GOOD BOOKS ARE THE WHETSTONES THAT KEEP YOUR MIND SHARP
Writers in every publication, including myself, spend a great deal of time covering gear and skills, and rightfully so, but what many of us fail to cover is the importance of keeping a sharp and active mind.
Perhaps the greatest tool that we have is our mind, our ability to think. Our ability to analyze and work through problems is what has kept us all alive since the first time we were on our own.
Just as you go to the firing range to hone your shooting skills and to the gym to keep your body in shape, you need to do something to keep your mind active. For me that means reading.
WHAT TO READ
What someone reads is entirely up to the individual. Some people like fiction. Some, like me, like to read about true-life situations. In my office are bookcases full of books that cover all aspects of many different subjects. There are books on history, geography and animals. There are also medical books and manual-style books. Why, you may ask? Simply because they are my reference materials. I draw upon these books for my line of work and the way I live my life. I don’t know everything so when I have a question, I turn to these reference materials.
“KEVIN [ESTELA] NOT ONLY SHOWS YOU THE SKILLS THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW, BUT HE ALSO ENCOURAGES YOU TO GO OUT AND DO THEM. HE CHALLENGES YOU TO PUSH YOURSELF, AND HE DOES SO IN A STYLE THAT NOT ONLY DRAWS THE READER IN BUT HOLDS THEM THERE.
Like all of the articles being written by some really great writers, these books are pretty cut and dried, and unless you actually go out and do the task written about, it is very hard for many people to connect the dots without using their hands.
For example, you can read about how to sharpen a knife or start a fire, but unless you actually do it yourself, or at the very least, watch someone else do it, then it is hard to fully grasp the process. I admit I’m like that. It is not enough for me to read about something. I don’t fully learn it unless I do it.
Another way to help put all of the pieces together is to read books that share real-life experiences. Believe it or not, you do actually learn something from reading these books. That skill you have read about in a manual comes to life after you read about someone who actually put that knowledge to use.
My interests are all over the place, but I do have a real soft place for stories about the Arctic, or at the very least, stories that happen in colder climates.
Perhaps that is because I live in a cold region of the country, and the lessons these stories tell can be directly applied to my daily life. Who knows? Just the fact that the person writing the book, in most cases, lived to tell the tale says a great deal about mastering these skills.
What follows are seven books — two references and five true stories — that I consider important additions to my personal library.
Foraging Wild Edible Plants of North America
Written by Christopher Nyerges, this book is one of the references that I turn to when I have questions regarding any plant that I may eat. As I live a great deal by what I harvest from the wild (hunt, fish, forage), it is very important that I don’t eat, or feed my family, something that could possible harm us.
I have known Christopher for many years and consider him one of the top authorities regarding this subject. More than once I have conferred with him on articles I have written for ASG, and his written work often stands alone on these pages as well.
This book is available from Falcon Guides and it can be ordered from the SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com. Cost is $22.95.
101 Skills You Need to Survive in the Woods
There are almost as many survival skills books as there are writers. For the most part these books are very good, but, to be honest, many are more like military-style manuals than they are books that you really want to read.
Kevin Estela’s book “101 Skills You Need to Survive in the Woods” is an exception. Kevin not only shows you the skills that you need to know, but he also encourages you to go out and do them. He challenges you to push yourself, and he does so in a style that not only draws the reader in but holds them there. This book is difficult to put down.
Unlike some other reference materials that just cover skills, this book emphasizes the point that gear is not the end-all of your preparations. True survival wisdom requires that you know how to use that gear and, more important, you have the mental fortitude to do what has to be done. Time and time again, Kevin covers this topic. Page Street Publishing,
Squatter in Los Angeles: Living on the Edge
This online book is another one written by Christopher Nyerges and actually was the first of his books that I read. It still has a place on my list because it is just that good. Unlike most of his other books, this piece of work teaches the reader through real-life experience. Christopher lived as a squatter in Los Angeles for a year and a half and this is his story.
“PERHAPS THE GREATEST TOOL THAT WE HAVE IS OUR MIND, OUR ABILITY TO THINK. OUR ABILITY TO ANALYZE AND WORK THROUGH PROBLEMS IS WHAT HAS KEPT US ALL ALIVE SINCE THE FIRST TIME WE WERE ON OUR OWN.”
It is a narrative about living by your convictions and wits. It is about living by what the world will provide and making do with what you have. What this story doesn’t do is encourage anyone to do what he did.
Nyerges uses his real-life experience as a metaphor for the issues that we all face and how we can learn to overcome problems with some thought. He made mistakes and so will we, but it is by learning from those mistakes that we grow.
This book is available for the Amazon Kindle for $2.99 or in printed form, which can be ordered as a Microsoft Word document for $2 from the author at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.
If you have kids and love the wilderness, then this book is for you. In this book James Campbell tells of multiple adventures in the Alaskan wilderness with his then-teenage daughter. As the father of a daughter and the grandfather of two granddaughters, I could relate to the trials and tribulations revealed in the book, learning when to protect and, more important, when to let go.
Woven within the story are lessons about facing real-life fears, problem-solving and cherishing life as it happens here and now.
No time to worry about the “what-ifs.” Above all, this book emphasizes the importance of family and friends, even more than the gear we carry. Published by Broadway Books. BroadwayBooks.net $27
The Stranger in the Woods
In this book Michael Finkel tells the story of Christopher Knight, a young man who in 1986 decided he had had enough of the world, drove his car into the woods of rural Maine and then simply disappeared. For 27 years Knight stayed hidden, never speaking to another person and living from what he could forage and, yes, steal from abandoned cabins, though he took only those items he could use, never money or valuables.
“WHAT SOMEONE READS IS ENTIRELY UP TO THE INDIVIDUAL. SOME PEOPLE LIKE FICTION. SOME, LIKE ME, LIKE TO READ ABOUT TRUELIFE SITUATIONS. IN MY OFFICE ARE BOOKCASES FULL OF BOOKS THAT COVER ALL ASPECTS OF MANY DIFFERENT SUBJECTS.”
Knight was able to not only survive the harsh conditions, but thrive. He developed unique ways to live through the intense winters, store food and live with what he had to work with. Finkel is not a survival writer, but he is an investigative journalist, and he was able to weave this story into a book worth reading. Vintage Books, VintageBooks.com $16
In the Land of White Death
Originally published in Russia in 1917, this book is the story of Valerian Albanov, who was one of the two survivors of the Russian exploration ship Saint Anna, which got trapped in Arctic ice in 1912. The ship carried a crew of 23. For a year and a half, the two survivors traversed 235 miles of Arctic ice and barren ground to eventually find help.
Many times it was the simple will to live that kept the men alive. This gripping story, which is Albanov’s account of what happened, is full of valuable lessons we should all know. PenguinRandomHouse.com $17
81 Days Below Zero
This book also takes the reader to the Arctic region of Alaska. It takes place during WWII, a time when we were providing arms, including aircraft, to the Soviets during their fight against the Germans. This story is about a B-24 bomber and its five-man crew going down in the Alaskan wilderness. Out of the five, only one man survived. Against all odds this lone aviator, with no real survival skills or gear, made it out alive.
The lessons here are obvious, even to those totally engrossed in the story. Brian Murphy, the author, acknowledges that he is not a survivalist and perhaps this is why the story is so good. It is based on fact, as opposed to being opinion-based. DaCapoPress.com $9.99
There are plenty of books in print that will keep your brain active and help you on your way to being self-reliant. Some of these books are great instructional and research resources, while others teach you practical lessons while entertaining you, allowing you to relax.
Survival is a very serious topic and we should always be on our toes, but there are times when we need to take a break. Reading is a way to do both.
Here are a few more books that I have found helpful and fall into my areas of interest.
“A YEAR IN THE MAINE WOODS,” by Bernd Heinrich
This book takes place in my neck of the woods and has a direct link to my lifestyle. While not a prepper book, it does contain valuable information.
DaCapoPress.com $18.99 paperback
“ARCTIC DREAMS,” by Barry Lopez
Written in the late 1980s, this book is by far the go-to book for anyone interested in the Arctic.
PenguinRandomHouse.com $16.95 paperback
“A HISTORY OF THE ARCTIC,” by John McCannon
This book is a must-read for anyone looking to tackle Alaska or any other place in the Arctic. It covers the history, geography and landscape of the area; something that is valuable information and essential if this is where you want to visit.
Amazon.com $40 hardcover
WHERE TO FIND THESE BOOKS
All of the books I have mentioned, and many that I have not, are available from a variety of sources. The internet is full of them, and we have included links where you can purchase them, but I prefer to actually put in the time and legwork to search for books. A good place to start is your local library. It costs nothing, and libraries are a great place to visit in general. If I find a book that I want to have on my shelves, I start by searching yard sales. If that fails, then I look in local bookstores.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.