Gentle Decline 2/18: Practicality & Praxis
Actual practical skills, getting started, one at a time, from the very basics. Textiles, woodwork, gardening & foraging, metalwork, building and plumbing.
Hello. The end of the last issue came to a conclusion that I should possibly be replacing “Grow Food” in my 3 Rules with “Learn Practical Skills”. The feedback I got was overwhelmingly in that direction. So I’ve changed that over on the website, and I’ll get to changing it on t-shirts and such soon. The old ones can be considered special vintage Gentle Decline merch. But there were also questions from a good few people along the lines of “how do I learn these things?”.
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. You can support the newsletter via Patreon, Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise. The spotlighted product for this issue is the shortly-to-be-discontinued old-3-rules t-shirt, which (like the enamel mug to which this text originally applied) is hard-wearing and solidly thematic for your neighbourhood revolution meetings.]
There were a few corollaries to this as well. Paraphrasing, several people said “I live in a small apartment with no garden, and I’ve no access to a workshop.” Several more said “I don’t know where to start with acquiring any of these skills”. And one person said “I’m over sixty years old. What can I start to learn that will remain useful?”
(And speaking of, another reader asked “Can you recommend a blog or website where older folks are discussing the practical skills they can acquire now to not only provide personal income but also support an emerging more realistic paradigm?”. I’ve been looking into this, and the best I can find is the Deep Adaptation forum - it’s not particularly cognisant of anyone’s age, and I’m not always convinced of its practicality but it does focus on, well, adaptation. If anyone is aware of such a website, do let me know and I’ll pass it on!)
But let’s start in to looking at skill acquisition. First - and I know a few people who are going to read this and laugh, because my dislike of the medium is well known - YouTube is useful here. Video is a good medium for teaching practical skills. You can skip back a few seconds, and replay something over and over until you get it, which is both time-consuming and awkward if you’re getting a real person to show you, so in that context, it can work better than a class.
There may, if you live in an urban area, be local classes in basic carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, knitting or clothes-making. There might be a local maker space of some kind. Some enlightened countries have libraries that support this kind of learning and skill acquisition (I know the big new library in Helsinki does, for instance), and indeed, any public library is a good place to start looking for information. Almost any such class will take place somewhere with access to the relevant tools, and it will put you in touch with at least one person who already has the skill and a few more people interested in acquiring it.
There are also groups in many areas that will, more or less as a side effect, teach you relevant skills. Historical re-enactment and re-creation groups are the foremost among these. The one that I know best is the SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, but there are many more as well. LARP groups, while the emphasis is different, will teach you some craft and outdoor skills. And local hiking and foraging groups will give you a different, but also useful set of skills (and improve physical fitness in what is to me a much more enjoyable way than a gym).
It is, of course, entirely possible to be involved with these kinds of groups and acquire no practical skills at all; you do need to put in some work yourself, and ask people who evidently know things to teach you, even if it’s just “hey, you can light a fire in the rain, can you show me how?”. It’s important to ask, because a lot of people who have such skills kind of assume that they’re everyday things that anyone could do. I ran a class in camp cooking a few years back at a medieval camping event in Wales, starting with how to light a fire. Part of this was finding suitable kindling, and I started in with “ash twigs will burn even if they’re green, straight off the tree”, only to have someone ask “what’s an ash tree?”. Now, she was Australian, so she had a good reason not to know what an ash looked like, but it turns out there are plenty of people even in Ireland - where it’s practically a weed - that can’t pick it out from a hedgerow. So don’t be afraid to ask questions like that, as everyone’s assumptions about basic knowledge are different.
So let’s have a look at some specific skills. First, textiles. This is not my area, but it’s one that is more practical than most for limited space, access to the outdoors, and even for reduced mobility. You have knitting, crocheting, naalbinding, and sewing. All of these result in fabrics, more or less, which can be anything from hats and gloves through blankets, clothes, curtains, and wall-hangings. The traditional objection to these as practical skills is that you can buy all those things for less than you can make them, and that even if supply lines seize up, there’s a plentiful stock of them in the country. However, that’s not really true. If you’ve ever gone looking for a suit at short notice (and you are not smack in the middle of average-sized in every dimension), you’ll have realised pretty quickly that they are not all that available. Likewise, buying woollens in summer or swimwear in winter is difficult, and if you have any allergies to particular fibres, it can be extremely hard to work around. Wall-hangings are one of the best historical forms of insulation, but good luck in finding any of those without ordering from a specialist. Shortened supply lines and even slightly specialised needs are not a good combination.
So here’s an introduction to knitting, one for crochet, one for naalbinding, one for basic sewing, and one specifically about repairing clothing, all from YouTube. YouTube itself will show you many more once you starting viewing these, of course.
Woodwork requires a bit more space, but you can do some basic stuff in a kitchen or a small back yard. One of the things that stops people from doing any woodwork at all is that the finished products look very rough compared to commercial furniture. That’s ok! You can make garden furniture, boxes for shoe polish, or scratching posts for your cat to start out - all things where the look of the thing is unimportant as long as it works - and bear in mind that function is a lot more important than form in the context of stuff you’re making yourself. If what you need is a short ladder to get to a high cupboard, and it works, then it’s good.
Here’s a basic primer in woodworking (which is essentially a recording of a class given at a local level, including tools), one in box-making, and one in wood-turning.
Gardening (food growing, specifically) and foraging are two things that I firmly believe are going to be more important in the next few decades. Growing food is going to become more difficult as we experience greater extremes of weather, so this is one where I’m working on developing skills myself. Right now, a lot of my questions come down to “why did that not grow?” and “how the hell do I deal with these slugs eating half my plants?”, but I am learning. There’s lots more on this topic in my food-and-food-history newsletter, Commonplace.
(The MidJourney AI’s idea of “post-apocalyptic allotment gardening”, which actually looks rather pleasing.)
Here’s a video on the basics of vegetable gardening (and a very local one for Ireland). And here’s a video on starting out in foraging. Locale is important for these, so look for videos for your country, state, or region - there are plenty out there. It’s also an area in which hyper-local learning is useful, so if you can hang around at your local allotments, community gardens, or the like, it’ll help. And for those in limited space, here’s a video about gardening on a balcony (weirdly, videos on this specific topic seem to tend toward having subtitles and music, but no voice).
Metalwork is also mostly a closed book to me, although it’s on my list for future attention. We’re surrounded by metal or partially metal objects, but making or repairing them is beyond most people’s capability. Here are videos getting started in blacksmithing, casting, and welding.
Building encompasses many skills, and it’s an area that’s hard to get going in without someone to teach you (and possibly employ you). There’s very little amateur work in it, either; nobody wants to live in a house built by someone who’s still working out what they’re doing. You can start out on sheds and lean-tos, though. So here’s one on building a garden shed, and one on building a lean-to structure. I have to admit that both of these videos are making me think about what I could do here, particularly on the west side of the house where the bins and firewood are - a lean-to out there could provide a lot of storage.
Plumbing is something that only occurs to most people in emergencies - when there’s water coming into the house from a broken or blocked pipe, or it’s just coming out of the ceiling and you’ve no idea why. The very basics of plumbing - installing a dishwasher or washing machine - is something I can and have done, but I’m working on remembering that the basics are not necessarily clear to anyone else. Here’s the start of a series of videos about water supply and plumbing, and one about fixing common leaks. Terminology in plumbing can be pretty localised, which is relevant when you go looking to buy supplies, but the actual work seems to be fairly universal.
Finally, electrical stuff is not for messing with, and it’s one of the areas where - in Ireland, at least - amateur work is actively discouraged. So I’m not going to provide links for that - if you want to learn how to do electrical work, go look for classes from qualified electricians. I do think this is going to be one of the big areas of necessary work in the decades to come, so if a complete career change sounds good to you - or you’re just starting out - this is definitely one to look into.
All of these are learnable things, and while I’ve gone about linking to YouTube for the basics, there will also be websites with plenty of information, local classes, and books. I do feel that books have particular value, because they can be referred to even if your power is out - and that’s the time you’re going to really need the information.
Speaking of power outages, I’m seeing more and more coverage of energy issues in the news. Supplies of gas, in particular, are problematic with the war in Ukraine, and it’s entirely possible that much of Western Europe will have shortages this winter. And some of our electrical grid is powered by gas and other fossil fuels which used to come from Russia. We’re also just off the back of a brief but savage period of extreme heat in the Isles and Europe. Records were broken all over the place; a number of places in the southern half of England got to over 40C, and power outages in London were only just averted by buying in electricity at enormous prices from abroad.
It might therefore be a good time to look into solar panels, wood-burning stoves, and checking whether your water supply is dependent on electricity. Also, if your work situation depends on having power, as is true for most of us who work from home, then it’s useful to look into alternate places nearby - an arrangement with a friend or neighbour who’s on a different electrical circuit might suffice for this. If there are wider blackouts, there’s not a lot to be done about it. Obviously, if your actual place of work has no power, that’s more your employer’s problem than yours, at least in the short term.
My intended next issue is a listing of books, as mentioned above, which I think will be useful in terms of reference and learning for practical skills in our era of climate chaos. Let me know if there are other things you’d like me to dig into!
[Support this newsletter (and Commonplace, its (more) food-related sibling) and allow me to keep on eating while I hammer on the keyboard and stare at the sky. Patreon is here, and for those thinking more of the one-time coin in the hat, Ko-fi is available. And the merchandise shop is here. Major research contributions in all issues by Cee.]