Gentle Decline 1/18: Skills & Supplementations
Hello. This issue, as heralded in Issue 17, concentrates on small skills that will be useful in the post-climate-crisis (or, more likely, in-the-midst-of-ongoing-climate-crisis) world. These are things that you can learn to do now, alongside brief discussions of why and how they're useful. In some cases, I'm providing links to instructions elsewhere on the internet. In part this is because I don't have the time, space, or expertise to lay out everything you might want to learn here, but it's also based on an assumption that unless you are printing and stashing these emails, you will probably be as well able to access that information as you are this email. We're looking at slow disaster here, not a sudden disappearance of all the world's data centres. If you think that approach isn't as valid as I think it is, let me know - and start writing down these practical things in greater detail and printing them out.
Here's the list of stuff I reckoned should be taught to kids, from the last issue:
"This is how you fill a sandbag; this is how you read a weather forecast; this is how you plant seeds and weed vegetable crops; this is how you make bread. Maybe even the tougher things that many of us don't know: this is how you clean a wound; this is how you kill a chicken; this is how you use St. John's Wort (and here are the reasons to, and not to); this is how to evacuate through a flood. Interpersonal things: this is how you can calm someone down when they're panicking; this is how you talk to a crowd; this is how you share what you have, when you can."
So let's see about explanations for how and why to do those things, first, and see what evolves from that as other things it's good to know how to do. This might, from the look of it, flow over into other issues.
This is how you fill a sandbag
Sandbags are used for temporary flood defences. They're not effective in the long term, and they probably won't block all the water even in the short term. But they can deflect flowing water and thus ensure that what might have been 50cm of standing water on your ground floor is just some unpleasant dampness. They're used as an emergency measure, where they're brought to flooded areas along with a truckload of sand by emergency services or councils. Very few people are going to have them on hand, because it's better to spend the same money and put in some kind of (semi-)permanent flood defence. They're usually plastic or burlap weave, about 60cm long by maybe 30 wide, and when they're filled with sand, they become cocktail-sausage-shaped brick-like objects. They're not cheap - averaging about €1 each unless you get them in truly industrial quantities - and that adds up quickly, so it's very likely there will be limited numbers of them. Wet sand is a fairly good barrier against running water in and of itself, but it gets pulled away easily - the bag prevents that, while letting enough water through to keep the sand wet and thereby more "solid".
To fill a sandbag: get one person, preferably an adult or older teenager, to hold the bag open, while you shovel sand into it until it's almost full, and then use the built-in ties to close it. Carry it - they're heavy, so it may take both of you, or use of a wheelbarrow for a few of them - to where it's needed, which should be the smallest gap you can find through which water shouldn't come, and place it firmly at the base of that gap. Dropping it from a small height, enough to deform but not burst it, will ensure that it snugs into the corners as best it can. Look at the remaining space, if any, at the base of the gap, and estimate whether you need another full sandbag (or more). A partially filled sandbag will work better to fill a small gap than a full one at an odd angle in most cases. Layer up sandbags until they reach the height of the rest of the barrier (wall, or whatever), or a height beyond which major flooding is inevitable. A second set of sandbags stacked behind the first isn't a bad idea, if there are enough to go around.
Semi-permanent flood defences vary widely. The ones I've seen are in the form of a double row of metal rails fitted along the sides and base of your gap - a gateway or doorway - where you then slide a metal or wooden shutter between the rails, like the base of a drawer into grooves, with the optional extra of some sort of dense foam between shutter and rails. These are already in use in Ireland for the doorways of buildings in flood-prone areas, such as the Slaney quays in Enniscorthy, and lots of places in Cork. A really good rolling shutter, or literal flood gates can also serve for this. All of these are better than sandbags.
This is how you read a weather forecast
I'm in two minds as to how to approach this - I could talk about how to read weather charts, or I could talk about what you need to understand from a radio forecast. TV falls somewhere between the two, assuming anyone watches TV forecasts anymore, but someone probably does. For the charts, let me refer you to the UK Met Office, who have a good solid explanation.
For the radio forecasts, it's more important to hear the numbers, and know what they mean. 10mm of rain is a moderately damp day in Ireland. 20mm of rain is a wet day. 50mm is therefore a fairly heavy amount of rain, and 100mm pretty much guarantees flooding. The record for Ireland is 243mm, which fell in Kerry on the 18th of September 1993. Your local understanding of "a lot of rain" might vary a great deal from that, but knowing what's normal and what's not is a very useful thing. Wind, at least when measured on the Beaufort Scale, is more universal: Gale Force is where you might need to start tying stuff down, and the increments of Strong Gale, Storm, Violent Storm, and Hurricane Force measure how hard you need to do so. Inland areas get far less wind than coasts, and there's a lot of local variation. You do need to have some local knowledge, though; a gale blowing in an area that doesn't usually see that much wind, or from an unusual direction, will bring down trees, especially in summer and early autumn, when they're in full leaf. And sustained wind over a short period can weaken trees, such that another storm, even if it's no more powerful than the last three or four, might finally bring them down.
And while I know some of the people reading this are more or less used to hurricanes, and I shouldn't be teaching grandma to suck eggs: don't go out in hurricane force winds. They're dangerous.
This is how you plant seeds and weed vegetable crops
This is obviously a big, big topic. But let me lay out some very basic things, and you can buy a vegetable gardening book for your own locale for more detail. Make sure to get a local one; while the seeds and plants may be similar, growing seasons, diseases, and pests vary hugely from place to place. Even the books intended for the UK are not quite as useful to me as Irish ones. Websites will sometimes have this information, but horticulturalists still seem to write books more than they write online.
Most essentially, clear some ground. This doesn't have to be good ground, although it should be clean, so you're going to have to make other arrangements if all you have is old industrial waste burial sites. Clear it down to the soil, and take out as much of the roots and other remnants of weeds as you can. Dig it over (there are no-dig gardening methods, and I'm sure they're fine; I'll trust them in about three millennia), and clear out the bigger stones (or bricks, or bones, or whatever you have - I've removed all three from the back garden here). Now consider your soil. Epic treatises have been written on soil management, but really it all comes down to organic matter, which you can generate through home composting, or the purchase of good non-peat-based compost from a garden centre, or getting a bag or two from your local stables. If you have really heavy clay, consider doing something to allow drainage and aeration, like burying a layer of small stones, or putting in Roman drains or something.
The packet of seeds you have bought will have instructions on it. Follow them. If you got seeds by some other method, you're ahead of me, and will have to rely on Google for instructions. Planting stuff is easy, and as long as you're buying from a good supplier, almost everything will come up.
Now begins the war against the slugs and weeds. The slugs can be fended off in various ways; I've had the best success with organic slug pellets. The weeds, on the other hand, take constant vigilance. In the spring, you'll need to weed maybe twice a week, and it'll be fine if you miss it or leave it a bit longer. Sometime around May, in my locale, this changes, and previously manageable weeds become like rampaging Triffids, and need to be removed every day, sometimes twice. Some plants, once they going, will shade out weeds - pumpkins, courgettes (assuming they survived the slugs) and potatoes are good for this. Others - onions, for example - won't do a damn thing to defend themselves, and you'll need to employ a hoe to keep the drills clear.
Once you master ground clearance, slug genocide, and weeding, everything else is a detail.
This is how you make bread
I am not one of nature's bakers. My hands are too warm for pastry, my cakes come out lumpy, and my bread never really seems to work out quite right. But I can make a basic loaf. Bread, at the most fundamental level, is flour and a liquid and some heat. You'll want a bit of salt for the taste, but it's not necessary for the actual making of bread.
The simplest bread is literally as described above - flatbread. Take some flour. Add a pinch of salt, and some water. Munge it around in a bowl with a spoon or your hand, adding small amounts of flour or water until you get one coherent lump of (probably quite sticky) dough. Tip it out onto a clean, floured surface and knead it, by which I mean fold it over, press it, fold it over, press it, repeatedly. If you want, you can throw it from hand to hand like a tennis ball, assuming you haven't arrived at a melon-sized monster. What you're doing here is getting the long gluten strings to form, to give the bread coherency. Once it's all one coherent, mostly smooth, slightly rubbery piece, put a frying pan on to heat, with a very little oil on it. Take a lump of dough about the size of a plum or a little bigger, and roll it out flat on the same floured surface as you were kneading on. You can use a rolling pin, or a wine bottle, or really anything smooth and cylindrical. When it's about 3mm thick, put it on the hot pan. Give the first side about three minutes (varying by pan size, heat level, what kind of flour you had, air humidity, and phase of the moon - a judgement call, in other words), during which time you should see blisters and bumps and other features arise, and then turn it over. You want it to be lightly browned, maybe with a few dark brown bits where blisters have been in direct contact with the pan. Give it another minute on the second side, and then pull it off the pan, apply butter or wrap it around meat or cheese or whatever you're having, and eat. It is very good hot, but becomes nigh-on inedible when cold, so don't wait around.
Rising agents and actual baking, as opposed to griddling, are the major steps to other breads. The excellent BBC Good Food site has a recipe for basic white bread, which is easy to follow. Overall, while making good bread is the work of a lifetime, you can make basic edible bread without much hassle. Try it a few times before you need it, though.
(It bears mentioning that the dough for the flatbread above, rolled a little thinner, can also be used for gyoza or wonton wrappers, or dumplings of various kinds)
This is how you clean a wound
First: I haven't taken a first aid course in more than 30 years. So if you've taken one more recently, go with that. But basically: wash your hands. Soap, water, preferably hot. Then rinse the cut with lukewarm water, and clean around it with soap and water (don't get soap in the cut). Rinse again, and cover with a sticking plaster. If it's small, just leave the sticking plaster on until it detaches by itself, and put on another if the cut hasn't closed. If it's longer than, say, 2-3cm, ragged, deep, or otherwise not a simple thing, seek medical attention. If it came from a rusty nail, get thee to a doctor pronto, as lockjaw is really not a thing you want to deal with.
If you are not good with blood, it's worth knowing who in your immediate circles or even among your neighbours is. For anyone who wants to know, I can deal with blood with no problem. Vomit near me, and that's entirely a different issue.
This is how you kill a chicken
I've done this once, and I really didn't enjoy it. But I could do it again if I needed to. First, catch your chicken, ideally without panicking it. Tuck it under your left arm (well, whichever is non-dominant). In as smooth a motion as you can, grab the back of its head just at the top of its neck with your dominant hand, and snap it. That's it.
It is a really good idea to have someone show you how to do this, or at the very least, watch a video, because while it sounds simple, it's not all that easy, and it is deeply upsetting if you get it wrong. For my money, chickens are much better employed for eggs, because you can eat the chicken only once, but you can get eggs from them every day or two for years. But chickens left to their own devices will hide clutches of eggs, hatch them, and produce more chickens, and sometimes culling for meat is going to be useful.
This is how you use St. John's Wort
I'm not even going to try to instruct on this; I don't know how - and don't have a need to. You can't buy it in Ireland, but it does grow wild; I've seen it in woodlands. It's a reasonably powerful anti-depressant, but like any other, it interacts in not entirely predictable ways with other medications, doesn't work for some people, and indeed has negative effects for some. That said, it's a relatively easily accessible substitute for pharmaceuticals which might in some circumstances be hard to get. You are absolutely best off seeking qualified advice on this, and not listening to some non-depression-suffering dude writing a newsletter.
That does raise the point, though, that it is very difficult for any one person to have all the skills and all the knowledge. I'm going to come back to the importance of community and having other people around and how the American bunker-prepper attitude is just wrong in a future issue.
This is how to evacuate through a flood
The degree to which it is difficult to walk through a foot or two of water is actually quite hard to describe. I've not had to evacuate from a flood, but I've had to walk through one before. It's not like walking in the sea, or even fording a stream or river - there are unpredictable things down there, flood waters are never clear enough for you to see what you're standing on, and currents do all kinds of weird stuff that's not evident even from right above. And floodwaters often contain unpleasant contaminants, such as sewage.
So, first, wear shoes. They're going to be soaked, and you may not be able to keep them afterward. Ideally, also wear trousers of some kind. What you really want are waders, as worn by fly fishers, but these are not the kind of thing people have lying around. Shoes and legwear will protect you from the worst of what's in floodwaters.
Next, move slowly. If you need to move stuff, put it in backpack, or on something that can float alongside you; don't try to carry it in your arms. If you need to move a child, put them on your back or shoulders if you can at all. With each footstep, prod the ground you're stepping onto before you commit your weight (this should be oddly familiar to SCA armoured combatants who've learned the footwork we use locally). If you can probe ahead with a stick or staff, that's even better, and it gives you something to lean on as well.
Do not move into water that's more than hip deep. Currents at that depth can and will sweep you off your feet. If you can't get away from where you are without doing so, well, be really careful. Consider taking refuge on a roof or other high point instead, though.
Take only essentials - a bug-out bag is ideal here. Do not try to bring furniture, large electronics, artworks, safes, or the like. Do bring pets (they can swim on leashes, if they have to). If there are several people, moving in file works well, because the lead person can establish a safe route. Using ropes or the like from one person to the next is useful, particularly with children too big to carry or people who don't have secure footing.
Once you get where you're going, take off the shoes and legwear, shower, and put clean clothes on, assuming those are possible. If the stuff you were wearing has been in contaminated water, you may need to dispose of it.
This is how you can calm someone down when they're panicking
We're now verging over into interpersonal skills, which are very situational. However, the absolute best way to get someone else to be calm is to be calm yourself. It's infectious, in some ways, and it's also very difficult for someone to maintain an agitated state in the face of someone else not doing so. If you can have two or more people being calm, you can pretty much guarantee that anyone else's panic won't last long.
Otherwise: acknowledge that something is wrong; talk to the panicking person (using short, clear sentences if they're not able to track longer sentences); if you're in the kind of situation and relationship where you could ordinarily hug them, do so; if you're not that familiar with them, offer a hand to hold; make it clear that you'll stay around until they're ok; ask what they need; don't be offended or upset if none of the above works. Someone else panicking is not in any way about you. Mostly, just being there and not being disturbed will be the most helpful thing.
This is how you talk to a crowd
So this is a thing with which I have never had any difficulty. I can talk to a crowd as easily as I can talk to one person, and indeed sometimes more so - I would rather speak to a crowd than have a conversation with a taxi driver or barber, for instance. So my instructions on this kind of go: first, find your crowd, then, talk to them until you've said what you want to. But I recognise that doesn't work for everyone.
So here's a list of stuff from the TED Talk people, which looks like it would help. From my point of view as an audience member, I want a speaker to be coherent (as in, not read directly from notes in a stilted manner, but to speak directly with notes as cues or a checklist), audible (able to project or use a microphone), and knowledgeable (as in, actually know what they're talking about). I think once you've covered those, you're most of the way to speaking well.
This is how you share what you have, when you can
There is no disaster situation, crisis, or even unpleasant week which can't be improved by sharing stuff. Humans, even those of us who are dedicated hardcore introverts (I have been known to be exhausted by having lunch with an extrovert I don't know well), are social creatures at some level, and sharing food, drink, shelter, knowledge, or whatever else is the most social thing there is. At the same time, it's important not to leave yourself without resources. I'm going to cover this in a future issue in more detail, but the basic fundamental thing comes down to: in a crisis, unless you are going to impair your ability to survive until tomorrow, you're better off sharing what you have with anyone who needs it.
This issue brought to you by finally having time and health to write, a soggy cat applied to my face at irregular intervals, a rebuilt bedroom that allows for writing at a desk in more comfort, and quite a lot of editing to remove assumptions about what people would "probably" already know. The next issue might be about community and sharing, or it might be about worldwide reactions to COVID-19 and what we can learn from those.
If you feel that Gentle Decline would be useful to someone else in your life, please forward it on and/or show them the subscription link at https://tinyletter.com/gentledecline - and there's also an intermittently updated Twitter feed at @gentledecline. I'd love to have more people reading this and being, in some sense, better prepared for what's slowly coming.