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Survival of the Smartest: Berkeley Prof Stocks Up On Skill to Outlast Apocalypse

May 23, 2016
by Krissy Eliot

One might safely assume that Philip Stark is a genuine apocalypticist. Although he’s known for his urban foraging project—where he scours the “food deserts” of the Bay Area for edible plants such as dandelions, blackberries, oxalis and nasturtiums—his survivalist skills go much deeper.

From persistence hunting with his “tribe” to handcrafting his own shoes, he has acquired abilities that would make him an invaluable asset at the end of the world.

“I’m reasonably well prepared for the zombie apocalypse—or for a big earthquake,” Stark acknowledges. “But these hobbies are more about enjoying working with my hands and mind together, getting in touch with my inner naturalist and innate scientist to understand how things (including my body) work, and having things ‘just so’ in a way that money can’t buy.”

To enumerate a few of his Armageddon-prep skills (not even counting his day job as UC Berkeley’s associate dean of math and physical sciences):

For starters, the only thing worse than being a zombie is being a zombie with caffeine withdrawal—being undead makes you drowsy enough.

Fortunately, Stark roasts coffee. He got into it in 2004 when he realized that most coffee and espresso is over-roasted, a tradition he says was necessitated by the low quality of the beans available historically. Besides, he says, “really good espresso tastes like fresh-roasted coffee smells.” So he started buying green beans—coffee beans taken right from the fruit that have yet to turn brown from having been roasted. He also got a “fluid bed” roaster, which allows hot air to flow evenly inside it, as opposed to the more commonly-used drum roaster, which can sometimes transfer too much heat to a particular section of beans. This allowed him to perfect his own brew—but then the roaster bed broke. So he challenged himself to roast the beans on the stovetop by hand, and found a way to use a wire whisk to agitate the beans for 18 to 20 minutes while they roast; he then cooled them in wire colanders.

“This is a very crude method,” Stark says. “Most home roasters use more equipment, ranging from modified hot-air popcorn poppers to conductive roasters that cost over $1,000.”

Not only will Stark prove useful to have around when you need a pick-me-up in dystopia, but if you do get infected and become a sack of rotting human flesh, you’ll need some comfortable shoes to drag your feet in. And if you avoid the zombie fate, you’ll need some quality kicks to help you make a beeline outta there—which Stark also has covered.

When he was recovering from a spinal infection that left him bedridden, he knew that if was ever able to run again, he would need to do it gently with minimal shoes or even barefoot. “Less shoe means more feedback from the environment, less padding to hide bad form,” Stark says. He found the few brands of manufactured running sandals to be less than satisfactory, so he decided to make them himself by gluing leather to sheets of rubber re-soling material. He used a utility knife to cut the shape of his feet out of the leather and created holes for the laces with a hole punch and hammer, cutting out laces from whole hide.

“Hand-cut laces are especially satisfying,” he says.

Good shoes may be crucial if you want to ditch an undead horde, but you’ve also got to be able to run—and for long periods of time.

Stark got into endurance trail running in 2001, running his first marathon the next year. Then the following year, he ran his first 50K and 50 mile races, and soon fell in with a group of people who enjoy ultramarathons. He started entering 50k races merely to train for longer ones. “50 miles started to seem feasible,” Stark explains. “It’s a slippery slope: I ran my first 100-mile race in 2004.”

His level of training and preparation depends on the kind of 100k he’s running—he says there are “easy” and “hard” 100s, depending on weather, trail conditions and terrain, with a flat 100 mile run in nice weather being a cakewalk next to, say, a 100 mile run in mud, snow, and river crossings with a 30,000 foot climb.

“It’s an adventure, and a surrender of self/ego (despite the chutzpah it takes to get to the starting line),” Stark writes. “The inner voices get very loud calling for you to stop…and sometimes goading you to continue even when it would injure you. A 100-mile run reduces you to your core humanity: movement, digestion, exhaustion. You experience every human emotion, from elation to despair, in 24 hours.”

A comrade like Stark with an iron will is exactly what you might need in the end times, once the realization of humanity’s ultimate fragility sets in—especially if your stomach starts growling louder than that rotting corpse of a coworker you managed to trap inside the supply closet with that whole box of Clif Bars. You’ll need food, and you won’t want to be consigned to eating dandelions sprouting out of cracks in the roads of Richmond for the rest of your life.

Stark doesn’t either—which is what led him into persistence hunting. The object: to chase down an animal until it gets too hot or tired and falls over, and then to kill it with a non-projectile weapon such as a knife.

The professor likes that this kind of hunting puts him in touch with evolutionary history. “Humans are born persistence hunters. Our ability to run long distances and manage heat equips us well,” he notes. “There are good arguments that the origin of science is in tracking animals: you observe things closely, make hypotheses, compare them to data, etc.”

Stark is a member of a group—they prefer the term “tribe”—that has teamed up to hone their hunting skills in the wild. The first attempt was an antelope in the Red Desert in Wyoming (this was how Stark chose to celebrate his 50th birthday), and their second target was a mule deer in the eastern Sierras. They managed to chase the antelope for about six miles, but would probably have had to run 25 miles to succeed. Members of his tribe mostly run in sandals and are ultrarunners—and include the likes of “Barefoot” Ted McDonald (one of the protagonists of the book Born to Run); Bookis Smuin, a vegan ultrarunner; “Caveman” John Durant (author of The Paleo Manifesto); and Patrick Sweeny, who Stark says was the faster runner among them, and who recently ran across the continent at the rate of about a marathon per day to raise money for charity.

After foraging and killing to accumulate food for your apocalyptic experience, you would need to keep the food fresh for as long as possible—and pickle your prey. Once again, Stark would have you covered. He got into pickling 30 years ago when he realized that he could buy salmon for four dollars per pound, add dill, sugar, salt, and vodka, and make gravlax—something that would cost $25 a pound at the store. Not only that, but he had control over how sweet or salty the fish became.

Ten years later—finding it hard to discover worthy sauerkraut or salt pickles that weren’t rife with preservatives—he moved on to vegetables. And then five years ago he began making his own vinegar from leftover wine.  He pickles things a few times a year and has barrels of red and white vinegar going all the time.

So when it comes to hunting and coffee-making and pickling, Philip Stark would be an ideal end-of-the-Earth partner. There is, however, one caveat: When the horde is hungry for human flesh, he’ll outrun you.

Oh well—at at least you’ll die in comfortable shoes.

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