Life at 61° N here in Sweden can offer some interesting challenges including nearly sunless days in winter to nearly darkless days in summer. Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton say that local site restrictions on a permaculture design make outside the box possibilities become available or brought into view. So while there are many challenges given us from nature and our environment there are an equal number of solutions and opportunities. In most northern areas villages have much smaller populations and so there is much more free and open land. We have plentiful hunting and fishing and more availability of the vast forest systems. I’ll be writing more about permaculture in other stories here in central Sweden but in this article I’d like to give you an overview of the seasons and life at 61° N.
The last four years have brought hundreds of visitors to our permaculture center, Earthway Experience, some from Singapore, some from Africa and the rest from places in between. Some are only here for a short visit, while many stay for weeks at a time. It can be hard for those living at ‘normal’ latitudes to imagine how far north 61° really is. People usually have lots of questions about life in the north. The number one question is almost always "How can you stand the long dark winters?” and the other question most asked is the counterpart, "What are the long days like?" One interesting question I received many times while living in Alaska was (also at 61° N) "Do you have regular houses — or do you live in Igloos?"
The Earthway Centre in Winter
The answers to these questions I usually tell in a story about the seasons here in the north. But first let’s take a look at the map to ‘see’ where 61° is in relation to what are considered relative ‘far’ north or south cities. Since the roots of permaculture come from Australia, we will use cities here as base locations. Melbourne is the southernmost city on the mainland at 37.78° S and Hobart in Tasmania lies at 42.88° S. Now let’s travel north and see where these would lie in North America and Europe. The counterpart of Melbourne is San Francisco, California in North America, and in Europe it is Seville, Spain. For Hobart, Tasmania, its northern counterparts are Medford, Oregon (lying in extreme southern Oregon) and Rome, Italy.
This all may seem a little confusing but to clear things up lets look at distances from these points to 61°. From Melbourne’s corresponding points in the northern hemisphere, 61° is ca 3600km (2240 miles) from 61° N. From Hobart and its counterparts in the northern hemisphere 61°is ca 2600 km (1600 miles) away! To put this in an east / west perspective it’s almost like traveling across Australia from Sydney to Perth, or, in North America, like traveling from New York to Salt Lake City, Utah, and in Europe like traveling from the tip of western France to past Moscow!
Now that we have some reference points and distances in mind, let’s answer those questions. Officially spring starts about March 20 in the northern hemisphere. Here at 61° N we have just over 12 hours of daylight on this day. We can definitely get spring snow showers, we may still have snow on the ground and nights are usually still below freezing. On May 16, 2010 we woke up to over 30 cm (12 inches) of snow on the ground and the snow was still falling. The day before was nice and sunny, fruit trees had flowers, the grass was green and it had seemed like summer was just around the corner. In a village not far from my village, a family from southern Sweden was visiting their summer cabin for the first time. There, closer to some mountains, they received double the snow we did and being wet heavy spring snow, the plow was unable to remove the snow. The family had an unexpected5-day extension to their stay in the cabin that year! So we can’t really put plants outside until the very end of May, when we are past the chance of frost. A greenhouse is quite useful and a heated greenhouse even more useful — maybe one heated by chickens.
Our short spring is now turning into summer and the days are getting longer and longer. By midsummer – June 21st – we have over 19 hours of daylight. This does not mean we have five hours of darkness. We have to consider the sunrise and sunset, which at this latitude means it never really gets dark. Further north, the sun never sets! In Alaska I did quite a bit of salmon fishing on a favorite of the many abundant rivers that are only a short drive from my home. Coming home we passed a bike path that lay between the community of Eagle River and Anchorage. There were bike riders, people roller-blading, moms and dads jogging and pushing their three-wheeled baby jogger strollers. Coming home to unpack the car of the various camping and fishing gear we were greeted by the sound of the neighbor mowing his lawn. It was only then I looked at the time to see it was past 11:00 pm! There are many times at the center where we are working in the garden or building some project well past 9pm, before dinner is even started. The sun is so high in the sky, so much to do, the days do not seem to end.
During this time plant growth is phenomenal. If one sits still and watches for a time, it seems as if you can see the plants grow in front of your eyes. Growth literally can be measured in a matter of days. Our dill and Jerusalem artichokes grow to over two meters high. But this amazing time is soon over. By the end of September some plants in the garden will continue growing such as our kales and cabbage and can take the frost but most things need to be harvested or they risk frost damage. By the autumnal equinox (approximately 22 September) we’re back to 12 hours days and the temperature is getting quite chilly both during the day and night.
After the summer flurry of activity and many short light-filled nights, the darkness is actually welcome. It seems a comfort to go to bed with the dark enveloping you. It is the start of what I call ‘charging the battery’ time. Such intense activity needs to be balanced out with a time of rest and a more measured pace.
We can have our first snows in October, but the last few years have seen no snow during this month. Daylight at the end of October is now down to about nine hours. During this season time is filled with being in the woods. Prior months brought much raspberry, blueberries, lingonberries and mushroom picking. Now, before the first snows blanket the forest, the last mushrooms can still be picked, but most berries are long gone. Another activity, moose hunting, has its opening during the last week of September (in my area of Sweden). It has been too warm in the past several years to risk shooting one and have it lie in the sun until it can be hauled away and butchered. So since I have been on the team (6 years now) we have refrained from hunting this period and have waited to the second week of October. This is the real premier hunting week. Our team draws from local hunters to some hunters traveling several hundred kilometers. Then if we still have moose left on our ‘quota’ the season extends to every other weekend until the end of December.
Traveling through time to the end of November we are now down to about six hours of daylight. These seasons have the kids in school and all the activities of daily life. In November there is a week long break from school and while it is usually too early to ski, there is always some activity or local destination to bring pleasure. The kids are waking up and walking to and from school in the dark. Winter solstice and the shortest day of the year on the 21st of December bring us down to about 5 ½ hours of daylight. Holidays and many school activities and shows such as Lucia fill the time. One can honestly say the darkness can seem a little much. Hopefully we have snow on the ground and the reflected light gives a brighter feeling, especially when there’s a full moon. After Christmas, while it is hardly perceptible, the days start growing longer. Mid-January brings 6 ½ hours days and mid-February 9 hour days. So now our batteries are almost fully charged. We are now ready for the next cycle of activity — the circle of time continues.
The limitations in weather and location are what make this such a wonderful place – Permaculture and Life above 60°. Oh yes, to answer the last question, we don’t live in igloos — we have regular houses (I live in a log house), and we have paved streets (ok in most areas – on main roads) and we don’t use whale oil in our lamps.
Stay tuned for more details on our permaculture experiences in the north!