A New Take on Situational Awareness

We hear a lot about situational awareness these days. You know the notion that we should all take our eyes off our phones (or other electronic teats), our heads out of our asses, and pay attention to what is going on around us and, more importantly to whom is in the vicinity. And it is an important concept. But if the S has already H’d your proverbial F, as in my personal case and thousands of others like me, then situational awareness, “SA,” has an added dimension of meaning to it, or should.

While this article is about situational awareness, it’s about SA after SHTF in your personal life. If I have only one message to bring to readers of this particular article it’s that, while I agree that things look particularly grim for us in the world at this point, many people confront personal SHTF situations and engage in survival conditions every single day—all over the world including the United States—and none of us are so very different than any of the rest of us. I should know; I’m one of them.

The earth doesn’t tremble when our “normal” lives fall away and CNN doesn’t take a second glance but all of us who experience it feel the trembling of our world and wonder why the microphones don’t appear. After all, most of us are only one or two paychecks away from homelessness and I am one of those unlucky enough (or lucky enough, depending on your point of view) to have confronted such bleak circumstances not once but twice now in the last 5 years.

I’m in my mid-50’s, and female. I am neither supremely healthy nor desperately unhealthy though I do suffer from some aging related issues none of which prevent me from doing the work of survival. I have an extra 30 pounds or so that I would be much healthier if I could lose but I don’t do routine “exercise” every day. What I do engage in every day is surviving but you won’t find me, or more importantly catch me, rooting in garbage cans, trespassing on other’s property or walking the roadways picking up cast off aluminum cans.

The how’s and why’s of my having gotten to this situation both times I’ve been here are really not very important but the nature and matter of the survival of my little family could be very important if something I say helps anyone reading this to prepare even a little bit for such an eventuality. Because, the truth is, people are far more likely to confront personal catastrophes than they are to confront nation- or world-changing events. Knowing how to adapt SA at the personal level for such eventualities can be the difference between life and death.

I have two fortunate circumstances, that help me survive and I urge any reader of this article to reproduce these as closely and as quickly as possible. First, I own my small (about 1300 sq. ft.) house and the surrounding 25 acres free and clear. Second, this little piece of heaven sits in the middle of nowhere, two miles from the smallest state road in America that goes neither to nor from anyplace important. It is smack dab in the middle of one of the most ignored parts of this country—the far southeastern area, Alabama, in fact.

I live about 26 miles from anywhere in the north central part of the state. There are no chemical plants, nuclear power plants, no major industry, no railroad tracks or major thoroughfares within 30 miles of my home. It is a quiet and frankly very insular community and even though I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years now and am passing friendly with the neighbors, I am still not “one of them.” You have to be born here for that. But I know the rules of the community and I (mostly) abide by them. While I’m not saying you need to move to Nowhere, AL, I am saying that rural living in a home without mortgage or rent on some acreage is very important.

I am not without marketable skills. I am a registered nurse who hasn’t practiced in several years and hence potential employers tend to treat me like a bit of a dinosaur which means they don’t hire me though my record and experience are spotless. I also have undergraduate degrees in English and Creative Writing and did my Master’s level study in Communication. Unfortunately, none of these skills is incredibly marketable in such a rural area. Currently, I am surviving on about $100/week in unemployment compensation and the survival skills that I’ve picked up over time by reading articles at sites just like this. There are no survival groups that I know of nearby and no “survival sensei” took me under his/her wing to teach me what I’ve learned.

None of this information about me is important except that I want it to paint the picture of me as a normal person. I’m not lazy, stupid, lacking in morals nor refuse to accept responsibility. I just happened to have encountered a very bad set of circumstances and now I find myself in a survival situation.

Now, it could be argued that I am not truly in a survival situation because of the miniscule amount of unemployment income I get weekly. I can only invite those who might believe it’s not SHTF to give it a try for a month or so and then get back to me. No, what’s really the most important is that it allows me a unique perspective on something all preppers make ready for—that day when life as we’ve known it ends and whether we live or die depends entirely on our skills at survival.

So if, like me, you already know that SHTF is more often the collapse of one person’s or one family’s life though illness or hardship or perhaps the end of normalcy due to regional disasters, listen up—there is much to be learned about survival even while you’re engaged in it and it’s time to get cracking!

Even if you do not have a single extra can of tuna lying around the house you still have resources and the biggest one of those is lying between your ears. Situational awareness is much, much more than just what other people are doing or how other people are behaving around you. Being situationally aware means looking around for potential opportunities to improve your personal circumstances.

Here’s a couple embarrassing examples of how not to do it from my first go around with survival a few years ago. I spent a couple months without power, water or any other utility during August and September, two of the hottest months in Alabama. I lost 50 pounds and my adult son, who lives with me and helps with the farm, lost 80. We were not happy nor comfortable. Every day when I dragged myself, weak and exhausted from lack of food, out to sit on the front porch steps to catch the ever elusive late summer breeze the view I had was of my pond, sitting in the middle of my horse pasture, framed by two beautiful Bradford pear trees.

Now, that pond was and is full of both largemouth bass and bream, also known as perch. And for the life of me I don’t know why it never occurred to me that we could fish out of that pond to eat. Somehow, it also escaped my knowledge that Bradford pear trees, while primarily ornamental, do produce an edible fruit that while late ripening and having a tough exterior is also perfectly edible.

Yes, I felt like an idiot once I realized those facts and still do to some degree but the most important thing is that I learned to SEE things instead of just looking at them. It is this kind of situational awareness that I am talking about. Seeing while using that wonderful noggin of yours to brainstorm solutions to survival issues.

Also, in those bad times, the only potable water we had was the questionable generosity of the nearest neighbor—a quarter mile away—who allowed us to fill cleaned out 2 liter soda bottles from his exterior water hose! Now, I’m not dissing this man—he saved our lives literally, but I really don’t want to think about the bacteria and god knows what else we ingested by drinking water that traveled through a pipe that had laid in the dirt all day. What didn’t I know? About half a mile more down the road is an artesian well from which flows fresh, clear, clean water 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This same neighbor brought us irregular food from a local “dollar” store. So, instead of fish and fresh fruit, we got sardines, processed Vienna sausages, and crackers plus the occasional jar of peanut butter. Hence the weight loss. At least the pets could eat the processed meat and somehow we subsisted on peanut butter and crackers. In most rural areas in this part of the country no community food pantries exist to help the less fortunate and I had no money to buy gas to get 25 miles down the road and into town. No, there’s no mass transit, church bus, or regular transportation to offer such help.

What I’m trying to say is that, no matter how bad the situation in which you find yourself, learning to SEE what’s in front of you and, more importantly, how to use it to your best advantage can be as important as stockpiling a year’s worth of food and water. Where are the places where you might be able to score some fresh food? Is there a pond, lake or river nearby where you might drop in a line? No whining allowed about lack of poles. Native Americans caught fish by building baskets made from twigs! Are there artesian wells or other naturally occurring bodies of fresh water such as springs that you can access? Do you have access to other naturally growing food sources that might be on public land and thus available for harvesting?

After my first brush with SHTF, I vowed to become more aware of my surroundings and to educate myself on forgeable foods. In the process, I learned about the plants in my area that can also be used medicinally when you’re in a pinch and have no money or ready access to a doctor. We also cleared an area and created a garden space where we grow several kinds of vegetables. We didn’t go crazy and make some kind of uber-garden.

We repaired the tiller we had through trade with a neighbor (tiller repair in exchange for fresh blueberries that actually taste like blueberries because they have not been doused in artificial anything) and made a space for tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini, peppers, beans and such. Funny that gardening was one of the lessons I learned growing up that I hated! Funnier still how glad I am to have learned it. Being situationally aware is also an awareness of what you can do for yourself to help yourself and to improve your situation.

I realize I’m fortunate. I do have the acres. I do have access to food that allows us to survive. I’ve also become a much savvier shopper. I know which farmers tend to leave corn in their fields once the harvest is in and who among them don’t mind if I take a few ears. What they choose to waste, I do not. I know where the wild fruits grow, and when to harvest dandelion greens but I still am unclear on which mushrooms are OK so I keep clear of them. Situational awareness is also about knowing what you don’t know. So, while I’m not spending my time in the gym, I am usually hiking some place or the other, either investigating what I can find in my surroundings or harvesting edibles from the forest and from what others waste. I’m not on the treadmill, I’m actually walking! Not to mention all that work in the garden.

No matter who you are, no matter how well prepared you are, tragedy and unexpected misfortune can befall you. The trick is to pay less attention to what you DON’T have than you pay to what you DO have. The survivor’s focus should always remain on the solution rather than the problem. Survival is a constantly creative endeavor. Our primary strength as humans is our adaptability. It is not always the person who has put aside the most extensive cache of supplies who survives but the person who is adaptable and willing to pay attention to how survival can be accomplished.

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    Great article. You should write a book about your survival.

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