Happy Rabbit Trails

It’s cool this morning, and I slipped out of bed and bundled up in layers before letting the dog out, and standing in the open doorway to listen to a bird singing in the hedgerow. It was raining not too long ago – the sound of it on the roof woke me – and there are puddles in the yard. I slept well – heavily, in fact – after having tired myself out on indulgences of the physical sort yesterday and having to resort to tylenol before bed to make sleep possible.

You’re wondering why I’m telling you all this. It’s because I was thinking, as I was standing there breathing in the cool air scented with rain and honeysuckle, about space travel. More specifically, I was casting my mind forward to the science fictional future where we shake loose the chains of Earth’s gravity well and take flight. How can we possibly take a fraction of this with us? Gardens in space, yes, but…

I’ve been a gardener since I was a girl. As lovely as the idea is of a garden with no pests – no deer, no rabbits, no slugs, no cutworms, no fungus, no viroids… I also realize that we’re just now starting to understand the link between plants, the soil, and the microbes that colonize both. Irradiating soil to sterilize it will remove the beneficial along with the bad. Taking some along means embracing the struggle to stay ahead of the diseases that will surely ensue. And in space, there is no moving to a new patch of land when the old one is unusable.

Also, birdsong. Well, perhaps that’s easy enough to record and pipe in. But pollinators? Given most people’s visceral reaction to the fuzzy bees that are a must for the bulk of our crops to bear fruit, I can see that being an issue. I helped my father maintain a high tunnel (greenhouse, but different) and we would gently capture toads and release them in it. Did you know toads have the prettiest eyes? Snakes are another ‘varmint’ with very useful skills in the pest control department. Spiders! Spiders are a must on our voyage, they are worth their weight in gold when it comes to keeping the insect population down. Besides, Phidippus are adorable and I’d miss their little fuzzy faces.  And coming back to the pollination, do you have any idea how difficult it can be to keep varieties separate to prevent interbreeding if you want to save seeds? Stands of corn need to be, IIRC, 100 yards apart, as they are wind-pollinated and just throw sperm into the air profligately and profusely so that some of it may reach the intended targets. Like trees.

Which is another thing…

One of the things I did yesterday to tire myself out and lead to crampy legs at bedtime was to take a walk in the woods with the dog. The dog, silly girl, didn’t notice the cheeky rabbit at first. When she did! Poof, went Mr Cottontail with the dog in hot pursuit. The dog was back a minute later, not minding at all that the First Reader and I were laughing at her. The rabbit poked it’s head out of the brush and then bounced across the path right behind the dog’s back. It was a moment lit by spring sunshine and there wasn’t a care in the world. The classic images of sterile spaceship journeys don’t allow for that, but yet, those are the moments that feast the soul. Can we live without them? Of course. Are we diminished by it, changed?

And now I have tea. I’m looking at the ingredients – I’m trying samplers of different teas, assessing how I like them before I buy some in bulk – Caramel Chai has rooibos, cinnamon, ginger root, liquorice root, natural flavoring (whatever that is. Makes me nervous when they don’t say), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, and vanilla bean. Smells like apple pie. I’m spoiled, I know it. I can live off the land – I’ve done it. Living onboard a ship? Well, in theory 3D printers of food can be a thing. Reality is more like – where do the ingredients come from? My tea looks like the answer to that is spread across no less than three continents. Until – and I do think this will come – we can build food from the molecule up – food is going to be a miserable, dreary thing. Ask a soldier about C-rats or MREs (I’ve eaten both, but not for long periods of time) and you’ll get the idea of how to write a crew’s reaction to packaged food.

But what about that shipboard garden, you’re asking. Well, most things take time to mature. You can, given enough space, harvest microgreens within days. But they do take a lot of space to make any kind of bulk, as they are literally the cotyledons and first-leaves out of the seed. Other greens can take a mere couple of weeks to harvest. Tomatoes, a couple of months. Berries? Strawberries can be had in a year (from cloned plants. From seed, I think that’s two years). Blackberries? I hope you have LOADS of space on your theoretical ship, and a high tolerance for thorns (yes, I know you can get thornless canes. The ones with thorns on taste better. Seasoned with blood, and all that.) and they will take two years to fruit, if your deer don’t nibble the canes down to the nub.

Deer? Well, yeah, why not? I really like venison. The hooved rats will reproduce like mad, so you have to keep the population down somehow. Why not bring them along? And rabbits, while we’re at it, although population control for bunnies needs no justification, I hope. I’ll point out that in Alaska as a girl, we had a Mama cat (Tigerlily, who was a slim black queen of uncertain heritage and proud bearing. Also, tiny) who would bring home half-grown snowshoe hare to feed her kittens. They were as big as she was! But she was a mighty huntress. Her daughter Tassie followed in her pawprints even through a move of 3000 miles to New England, and reigned over the NH farm for more than a decade, a very long life in a barn cat’s years.

So then, cats come along. And dogs, although hopefully smarter than our pampered girl who can’t tell when Mr Cottontail is standing behind her thumbing his nose most rudely.

And my tea. At least the Peach Ginger, which is lovely. I’ll withhold judgement on the Caramel Chai for now.

Poof! Goes Mr Cottontail

Poof! Goes Mr Cottontail



26 responses to “Happy Rabbit Trails

  1. I’m thinking the best way to move all this along to other planets is to bring embryonic samples. Generational starships won’t have the necessary space for anything else.

    • Yes, but then we also need to posit host mothers, or uterine incubators, and that’s more complicated that it looks at first glance.

      • True, but you only need a few to start with, once you get a couple of generations in you’ll likely have enough that they’ll take care of themselves.

  2. Confutus

    I’m reminded of “Cyteen”, wherein Ariane Emory II begins building her own independent fortune as a teenager with breeding aquarium fish, and water plants for the aquariums, and selling them to lonely miners who would spend fortunes on guppy rigs and claimed all sorts of benefits from them.

    In my SF Universe, the desire to maintain as much as possible of an earthlike environment motivates a good portion of the interplanetary and interstellar economy. Life on frozen rockballs being mined for their ice or minerals, or barren and dreary places only inhabited because they are on the way to someplace more interesting usually starts out in a bare-bones artificial environment. These can get pretty bleak without the little bit of home, and the measures taken to support life in environments that don’t naturally support it can become expensive and sometimes heroic.

  3. Skandia Recluse

    I modeled my colonizing spaceship on the old sailing vessels that brought the Europeans to the Americas. You couldn’t carry everything on two or three of those tiny little things. You landed in the New World with hand tools and muskets.

    The colony, once established won’t have the tools to recreate the advanced civilization they left behind even if they know about it. You need special tools, to make the tools, you need to build the factories you need to develop that high tech robotic factory that makes cell phones and desktop computers. That’s if you can remember, over many generations, what you left behind.

    • That may be increasingly less of an issue than we might thing. 3D printing has already reached the point where someone used it to build a foot-bridge in place. We very well may be close to the point where all that is needed is power and feed stock.

      This doesn’t mean our colonists would be changing computers and personal communication devices every few years, and they would likely be precious items due to difficulty in fabrication and lack of huge factories. It does mean that they wouldn’t likely be stuck with 1900 technology. It would mean that, without updated templates and a large enough population, they would be stuck at a particular technological level for a long time.

  4. Depending on where you look, it takes maybe five acres per person, but it’s worth noting that US homesteads ranged from 160 to 320 and, for ranching, 640 acres per family. With an average family size of five, that’s 32, 64, and 128 acres per person. Keep in mind that production of fiber to cloth the family as well as meat. A colony ship of 5,000 people would require from 160,000 to maybe 320,000 acres of growing space, including for livestock. For a colony ship of 5,000, this is 160,000 to 320,000 acres. That’s a square up to 22.36 miles on each side, not including area required to produce oxygen. Our colony ship starts to resemble something out of Rendezvous with Rama

    Or people could subsist primarily on yeast and algae, with just enough grown to keep an interesting diet. No idea how that would reduce the area requirement per person, but with yeast and algae this area can be vertical.

    • On a colony ship you would have complete control over the environment. Perfect weather, perfect sunlight, perfect rainfall, perfect nutrient flow. You could get three or four very productive harvests per ‘year’.

      For short stalked crops you could stack your surface area to take advantage of overhead volume, converting surface area to volume.

      And why does corn have to be eight feet tall? You get a larger ear, and more kernels?

      • On a ship you could create microclimates walled off from one another – look at Slow Train to Arcturus, Dave Freer’s take on a generation ship.

      • No, corn doesn’t have to be as high as an elephant’s eye, and sweet corn and pop corn isn’t. There’s a reason for things, though, and plants produce the energy to make those ears of corn. All plant doesn’t help, but hardly any plant doesn’t help, either, when it’s three ears to a stalk and especially if you’re pulling corn by hand. I have had to stoop to pull sweet corn, but never again.

        There’s also the fodder issue. A missionary in Africa ran into this with some high yield millet that was supposed to help the locals. The locals laughed because there wasn’t enough stalk to use as fodder, and it was so short that it was hard to harvest by hand.

        Here’s something else: What is optimal for colony ship conditions may not be optimal for a planet. Modern corn hybrids, at least those locally, are just fine if there’s plenty of irrigation and fertilizer, and you can plant the things so dang close you don’t see how it can grow. But for dry land farming it doesn’t do so hot.

  5. Spiders?!? The one insect that turns me into a Kung Fu master every summer?* No thanks.
    * They like to build webs between a porch pillar and the wall in front of the front door at Redquarters. Every night. And I tend to blunder into them once a week or so, with the usual arm waving and flailing seen in C-grade karate movies.

  6. Here’s one way I think it may be possible to go. Asteroids can be “inflated” by melting them with ice buried in the center, then sealed and made useful. This gives you your area for food production. Start with water and micro life, algae etc, and work your way up, shrimp fish etc. Harvest organics from there, and add in all the organic waste your Belters produce, mix in rock dust for the minerals etc and you have soil. Plant, harvest, plow under, etc. Wash rince repeat, it will, as you say take time but so did the settlement of lands on Earth. Solar mirrors for light heat power. Your Belters will slowly shift from importing food to producing. And in time, parks, wild life areas, we have zoos now I think people would still like to have something similar in space, once it was possible. Now hauling a fleet of these food production asteroids across interstellar space would be hard but, handwavium. WB

  7. With a slow ship, you can keep up communications with Earth. If you’ve got the basic tools, such as 3D printers, you can make the new designs downloaded from Earth, getting gradually behind, but twelve lightyears out, you’ll still only be twelve years out of date.

    However, I agree than losing the summer wind on your face and the icy breath of a winter morning, birdsong and the glimpse of wild animals . . .

    Hydroponic farming, soil bacteria samples in the deep freeze along with human and animal embryos, small breeding herds of animals that can gestate all the varieties and closely related species in the freezer . . .

    It won’t be easy to leave. makes me want to hold out for FTL.

    • How would you like to be light years from Earth and Mission Control decides to upload the future equivalent of Windows 10 on you?

      • oooh there’s a story idea there!

        • And you think . . . “This was released three years ago. I wonder how many bugs they’ve found to date?”

          I was think about news. Well, the crap on TV would be really boring three or twelve years later. But personal stuff. You get the message from your sobbing sister about Mom dying . . . eight years ago. I wonder if accepting colonists who have very few links to Earth left would be useful, or harmful? Would people with big families feel less lost and forgotten, or most regret their decision to go?

          • Holly

            I think for generation ships you need to send the whole clan. The big family has already developed a lifetime of ways to cope with each other when they’d rather kill each other and the matriarch or patriarch says ‘You may not.’ Even in the USA with relatively fragmented families, there’s someone who has natural authority over the family group, along the lines of ‘I brought you into this world . . .’

            • And an extension of this is that perhaps ‘loners’ wouldn’t do well on a generation ship.

              • And how many generations will the trip entail? If you can get up to .1C you’re at alpha Centauri in less than 50 years. Everything else will take longer. In 120 years none of the original colonists will be alive, and only the last of the first generation born aboard ship.

                I wonder if they’d still teach US history? Or just world history, Anthropology and Archeology to people who will never study it in the field. How long until Evolution sounds like the Flat Earth Theory. “Primates? What do you mean we’re descended from ‘primates.’ THERE’S NO SUCH THING! Why don’t you just tell us horses evolved from wild hornless unicorns? Even Elves make more sense!”

                Sorry. The fictionalization got away from me, for a bit there . . .

  8. Belinda Stewart

    I enjoyed reading this post and so with those funny comment. This one made my day.