Robert Frost wrote, “some say the world will end by fire / some say in ice,” but if he had hung around for a few more years, he might have felt moved to add a stanza or two about the possibilities of superbugs, nuclear annihilation, a robot uprising at Y2K, a racist misreading of the Mayan calendar, and the unlikely but ever-popular zombie apocalypse. Genre conventions dictate that the discerning survivor might hold out for a back-to-the-land-style complete collapse of technological infrastructure, but it’s not just disaster-sophisticates who are always just a few catastrophic weather events away from a formalized nomadic existence enforced by the need to flee hurricanes, heat waves, extreme blizzards, and flooding. But no matter which flavor of destruction is your drug of choice, I think we can all agree on one thing: in the event of a survivable cataclysm, communication is important.
Luckily for you, I’m-Afraid-To-Watch-The-News Weekly has you covered with five practical and stylish ideas for keeping track of your nearest and dearest when the end is even nearer than they are.
An elegant call-back to a bygone age? Maybe. Unnecessarily complicated and functionally useless? Shut up, Chad. But one thing it’s hard to argue with is the fact that communication via semaphore requires relatively little equipment and no electricity, and in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, being able to do more with less is probably going to be even more important than it is when you’re working at a tech startup.
Unfortunately, if you’ve ever tried to get your friends to fill out their Oscar ballots or The Bachelorette March Madness brackets before the viewing party starts, you may have already found the flaw in this plan. Even if everyone has said that they really really do want to play, it’s hard to corral a group of friends into doing their homework for a recreational activity if they don’t have to, and this is doubly true in the case of preparation for a cataclysm which may happen at any time, or, theoretically, may never happen at all. Ideally, the goal here is to cultivate friendships with people whose homes can form a geographical chain wherein one friend will be able to see a friend signaling from the south, then turn around and send the signal along to the next friend in the chain, to the north in a game of telephone comprised of fluttering fabrics. However, if not everyone is willing to buy into the elegant simplicity of this solution, you may wind up signaling uselessly to the empty air, since neither of your neighbors near enough to see has bothered to learn your new, signaled alphabet.
On the one hand, this likely scenario makes the entire endeavor completely useless. On the other, this method offers the rare chance to live out a scene from the 1985 CBC miniseries Anne of Green Gables, and isn’t that worth just about any risk?
Notes Left in the Crook of a Previously-Agreed-Upon Tree
This one isn’t just practical, it’s eco-friendly, and it doesn’t require any of your loved ones to learn a new alphabet in order to communicate. If your sister points out the inherent irony of an eco-friendly methodology that uses paper made of pulped-up trees to pass its messages, you can remind her that humanity has already produced more paper than any scrappy band of ragtag resistance fighters trying to survive in a world stripped of every convenience they’ve ever known can use. If the next generation runs out of paper, they can come up with their own sustainable vehicle for the messages slipped between gnarled branches.
If Chad agrees with your sister about the impracticality of this suggestion, tell him if he likes Liz so much, why doesn’t he marry her? If he actually does it, pretend that you meant the question sincerely all along and thank your own foresight that you’re communicating in writing, so they’ll have a harder time figuring out the fact that you’re almost certainly sulking a little based on your tone. Other pros of this method include getting you out amongst the trees, which produce oxygen, which is generally agreed to be good for you. Cons: now the trees know your secrets, even if you’ve successfully concealed them from the people you ostensibly feel the most emotional closeness to.
When the trees don’t work out as a long-term solution for communication, give Chad and your sister a pair of soon-to-be-messenger-rats for a wedding gift.
Depending on who your friends are, training rats to carry messages may be only marginally more successful than the semaphore flags. On the one hand, rats are cuter than most pieces of fabric, but on the other, training animals to carry out complex tasks is arguably significantly more difficult than memorizing a list of signals. You’re aware of this, so you obviously aren’t picking rats next for the ease they’ll bring to your communicative endeavors, but if apocalypse survival comes with points for style, you’re golden.
Sure, rats get a bad rep as carriers of the plague and villains in Disney movies, but if civilization as we know it has truly crumbled, surely Disney’s supremacy must crumble with it. Centuries of animal testing in psychological experiments meant to clarify the theory of the mind prove that rats can be conditioned and trained, and once they’ve been trained, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to use that training to carry messages like this century’s ground-running carrier pigeon.
Furthermore, in the event that you do need a plague carried, you’ll already have your friendly neighborhood plague-carriers on-hand. And as a bonus, this strategy is equally effective in the event of a zombie apocalypse or an anachronistic enforced stay in a historic French prison. Chad and Liz will thank you when their honeymoon time-travel adventure becomes post-emptively immortalized by Alexander Dumas.
NB: when rats are unavailable, mice, crows, and seagulls may also be substituted, but be prepared for crows to try to exact a price more dire than what they initially agreed upon — draw up a contract, get it notarized.
Yeah, so it’s your sister’s suggestion, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea, does it? Plus, you still feel kind of guilty about how Chad’s finger had to be amputated after that rat bite got infected. Who knew how hard antibiotics would be to come by in your post-apocalyptic half-abandoned landscape? You couldn’t have known, and it’s certainly not your fault, but maybe it is Liz’s turn to suggest a way of staying in touch. Communication is about reciprocity, after all.
Cons of ham radio are obvious; the need for batteries, radio towers, and, most importantly, working radios. Liz may have taken electrical engineering in college, but she’s the only person you know who did, and the fact that she’s broadcasting repair tutorials is only useful to those who are already connected. The pros are undeniable, though, because the radios are reliable in a way that nothing has been since your late, great, and long-lamented smart phone. You can remember, in a vague way, the nervous, edgy way you used to feel when you had to answer the phone, but now, in your bunker, safely far enough away from any settlement to avoid having to pay a tithe to any of the warrior bands who clash for supremacy over more densely populated areas, you remember the ease with which those phone calls kept you connected with the people your life used to be bursting with, and you feel an ache of regret.
There is a certain sweetness to your survival, these days. You intersperse foods from your stockpile of canned goods from before the cataclysm with vegetables you’ve grown and small game you’ve caught in string traps and wincingly and regretfully learned to skin and clean before roasting over your small fire. More than that, you’re starting to think of a future when your stockpile runs out, and when you’ll need to rely on yourself entirely not with panic, but pragmatically, as something you can handle. Liz and Chad’s voices crackling through the radio waves are a gift from a time that you’re starting to realize won’t return in your lifetime, but a gift nonetheless.
Yelling Real Loud
Hermione Granger as portrayed by Emma Watson in the Harry Potter movies said it best — there are more important things than books and cleverness — for example, directness. One of the problem with communication through intermediaries is that there is always the opportunity for distortion of your true meaning; true clarity is dependent on context, and a message as deprived of context as Liz’s shout through the ham radio channel in what could have been either fear or excitement, followed by a crash and a cutting off of the signal would have scared anyone — you have no reason to be embarrassed that it sent you pelting off into the night, covering several miles of uneven ground in a darkness as complete as it has been since the collapse of your society’s electrical grid cut off most of your amenities, your way illuminated only by stars and by fear.
It was dawn by the time you made it to Chad and Liz’s settlement, and by then, they were frantic, too. Once they had gotten their radio working again, they’d started trying to contact you, to reassure you, but they hadn’t been able to get through all night, with you on the run. You’d been as relieved as they were, when you burst into the clearing near their little plot of land to see them both alive and well, and once you’d both had the chance to explain what happened, they’d told you their news. Congratulations on your impending aunthood!
So you’re happy for them, and you’re happy for yourself, honestly, but if this episode of mutual panic has taught you anything, you think it’s that technology is not all it’s cracked up to be. In a world ravaged by natural and man-made disasters, the division of nuclear family units into distinct family homes just isn’t practical. You need to live close enough to the important people in your life that you can stay in touch just by Yelling Real Loud.
Yelling Real Loud is a refined technique, ideal for the communication connoisseur. Luckily for you, as you’ve worked your way through this list of options, you’ve become exactly that specialist, that truly effective of a communicator. You may have started out with semaphore flags, but you’ve learned about the importance of meeting your correspondents where they are, and learned to accept that the kind of coordination needed to make a semaphore system really viable just isn’t in the cards. You’ve learned about controlling your tone and also identifying poison oak, both the hard way, back when you thought picking out trustworthy shared trees was the solution to your problem. You’ve learned to value the company of both people and rats while training your one-time rat accomplices, and you’ve reached the point in your ability to compromise when you were able to accept and thrive with Liz’s suggestion of Ham radio. You did it, kid. You’ve graduated to The Next Big Thing, and that means it’s time to stay close enough that, when you want to say hello, all you have to do is yell. Really loudly.
Chad will still never fill out his March Madness bracket before the very last moment, but that’s okay. These days, nobody you know has anywhere near the technological acumen needed to televise games, and also, basketballs don’t grow on trees, which means that lately, March Madness is what you’ve been calling betting on fights when really aggressive birds wrestle each other over bread crusts, which doesn’t lend itself as well to bracketing, anyway.
Sidney Dritz is (currently, constantly) reevaluating what to do with the rest of her life. Recent fiction publications include Gone Lawn and From The Farther Trees, and she writes about movies and television monthly at @dailydrunkmag. Follow her work as it develops on Twitter at @sidneydritz.