—The greater the need, the more difficult it usually is.
Fire can fulfill many needs.
The great fire of Rome spread from Circus Maximus, the site of spectacular chariot races, and burned for four days. The fire might have been started by Christians, confessing to the crime as they writhed, staked to crossbeams or trees, crucified in as public and excruciating a manner as possible. Or, perhaps it was Nero, longing for a palace built in his honor, longing for immortalization, to carry on forever as with, he might have thought, the Empire of Rome. Is it true that Nero, garbed in stage costume, sang the “Sack of Ilium,” strumming the lyre, watching as the city sizzled and burned?
It can provide warmth and comfort. Fire emits heat, the process of energy transfer between bodies. Bodies against bodies—our bodies—pressed against each other, creating warmth, comfort, the catharsis of cold flesh losing the chill. We talk of heat—metaphor, sensation—between us, fire. When you apply heat to a fuel, it produces a gas. This gas, combined with the oxygen in the air, burns. Fire can provide problems as well.
Birch bark for tinder, sawdust and straw. Ferns, moss, fungi. The skin-like membrane lining bamboo. Punk, the thoroughly rotted guts of dead trees. Cardboard for kindling, dried animal dung for fuel. Clear the brush and scrape the surface soil from the spot you have selected. Form a perimeter. Collect kindling and tinder along the trail. A spark starts a fire.
Pyromaniacs love the fire, the euphoria released by the flame.
Igniters provide the initial heat required to start the tinder burning.
Ovid on the Phoenix: “…but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself…When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak…collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh…pile on which it deposits itself.” We tell of the Phoenix dying in fire, reduced to ashes in flame, only to be reborn from the smoldering heap.
When a spark has caught in the tinder, blow on it. The spark will spread and burst into flames. Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) may occur, even without the spark, static electricity building and building between flesh and fiber, the tension and friction between the two burgeoning until the body ignites. Mary Reeser, of St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1951: all ash and bone, the spinal column and her partial left foot, still in a slipper, still intact, teeth scattered like dropped kernels of popcorn on the floor, her shrunken skull among the ash, the majority of her apartment unburned, perhaps a collection of porcelain angels strumming harps unharmed in a curio cabinet, a copy of the Metamorphoses open on the kitchen table. Physical anthropologist Wilton Krogman, examining the scene for the FBI, said: “Were I living in the Middle Ages, I’d mutter something about black magic.”
A shelter can protect you from the sun, insects, wind, rain, snow, hot or cold temperatures, and enemy observation.
In the aftermath of the great fire of Rome, Nero finally saw the opportunity for his palace to be built. The Domus Aurea (“Golden House”): cobbled together and constructed of brick and concrete, “the extensive gold leaf that gave the villa its name was not the only extravagant element of its decor: stuccoed ceilings were applied with semi-precious stones and ivory veneers, while the walls were frescoed, coordinating the decoration into different themes in each major group of rooms.” A towering bronze statue, constructed by Greek architect Zenodorus, honored Nero in the palatial atrium, causing Pliny the Elder to remark of the likeness to Sol, the sun god. In this way, a shelter can protect you (Nero) from erasure, from the slow reduction of your memory to dust and ash, from the cloud being swept away in the wind into the air and spread farther and farther apart, until there is nothing left. Suetonius of Nero: “When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being.”
It can give you a sense of well-being. It can help you maintain your will to survive.
Ovid, renowned poet of antiquity, found himself exiled, banished from his home, to the far reaches of the empire, to an end of the civilized world in Tomis on the Black Sea, where no one spoke one word of Latin, cast into the proverbial limbo for “carmen et error,” a poem and a mistake, a crime more vile than murder, Ovid said, more harmful than poetry. An exile by edict of Augustus, though no critic seems to really know why. One theory states that Ovid’s Ars Amatoria may have led to the banishment, its text on adultery perceived as subversive to the state. Or, maybe, it was Ovid’s knowledge of a conspiracy against Augustus, for which Julia the Younger’s husband was executed. In Tomis, Ovid wrote poems longing for a return to Rome, for respite from loneliness, a symptom of leaving home without prospect of return.
Prolonged exposure to cold can cause excessive fatigue and weakness (exhaustion). An exhausted person may exhibit a “passive” outlook, thereby losing the will to survive.
Before Sir Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953, thirteen people died attempting the feat, seven on the same day in 1922. Thomas Mallory and his expedition made three attempts at the summit, the third ascent against the advice of Dr. Tom Longstaff. All mountaineers were exhausted or ill, the trek ahead still so long, ice numbing limbs and fingers and toes, reason blurred by cold. Mallory, eyeing the vertical icy slopes, sucking air from bottled oxygen, elected to take the lesser slopes in four groups, each man tied to the members of his group, each man’s life literally tied to another’s. You cannot ignore your tactical situation or your safety. Avoid avalanche or rockslide areas in mountainous terrain. The groups ascended, Mallory’s in the lead, as snow loosed from the slopes, accumulating in waves or in one massive tide (how does an avalanche fall, what do men in its path see, the oncoming white wall coming for them?). Cold is an insidious enemy; as it numbs the mind and body, it subdues the will to survive. Mallory and two of his men, half buried, freed themselves and descended to find the others.
Mallory, digging, digging in the thirty meters of snow covering the group behind his, hoping gloved fingers might grasp anything solid, living, digging in the snow for some sign of life, a hand, reaching up, fingers extended as if reaching just a bit more might allow the fingers to graze the top of the mountain. Cold makes it very easy to forget…to survive. Mallory digging, a nightmarish archaeologist, hoping to unearth that reaching hand, those hopeful fingers.
Mallory, climbing again in 1924, the ghosts somewhere on the mountain, buried deep in the snow, was roped to Andrew Irvine, and the two fell from the mountain, the rope breaking and jerking Mallory’s waist, and Mallory continued to fall, his friend already dead higher on the mountain, in a glissade, a controlled slide with the aid of a pick axe, and in the slide, some believe, the axe ricocheted from a rock and struck him in the head, piercing his skull, and he died there, the photo of his wife, meant to be placed at the summit, lost somewhere at the top of the world. Mallory’s body, discovered by expediters in 1999, sun-bleached and hardened by ice, well-preserved, snow goggles in his pocket, no way for anyone to know whether he had reached Everest’s peak. I picture Mallory’s wife smiling with a gloved hand in front of her left cheek, hiding a blemish she hoped to keep from the truth of the flash.
When considering shelter site selection, use the word BLISS as a guide.
B – Blend in with the surroundings.
L – Low silhouette.
I – Irregular shape.
S – Small.
S – Secluded location.
After water, man’s most urgent requirement is food.
Even in those condemned to die, there is the desire for food. Food as a literal rite of passage. If the condemned man accepted freely-given food from his judges, it was believed in pre-modern Europe, he would be offering forgiveness, a social contract, to his accusers, never to return as a vengeful ghost. Adolf Eichmann supposedly consumed half a bottle of a dry Israeli red wine; two pints of mint chocolate-chip ice cream for Timothy McVeigh; Bruno Hauptmann, after the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son, ate celery, chicken, olives and cherries, French fries, peas, and cake. Joan of Arc received Holy Communion before burning at the stake.
Jesus, at the table surrounded by his apostles, breaking bread and passing wine. Judas eyeing him, nerves on edge, a deep longing in his heart, and trying to conceal a shaking hand, wiping away sweat, trying to will the beating organ to slow. Da Vinci gives us Judas in blue and green, fingers wrapped around a small bag (payment for his betrayal, a reward?), standing in shadow, distracted. He reaches for a piece of bread as Jesus reaches, too. Matthew 26:23: “Jesus replied, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.’” And, Judas, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, does betray his master, but does he give Jesus to the Romans out of greed for a monetary reward or is it out of instinct to persist that he, following this revelation, continues down a road that leads to Jesus’ eventual end? How desperate the black bear must be, leg caught in a bear trap, blood on steel, bone shattered and pressing through skin and fur. In contemplating virtually any hypothetical survival situation, the mind immediately turns to thoughts of food. Is it the bread, the life-giving food that betrays Judas as his right index finger brushes over stray crumbs, pressing into the spongy grains, already condemned because of an instinctual act of survival?
The smaller animal species are also easier to prepare.
The first obstacle is overcoming your natural aversion to a particular food source. Historically, people in starvation situations have resorted to eating everything imaginable for nourishment. The cannibal, Joseph Jordania writes, might have eaten the flesh of other humans in the early days of our species as a form of predator control. The ancient Greeks might have condemned Tantalus, who sliced up his son, Pelops, and served him (i.e., Titus Andronicus) to the gods, seeking approval and favor and receiving none. What does the witness display, but disgust, at the sight of returning members of the Donner party or the survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, knowing that they have consumed the flesh of others in order to survive? Can the survivor avoid shunning? Can he avoid the indignity brought on by a simple act of self-preservation?
Insects under rotting logs and beneath stone. Larvae as well. Avoid wasps and bees and caterpillars and spiders. Cook anything with a hard outer armor, wary of parasites. Lobsters and crayfish, mollusks and crabs. Light often attracts fish at night. Search for fish before a storm, but not after. Find fish near groups of rocks or in dark pools. Frogs seldom move from the safety of the water’s edge. Eat frogs, but not toads. Reptiles for protein, birds for taste.
Several well-placed traps have the potential to catch much more game than a man with a rifle is likely to shoot.
Above the Domus Aurea’s dining rooms, Nero’s guests could look upward at the painted ceiling beneath the dome, slaves unseen as they operate a rotating ceiling, an illusion for the diners of the heavens spinning overhead. Perfume and rose petals would fall from the sky. There are stories claiming that once, the downpour of rose petals, immense and thick, a blanket of red, rained down on the diners, one of them gazing skyward, mouth agape, petal after petal falling in, and distracted by the spectacle until he asphyxiated on the flowers.
Water is one of the most urgent needs in a survival situation.
In Tartarus, the place of torments and punishments beneath the underworld, Tantalus is forever cursed with standing in a pool beneath a fruit tree. He reaches for the fruit, hungry, and the branch lifts up and up, just out of reach. He bends for a drink of water, the one thing that might refresh him, cupping his hands, lowering so very close to the pool until all of the liquid recedes into the earth.
Almost any environment has water to some degree.
Melt and purify snow and ice. Use desalters for seawater, catch rainwater in a tarp. Suck on the pulp from the sliced-off top of a cylindrical cactus, spit the pulp onto the desert sand. All trails (in the desert) lead to water. At dawn, look to the sky for cactus wrens or Gila woodpeckers or Nubian bustards or pale crag martins or search for ostriches on the ground. Listen for chirping and the singing of birdsong. Follow the birds. They will take you to water.
If you do not have a reliable source to replenish your water supply, stay alert for ways in which your environment can help you.
Nero, Suetonius tells us, deserted by his soldiers and followers at the end of his reign, runs out from the palace, towards the Tiber River, hoping, perhaps, that its water will envelop him and end his life, a life now devoid of meaning without anyone around to remember him. What does he imagine, standing on the Tiber’s often-overflowing banks, his undulating reflection in the water? Does he remove a shoe and dip a foot in, as if to test the river’s (his) will?
Ovid on the Great Flood:
Already had he toss’d the flaming brand,
and roll’d the thunder in his spacious hand,
preparing to discharge on seas and land,
but stopp’d, for fear, thus violently driv’n,
the sparks should catch his axle-tree of Heav’n.
Remembring in the fates, a time when fire
should to the battlements of Heaven aspire,
and all his blazing worlds above should burn,
and all th’ inferior globe to cinders turn.
His dire artill’ry thus dismiss’d, he bent
his thoughts to some securer punishment:
concludes to pour a wat’ry deluge down
and what he durst not burn, resolves to drown.
Save what water you can and carry it with you. You never know when you’ll need a drink, when the exertion will build and build until it is all just too much.
In the End
“What an artist dies in me!” Nero cries, having forced Epaphroditos to kill him, finding no will to live upon finding that the Senate, ruling him a public enemy, intended to beat him to death. It’s in the act of surviving, of trying only to draw breath, that stories are created. The act of survival leading, intentionally, to everlasting life? Does the artist (Nero, Ovid, the orb-weaver spider spinning its fantastic spiral-wheeled web) do anything but attempt to live on and on and on?
Dante’s Judas, forever tormented by his betrayal, forever being consumed in Satan’s jaws.
Having survival skills is important; having the will to survive is essential.
It is, perhaps, out of love (of self?) that Nero burns Rome in hopes of living on through his palace, his likeness immortalized in the Colossus standing in the atrium of his Domus Aurea? What, then, survives of Nero when his likeness is erased from the Colossus and the statue is revised to appear as the sun god, Sol? What survives but stories?
Erect shelters to shield yourself from the cold or the heaviest rain. Find, hunt, gather food and water wherever you find them. Avoid predators, use camouflage, seek the warmth of others. There are still places on this earth no human foot has pressed into the dirt or snow or sand. Find them. Light fires, when needed, to cook or for warmth. Drink, drink, until you’ve had your fill.
All italicized portions of this essay are directly quoted from the US Army Survival Manual.