess, roadless
wilderness. But if you ever start a fire, or make much noise, then you’re sending
a beacon somebody will eventually notice.

The Taoists developed their philosophy during an extended era of turmoil
known as the Warring States period of Chinese history.
One of their 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.

So let’s line it all up. Isn’t a flatlander who piles up a high-value stash in
a remote area with no neighbors 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/bunker/RV etc.

Now if he doesn’t know any better, then the flatlander reckons his stash is safe.
But what he’s not realizing if that we know about his stash and his vehicle and
whatever else can be observed. If some locals want that stash, then they’ll wait
for the flatlander to leave and then they’ll tow the RV off or break into the cabin,
or if it’s small enough, disassemble it and haul it clean off. There’s plenty
of time, and nobody’s around. That’s pretty much the ideal setting for leisurely
thieving: a high-value stash of goodies in a remote area accessible by road is
just about perfect.

Let’s say the flatlander is burrowed into his
cabin. Eventually some locals will come up to visit, in a truck or
on foot. 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 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? 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.

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 and also provided a setting advantageous to the thief.

If someone were to ask this “hick” for a less risky survival strategy, I would suggest
moving 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 a local service club, 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 senior’s lawn
next door for free, and pony up a few dollars if the elderly gentleman in line ahead of
me at the grocery store finds himself a few dollars 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 neighbors 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 neighbors looking out for me, the thief is short
of the most important advantage he has, which is 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. And who uses human-powered hand tools now anyway?)

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

We might also ask: what’s actually valuable?
I’ve built entire houses with nothing but a wormdrive Skilsaw, tape measure, builder’s square, plumb bob, snapline, level, well-worm hammer and a Yankee screwdriver. Nothing but the Skilsaw has any value; who wants old tools? It’s the knowledge of how to use them productively that’s valuable, but that can’t be stolen. It’s safely stored in the Tao of practical experience acquired over years or decades.

I’d claim a spot in the community garden, or hire a neighbor to till up my back yard,
and I’d plant chard and beans and whatever else my neighbors 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 very 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/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

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. Learning how to
pickle 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 a 30-room bunker; it’s having 30 people who care
about you.
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 most conventional advice about self-reliance, 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.

Being productive, sharing and reciprocation: this is the essence of Self-Reliance, the topic of my book
Self-Reliance in the 21st Century


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