No. 43 / Shelf Life
Crackers, Granite Mountain, and Future Memories
When I was growing up, we, like most Utah Mormon families, kept a year’s supply of food in the basement. Canned goods and preserved apples and peaches in Mason jars were periodically rotated, newer jars replacing older ones. We did that for a while, until the advent of the survival cracker.
Survival crackers were my Scout Leader’s idea of a fundraiser. We were sent door-to-door to sell them as an alternative to food storage that had to be rotated. The crackers, he claimed, were made to last forever. In other words, they would be as inedible in 10 years’ time as they were on the day they were purchased.
They came in large metal tins that had stamped on the top “Civil Defense All Purpose Survival Cracker.” The tins weighed 12 pounds 4 ounces, and contained “1,091–1,163 crackers per can.” Each was marked with a “packed on” date—in the early 1960s, 20 years before. We were instructed to tell people that survival crackers were essentially the same thing as hardtack, and to talk about how effective they had once been at sustaining sailors during sea voyages. A tin of these, we were to say, would keep you alive for a very long time. And as long as the can’s seal remained unbroken, the crackers would last virtually forever.
Probably largely to support their son, my parents bought a number of these tins and stored them in the garage, making them our primary food reserve. At some point, we made the mistake of tasting them.
To open the tin you had to stab the lid repeatedly with the tip of a knife until it was perforated enough to tear apart. If you managed to do so without slicing open your fingers, you could then unwrap a waxy package containing what looked like the evil twin of the saltine. The crackers tasted of dust, and even with a lot of water you could barely choke them down. They might have been the worst thing I had ever tasted. “But they’ll keep you alive,” my father said. And then he reluctantly added, “Maybe.”
The talk of being prepared, of having a year’s supply, went hand in hand with talk about the last days and the second coming of Christ. The year’s supply was there to help us through periods of great wickedness, through wars and rumors of wars, until Christ established his kingdom again on earth. We also had 72-hour kits, meant to provide essentials for three days, packed in red backpacks—one for each family member. Each kit contained drinking water, food bars, a flashlight, gauze, and so on.
The year’s supply and the kit, taken together, made me feel like the world was always on the verge of ending. We were always only a moment away from being huddled in our basement living off of survival crackers, or running for our lives carrying nothing but our red backpacks.
I remember overhearing debates between adults about the supply. On one side were those who felt that if you maintained your supply faithfully, you shouldn’t be expected to share it. On the other side were people certain that when the apocalypse began, Mormon leaders would demand that everyone share. The second group was regarded as “liberals.” The first group stockpiled guns as well as food—they were prepared to defend their food storage with violence. Some even seemed willing to kill their own church leaders if they came demanding food. “If God tells me that I need to share, then I’ll share,” the father of one of my friends said. “Otherwise, the only thing I’ll share with the bishop is a bullet.”
My family didn’t have any guns. We were “liberal.” I began to feel that maybe it was better for us to have survival crackers rather than edible food since the chances that anyone would try to forcibly take them from us were close to nil.
Granite Mountain Records Vault is a gigantic archive, carved into a mountain east of Salt Lake City. Accessed by long tunnels, and constructed to be safe from war, natural disaster, and nuclear detonation, Granite Mountain is a fallout shelter that safeguards important papers of the Mormon Church and holds the largest collection of genealogical records in the world.
Admittedly, all of the records gathered in Granite Mountain could probably be stored on a single computer. But if the power grid collapses, if data clouds disintegrate across the planet, Granite Mountain will still allow us to prove that billions of humans existed on earth and to reference their family trees. If we are reduced once again to being hunter-gatherers, we will still be able to show up in our animal skins to Granite Mountain and see preserved there machines that we no longer know how to use that will show us words that we know longer know how to read. We will sense that there must be a great treasure here if someone was willing to carve a passage deep in the rock to preserve it.
Granite Mountain is the Mormon equivalent of the pyramids. But while the Egyptians went to tremendous effort to preserve the bodies and possessions of their rulers, Mormons instead preserve records of births, marriages, temple endowments, and deaths. They store them indiscriminately: as long as you were born, they want to collect your information. The ultimate goal is to collect information on everyone who has ever lived.
As a kid, I was moved by the idea that everybody deserved to be recorded. But these days, taken in the light of developments with the NSA and surveillance, it disturbs me. I don’t want to be counted and numbered, af xed by a pin to a page, not even by God. Maybe, considering my status as an excommunicated Mormon, especially not by God.
I went for years without considering the degree to which storage’s enmeshment with Mormonism might have had an effect on me. But when I wrote Immobility (2012), a futuristic novel about a postapocalyptic amnesiac being piggybacked through a devastated Utah, I couldn’t help but think of it. If there was a disaster that destroyed most of Utah’s population, there would still be all those basements full of food, there for the taking, and there would still be that vault, drilled deep into the mountain, filled with records, waiting.
This reminds me of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), in which during the 26th century, in the Utah desert, a monk discovers a fallout shelter containing what appears to be a shopping list from the 20th century. Along with “the blessed blueprint” and other items, the list becomes a religious relic. Miller understands that even if you manage to preserve something, you can’t preserve its context, and you can’t control its future use. And the more time that passes, the less likely it becomes that that use will have any relation to you or the world you live in now.
In the society portrayed by Iain M. Banks in his Culture book series, people can live virtually forever, though most end up making the choice to “sublime” into a noncorporeal existence. One character, QiRia, chooses to keep living. “One of the things you have to do if you’re going to live a long time and not go mad,” he explains, “is make sure your memories are properly … looked after. Managed.” Rather than storing his memories externally, as others in the Culture might, he has gured out a way to have “extra storage.” When his interlocutor asks where he stores all this memory, he answers: “Throughout me. Vast amount of storage room in the human body… . Started with connective tissue, then bones, now even my most vital organs have storage built in.”
Generally, we as humans have outloaded our memories to rocks, to tablets of clay, to vellum, to books, and more recently, to the internet. We have transferred our memories to means that can exist separate from our bodies. QiRia, however, integrates the storage of memory into every cell and fiber of his being. The food he eats and the water he drinks to power his body also feed his memories.
Of course that’s the case with us as well. We just keep fewer memories for any length of time. And we politely store them all in our heads.
For me, QiRia’s choice to keep as many memories as possible is terrifying. “If only my memories would fade like they used to,” says the narrator of S. B. Divya’s short story “Binaries” (2016). One great thing about storage of all kinds is that it decays: we don’t have to eat those survival crackers, and with a little luck, nobody will know what species those genealogical records refer to; and much sooner, the head containing my memories will be gone, dissolved into a pile of dust.