Atlanta was in the grip of a particularly blistering heatwave and attendant high humidity. If you dared walk outside, you’d lose your train of thought as the relentless churning of central air conditioners made you drip sweat. The insight that the South was saved by air conditioning isn’t mine, but I treasure it because you really can’t overstate the impact of cooling on the quality of life. In Georgia, 10% of household energy used is used for cooling, and 90% of the state’s residents use central air, that’s how necessary AC is for rational thought. I learned the anatomy of air conditioning: gigantic cylinders wheeze their guts out as the air handler draws in air and a fan blows it past the compressor. People complain about the sky-high summer electric bills in the summer, but no one—no one—suggests saving money by not using air conditioning. You’d die.
My friend Jay had invited me to spend the weekend in her cabin in the North Carolina mountains, and even though I imagined it would be a far cry from what I, a California girl, knew as mountains (These would be hills, I told myself), I jumped at the chance get out of the city. Jay had told me that her cabin was rustic, but I assumed it would be comfortable inside and that we’d sip our Mint Juleps on a cool, shaded porch overlooking, at the least, a small valley.
Jay picked me up and we started driving out of Atlanta, a bit too early for my taste. I stared out of the car window at all the Southern lushness. Atlanta prides itself on being the most “treed” big city in the country, and Southerners love their drippy, vine-soaked environment. To me, who prefers bleak landscapes—deserts, frozen places, dead lake beds, rocks—the scenery felt excessively busy, populated as it was by both itself and the insects. The insects! Too many green, growing, living things that distracted me from my teeming internal life.
On the road, we talked of pleasant things. I asked her how she’d come to buy the cabin we were heading for. She told me that it had been an old Forest Service hut, very primitive, before she and her husband remodeled and added onto it. I imagined a place nestled in the woods, but what kind of woods? I knew the deep, dark forest of Maine and the temperate forests near Sonoma, California. What would a Southern forest look like? How bad would the bugs be? One of the joys of hiking in California was the absence of insects. And of humidity. This North Carolina forest was going to be different. But at least we’d be able to come in to cool off from the heat.
Jay planned to stop in Asheville to visit antique stores to check out their formal tea sets for her “collection.” She said she wanted to find “one whole set.” I dimly grasped what this even meant. Tea sets? Well, Jay was British, and tea is essential to Brits, so it made some sense, but as we squeezed through aisle after aisle of china, I learned that tea sets just weren’t my cup of coffee. It proved impossible to find a set with all of its vital parts intact: Southerners love tradition and have big families, so there was an impressive array of cast-off tea sets to view, but Southerners also, apparently, are careless and break stuff. No full set was to be found. After a couple of hours and lunch at a cafe, we were on our way again.
By the time Jay’s tires crunched up the short dirt road to the cabin, I was tired of sitting and ready to get out, see some hardwoods, and feel the forest surround me. Stepping out of the car was a shock: it was just as hot as in Atlanta, even though we were in the mountains! How could it be so hot, when we’d been driving uphill for the last long stretch? Pisgah National Forest, which surrounded Jay’s cabin, has peaks that were more than a mile high. You couldn’t be hot at that elevation…could you? I said, “Wow, it’s beautiful! It’s hot!” She said, “Well, yes, it’s summer. Let’s dump our stuff and go for a walk. We’ll cool off.” Cool off by walking in the heat? There was a concept.
Far from rustic, Jay’s place was haut moderne and lovely by any standard. It had a large screened-in front porch, three roomy bedrooms, a timbered living room lined with books and genuine artwork (no prints), and a small, functional kitchen with gourmet accoutrements. Even though it complained a lot, the indoor plumbing worked fine. I gushed (with sincerity) over the charm of the place
What it did not have was…air conditioning. I stopped myself from asking, how will we be able to sleep here tonight? That wouldn’t have been polite. We pitched our gear, put on Jungle Juice to thwart the insects, and went out to catch the last of the light.
The forest was dense but not Maine-dense: even in July, with everything in full leaf, there weren’t many dark patches and none of the slippery rope-like roots that can trip you up. The insects were heroic feasters and ate and drank us, saving our eyes for their liquid course. Dead hemlocks, sucked dry of their lifeblood by wooly adelgids, drooped low along the path. We joked about the huge shelf mushrooms that almost begged to be sat upon but had to be satisfied with being photographed. Extensively. As I held my camera for each shot, the sweat dripped down my upper arms and fell to the ground. “Wow, hot,” I said. And: “Great pictures!” Jay didn’t reply.
Our long loop brought us back to the cabin, where we assembled a light supper under Jay’s direction. Talk was easy and stayed light, mostly about how she and her husband had fixed up the cabin and then looked for furniture to suit it. She was the host, I was the guest, and it went as such things should go. After dinner, full of food and cocooned in the big screened porch, we enjoyed glasses of a deep red wine. Just before going to sleep, we moved indoors and sat on adjacent couches, reading high-level chick lit from Jay’s stock of books with Bach playing in the background.
Then it was time for bed. It was still so, so hot. How would we ever fall asleep? There was no air conditioning!
My corner bedroom had two twin beds, one with windows at the head and side, the other against the wall on the left as you entered the room. Which bed would be cooler? The one against the wall would be shadier next morning as the sun rose, but was less likely to catch a crossbreeze, while the one near the windows was better-placed for air movement but might get too hot in direct early-morning sunlight. I chose certain morning shade over a possible crossbreeze, and we made up the bed next to the wall. Jay said, “Let’s get those windows open. It’ll be cooler.” Music to my ears.
Old windows are heavy! Each sash had its own secret trick for staying open: once you’d pushed it up a crack, you had to insert a small peg or little block of wood in the frame. You had to move quickly, or the whole thing would slam down on your finger. Finally, we got them all open and peered out into the dark through the dull sheen of screens instead of through our reflections in the glass. We listened to the deafening thunder of the creatures of the Southern night, sounds that comfort and disturb at the same time: so much life, but so much life that might sting or bite you. I thought of the silence of the desert night and the plainsong purity of coyotes’ voices just outside. How I wished I was there!
Jay took a deep breath of the night air, told me “Sleep tight”, and started off to her room at the far end of the house. I thanked her for the day, put on a nightgown, and climbed into bed, hoping that the creak and sag of the mattress didn’t portend back agony by morning. How could I ever fall asleep in this heat? I turned out the light to try.
It was like falling into a deep, dark pit of insect noises. They rattled, screeched, hummed and chirruped, a sound I’d read about but never understood until that night. As I relaxed into the noise, everything began to seem peaceful despite the heat, and then I noticed one element never—never—present in city life in Atlanta: a breeze.
When had I last fallen asleep with a breeze blowing over me?
In Michigan, where I grew up before air conditioning got big, we sweltered all night long, thrashing about while trying to free ourselves from the sticky, twisted sheets. Even the slightest stray air current was hailed as a “night breeze.” Sometimes, while visiting a friend’s lake house or summer cabin, you’d be offered the prize: a corner room like the one I now occupied in North Carolina. Looking forward to a cool(er) night’s sleep, I’d distract myself from the ritual bug-infested evening cook-out by the lake by imagining how the crossbreeze would tease lace curtains across my sleeping body later that night. Living in California, I hadn’t needed night cooling; in Arizona, there was a swamp box atop the little cabin I lived in: in New York, we used big fans.
No more shivery anticipation of a crossbreeze after we moved to Atlanta. There, you’re hermetically sealed into rooms that get central air conditioning. You never know what the weather is like outside until you leave work. Of course, it’s not only the South that uses artificial air. HVAC is now almost a household word and the health dangers of recirculated air are clear to all of us. At work or at home, we mostly breathe only air that’s been “handled”: sucked in from the outside, and then filtered and cooled as it is passed through chemically cooled tubes powered by cranky machines that break a lot.
Sweating in bed in North Carolina, I tried to find reasons to hate air conditioning so as not to miss it so much. In many ways, condensers had forever altered summer, robbing it of much of its grubby essence, compared to what I experienced as a child. Central air conditioning forces its manicured air to be anything but air. Stripped of its fragrance, its pollen, its dirt, and, of course, its temperature (that wondrous reflection of earth’s metabolism), it settles over you like a gaseous shroud as you doze in your smooth, synthetic sheets. Forever lost inside your house are the smells of soil, rot, and slow, budding growth! City kids keep their windows shut because of noise or burglars or dirt; suburban kids fear the burglars, too, but they also worry about rain that might start at midnight and pour in, ruining the carpet, or about the cold they might catch from a draft. Open a window? Are you crazy? Sealed tightly inside your home, you lose not just the smells but also the sounds of summer. You can’t hear your friends playing outside or Mr. Jones in his yard raking leaves (but then, your friends are at the mall anyway, and Mr. Jones works 24/7 to keep the family in grass seed).
No breeze blew across me as I lay in Jay’s cabin, and I was uncomfortably sweaty. With no sheep left to count, I catalogued other sensory pleasures that had vanished from my life because of air conditioning. When, lulled to sleep by the sound of falling rain outside my window, was I last able to smell rain, not just hear it? When, from inside my house, did I last hear the ice cream truck’s bell, the sluff sluff of the postman’s shoes as he brought me a letter from afar, or the buzzing of insects as they vied for place in my backyard’s ecosystem? All of these auditory joys are extinguished, masked, and overridden by the soulless, treated air. Air conditioning has even trumped literature: Juliet would still be waiting for Romeo if she’d had a climate-controlled bedroom and a closed window, and Rapunzel’s hair would have been forever imprisoned along with her.
Air conditioning traps us in our cars, too. Gone is the fun of tracing the ins and outs of a row of telephone poles with your hand stuck outside the open passenger window as a grown-up drove you somewhere. Gone is the sweaty feel of your shorts-bared bottom against ugly brown Naugahyde on the way to Grandma’s Sunday dinner over two-lane roads, and no longer can you inhale the distinct smells of different neighborhoods as you travel through them. Air conditioning forces us apart, too: when you stare at a pedestrian through your car’s open window, you feel a brief jolt of human contact as your eyes meet. You share the same world. Now, the closed window is a boundary, a transparent wall that separates safe “me” from the slightly scary, potentially dangerous “you.” On a hermetically sealed train at night, you can’t see out beyond your own reflection in the window or feel the joy of hanging out through that half-opened window and waving to the cows as you speed past.
Sweaty discomfort can even broaden us! Summer’s dripping agony could force you into strange, unpredictable situations. Say you’d slept poorly because of the heat or because a big June bug had flown in through a tear in the screen and landed on your pillow. (There might be shrieking). Fleeing the heat, the soggy night and the June bug, you might run into someone in the kitchen, up late like you and also seeking a cold drink to escape the heat—and you two would have a conversation that would change your life. Knowing that there was a tiny chance of encountering the unexpected (or even the unwanted) made you more fearless and perhaps more resilient, maybe even humbled by reminders of life’s uncontrollability. The flip side was fun, too: when things turned out less sticky and bug-ridden than anticipated, you’d feel delighted. Rewarded, even.
This kind of thinking did not lead to drowsiness, though, in my hot, narrow twin bed. I needed to cool down. There was another side to the story: even with all the opportunities for sticky shorts and serendipity and unplanned kitchen encounters in olden days, it had still been damned hot without air conditioning.
I hoped I would be just lucky enough to catch a crossbreeze, and wondered whether I should have chosen the other bed. Better ventilation, I thought. Maybe I should move.
But wait. Something’s moving. It’s…AIR! It’s coming in through the window! It’s blowing on me even though I chose the other bed, the one against the well. It’s a crossbreeze!
Oh wonderful, wonderful air, natural air, real air! It’s so cool, so, so cool. Could anything be more refreshing? Could anything be more natural? There, in Jay’s rustic, non-airconditioned cabin, I felt like I was being blown into the land of dreams, softly and gently. I closed my eyes.
I think I’ve never had a better night’s sleep.