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.