With spring finally here, its time for many of us to head into the wilds on hiking, camping and fishing trips. But what will you do if you're stranded on a forest trail? Where will you eat when there's no refreshment stand? How do you preserve your sanity in a land with no TV? Here are some survival tips from the world's most famous castaway tale, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which was published on this day 295 years ago.
1. Make an Inventory
G. K. Chesterton hit the nail on the head when he wrote of Robinson Crusoe, “The best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea.”
Gathering up whatever you can and thinking about how to preserve it is essential when you're facing a survival crisis. Crusoe takes pains to furnish himself “with many things I foresaw would be very necessary to me.” Maintaining an inventory can mean some tough choices, though; in his journal, Crusoe writes, “Having perceived my bread had been low a great while, now I took survey of it, and reduced myself to one biscuit-cake a day, which made my heart very heavy.” We've all been there, though likely in college rather than on a desert island.
2. Keep Calm
Defoe’s novel deals at length with Crusoe's anxieties — appropriate considering how crucial it is to remain calm and consider your actions in a survival situation. Unfortunately, our hero often demonstrates the importance of the rule in exception rather than observance. He relates how he “first vomited with the great quantity of salt water which was gotten into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore, wringing my hands, and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery … till tired and faint I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.” So yeah, try not to throw up and freak out like you’re on a bad mushroom trip.
3. Think Ahead
Some of Crusoe's worst frustrations are self-inflicted. At one point, he constructs a heavy canoe only to find that “never being able to bring it to the water, or bring the water to it, I was obliged to let it lie where it was, as a memorandum to teach me to be wiser next time.” He also rears kittens, leading his island to be overrun with scavenging cats.
Thinking ahead also means preparing for tough situations. Crusoe apparently has a very specific method for this: “I … found some rum in the great cabin, of which I took a large dram, and which I had, indeed, need enough of to spirit me for what was before me.” Ah, alcohol: the cause of and solution to all life’s problems.
4. Study Your Surroundings and Adapt
If nothing else, Crusoe is persistent in his building projects. He resolves to build a “little hut in an open place, which I might surround with a wall … and so make myself secure from wild beasts or men ….” He makes several settlements after his first home is almost wrecked in an earthquake, but later on finds his hurry to settle down was a mistake: After sailing a bit to the north, he is “... surprised to see that I had taken up my lot on the worst side of the island ….” Later still he has to turn his primary home into a kind of fort when he realises that there are dangerous cannibals nearby. Now you know: The primary laws of real estate — location, location, location — persist even in the wild.
5. Cultivate What You Can
Crusoe actually has a pretty easy run of things. Other than salvaging vast amounts of ships’ stores, he finds himself on one of the more plentiful islands in fiction. According to his account, there are grapes and goats in abundance, despite neither of these being native to the Trinidad waters he’s wrecked in. Over 28 years, Crusoe tames his surroundings, cultivating corn and building up a veritable army of goats to furnish him with clothes and meat. Not too shabby.
6. Stay Sane
Crusoe accepts his his fate early and creates diversions for himself. He reads the bible, keeps a journal of important events, marks the days on a tree trunk, tames a parrot and crafts things. He says, “No joy at a thing of so mean a nature was ever equal to mine, when I found I had made an earthen pot ….” Above everything else, Crusoe spends his time in constructive activity — even if that is pottery classes.
Perhaps the real appeal of Robinson Crusoe is that its lessons go beyond the simple act of survival. To use Chesterton's words again: “It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck.”
Happy adventuring, and happy birthday, Robinson Crusoe.
George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.
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