Gentle Decline 2/6: Basics & Brassicas
In which assumptions are restated, and some thinking about growing conditions occurs.
Hello. This issue is a rambling set of bits and pieces, mostly around a rough theme of practicalities and long-term thinking, after some retrenching on basics (for which I’m going to construct a website soon, rather than keep firing new and slightly improved versions into your inbox). If Gentle Decline were a book, these would probably be the odd little bits in sidebars.
[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 chicken-themed again, but this time (despite her cartoon appearance) is a real chicken, who is even as I write pecking at the back door.]
One of the hardest things to do when you’re thinking about a specific topic is to get over what you think you know about it, your own assumptions. And some of those assumptions concern what other people know, or understand, or have put together from the available data. For instance, I have a compass in my head, pretty much; I can almost always tell where north is without really thinking about it, and even on a cloudy day in an unfamiliar place, I can settle it out after a moment or two. But that’s not true for everyone; there are plenty of people who don’t know if their garden is south-facing or not, and more for whom “north” and “south” are fairly arbitrary concepts. If it’s any consolation, I still have a little difficulty with “right” and “left”.
I’ll get back to that example later, and talk through directions and sunshine, but I want to run through a few of the assumptions and understandings I have for Gentle Decline in the long run, and make sure those are understood.
Let me start with an important one, a sort of Assumption Zero: I do not think the world is doomed. I don’t think humans are doomed. I don’t even think most humans are doomed. I do think that life is going to change a lot in the next century. Gradually.
First: Climate change, caused by human activity, is real. I can’t imagine that there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t agree with that statement, but it’s worth putting out there. First and a half: There are people who do not get this. I don’t know how to deal with people who don’t understand or “believe” this, and I’m honestly not going to expend much effort on trying. There are other people doing good work in that area; it’s not my thing.
Second: There are many people who understand that this climate crisis is real, but who don’t care. This may be because they don’t believe it will affect them (not in their lifetimes, not in their geographical area, not in their income bracket, etc), or because they see short-term gain in it.
Third: There is an even larger number of people - probably a majority of humans, by now - who understand that the climate crisis is real, but don’t know what they can do about it.
Fourth: Individual effort will not have much effect on the actual changes that are happening, either in attempts to prevent them or in attempts to mitigate them. That rests with corporate entities and governments, and particularly with governments forcing corporate entities to change.
Fifth: We are not, at this stage, going to be able to prevent the climate crisis. Processes of global warming, with all its knock-on effects, are already under way, and we haven’t any realistic hope of preventing that. We may be able to slow it down, if governments force corporate entities to change. The miracles of technology necessary to prevent it needed to happen about a decade ago, and they didn’t.
Sixth: We can prepare for the coming changes. We can work out what they might be; we can look at second-order changes (changes caused by changes) and emergent effects (complex effects arising from simple changes). We can change things in our own lives and those of people around us so that those changes don’t do as much damage as they otherwise would.
Seventh: We can put pressure on government to get on with forcing corporate entities to change, and also to get on with making preparations for the inevitable effects of the climate crisis.
Gentle Decline, as a project, deals mostly with the sixth and seventh assumptions. and attempts to keep abreast of the actual events in the fifth.
To that end, I’ve developed the Three Rules: Move Inland, Grow Food, Be Generous. In the medium term, as noted above, I’m going to write up web pages that I can point to for each of those (and maybe for my Seven Assumptions, too, if I’m going completely Buddhist on it). In the short term, you can literally buy the t-shirt.
Ok, so. Let’s look at some small-scale practicalities, mostly centred around “grow food”, because it’s that time of year. You can apply the thinking below to where you are now, or you can consider it in the context of a place you’re moving inland to.
First, directions and sunlight. Plants need sunlight to grow. Most edible plants need a lot of sunlight (which doesn’t always mean sunny days, mind). However, the planet rotates, which causes the sun to “move” through the sky, rising in the east, setting in the west, and casting different shadows as it does so. So a place that is sunny in the evening when you come home from work or school has not necessarily been so all day. Many of us being home all day, what with this pandemic thing, have a chance to see where sunlight falls through the whole day, possibly for the first time. I know I actually feel like I’m living in my house for the first time since I was a kid, rather than it being a place where I sleep and keep my stuff.
So anyway: the places where you can plant things to grow in your back yard may be limited. Take a look at it first thing in the morning on a sunny day, and see where’s in shadow, and where there’s sunlight falling. Maybe take a photograph. Take another look around noon, and a third in the evening. You now have an idea of what parts of the garden are in full sunlight through the day, or through most of it, and if you have photographs, you can overlay them in some graphics program and see it mapped out. This sunny area is almost certainly right in the middle of the back yard, unless you’re in the enviable position of not having walls, fences, or hedges (which can mean your garden is exposed to a lot of wind, so there’s no real win here).
Incidentally, the direction of the sun in the morning is east, at noon is south, and in the evening is west, assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, the sun rises in the east, moves through the north, and sets in the west. I do not want to tell you how much thinking it cost me to make sure that that sentence is all true, and I am fully expecting someone to reply five minutes after I hit send telling me I’m an idiot, and got it backwards. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you are almost certainly used to the boreocentric tendencies of northern writers and media, and already know to substitute “north” wherever I say “south”. This becomes relevant below.
There is a worst case scenario here: a yard in which the sunlight does not hit the ground at any point during the day. If you have a small garden with high walls, this may be true, at least now in springtime. This doesn’t mean you can’t grow anything, but it does limit your choices. Most gardens will have an irregularly shaped rhomboid or triangular-ish area which is in sunlight all day and maybe a few patches that just never get sun.
Two further notes. First, the area which gets sunlight does so on cloudy days as well as sunny ones, even though it’s not clear to us humans with our limited ability to detect photons. Second, even if your garden is one of those that gets no sunlight hitting the ground in springtime, there will almost certainly be some during summer. While we don’t, in the temperate or sub-tropical latitudes where most of my readers live, get the straight-overhead sun of the equator, it can come close in late June. Unless your garden is surrounded by skyscrapers, it will get some sun.
The areas that don’t have full sunlight all day are “partially shaded”. Ones that get light somewhat filtered through leaves or the like are in “dappled shade”. Brassicas, beetroot, and salad leaves do well in almost any kind of shade; carrots can handle shade in the morning, and leeks in the evening (please note I have never successfully grown carrots in the back yard here, although I did when we had an allotment). I am told that swiss chard will also grow in shade, but I have never tried that, nor indeed do I recall ever seeing the stuff in reality. Maybe it exists only in seed catalogues.
There’s one further foible of land that you should look at, particularly if you’re moving inland and get to choose: slope. Sunlight always comes in at an angle; quite low in winter, high in summer. The closer your land is to meeting that angle so that the sunlight falls on it at 90 degrees, the more energy it gets, and the more you can grow on it. A south-facing slope, where the top bit of your patch of land is the most northerly and the bottom the most southerly, has the possibility of getting very close to this during a good bit of the year. In contrast, a northerly slope (high in the south, low in the north) can have most of the light pass over it during most of the year. And this makes a difference right down to the square centimetre, pretty much; you can increase the viability of a raised bed by having the north end of it higher than the south. You can increase the growth in a flower pot by tipping it southward.
This does raise the question of what to do with the areas that get no sun at all. There are plenty of possibilities, storage being the main one. That dark corner is ideal for a small shed or a waterproof locker or storage box for tools, for instance. You could stick a firepit there, or a barbecue, or even a forge. You can put a patio there, and light it up with strings of lanterns - certainly in the Irish climate, putting a patio in the sunniest spot is quite a waste. You can also put a chicken coop there.
While I’m on basics and use of space, I should also talk about water supplies. Even in Ireland, we’ve had hosepipe bans over the last few years, and while you can still haul water in a watering can, it’s a bit of a pain. Capturing rain water is very useful for this, and if you can rig up something to channel rain that falls on your roof and flows away in guttering into a barrel or some other storage, that can provide you with quite a bit. I admit I have yet to sort this out, mostly because the downpipes on our guttering are weird square things.
Space also goes up, of course. If you have walls that are on the north side of a space, they’re going to catch the sun for a lot of the day. There are various forms of climbing plants like beans and peas, some kinds of gourd and squash and pumpkin, and tomatoes, all of which will make good use of that space. I have a plan to construct a sort of salad-green cupboard on such a wall this year; open shelves, tilted slightly down to get as much sun as possible, onto which I can put flowerpots and planters, and with chicken-wire doors to keep the terrible birds from flapping up for snacks. More on that as it happens.
In other news, my log of links to environmental things to be annoyed about is remarkably empty this week, and the few things that are there are more of the same: politicians saying things and not doing things, and dairy farmers being assholes about even the smallest environmentally-friendly efforts. Instead, let me show you this delightful solarpunk-flavoured yogurt ad.
In other media, I recently acquired James Lawrence Powell’s The 2084 Report, a fictional set of first-hand reports from, unsurprisingly, the year 2084, on stuff that went down in the 21st century. It’s good. It’s well-written, well-thought-out, and varied in its points of view. Sadly, it is not all the way up to excellent, which I feel it could have been if the writing style was varied a little more, and the different points of view felt like different people, but I still think it’s worth reading, and it goes on the list of climate fiction.
This issue brought to you by a rocket salsa, fresh-baked baguettes, and a purring table cat. I've given up on trying to say what the next issue will be in advance, but I'm taking requests and questions. If you hit reply, you can send stuff straight to me!
Gentle Decline is on Twitter as @gentledecline, which I’m using more these days.
[Support this newsletter (and Commonplace, its food-related sibling) and allow me to keep on eating while I hammer on the keyboard and mutter darkly about the weather. 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.]