Monday, 22 August 2011

The turn of the year

The Girl looking at the neighbours' horses
The seasons turn differently for all of us. My family in Missouri are seeing the last 40-degree (100F) days of an unusually harsh summer, while acquaintances Down Under are seeing the close of a winter. Here, we saw our breath for the first time yesterday, and the leaves are beginning to turn.

These days feel like a countdown; we are drying herbs for tea and seasonings, pickling vegetables, brewing wine, and checking the miles of hedgerow elderberries inching closer to ripeness. The increasingly rainy weather means time is running out to get peat for fuel from the bog; we have enough, but tractor pull wagons past our front gate laden three metres tall with peat sometimes, the father driving and the rest of the family standing and holding the sides. Even though it is still summer, we all feel the oncoming darkness.

I have mentioned how strange it feels -- for one unaccustomed to it -- to live on an island less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, kept mild by a Caribbean current but at latitudes that elsewhere see polar bears. Summers for us mean light in the sky as early as 3 am and as late as 10 pm, long stretches of sun that cause our crops and weeds to grow so rapidly we can’t keep up. Unfortunately, it means that winter brings months of brief, dim light over a Gothic landscape.

Yet the temperature never ranges widely, from a median fifteen (60F) in the summer down to five degrees (40F) in the winter, and the weather only gets rainier. The Irish are well used to the damp and chill; old people tell me they walked to school barefoot in all seasons, which sounds like a standard exaggeration until I see it borne out by historical accounts and photos. Even now the Irish keep their rooms and offices at temperatures far below what most Americans would tolerate.

When the temperature hits 25 degrees, though, (70 F) some of my co-workers turn red, sweat profusely and lunge for the air conditioner – they actually have air conditioners here -- to turn the ambient temperature back down to 15 (50 F) or so. To someone who grew up in 40-degree summers, this seems ridiculous, but we were simply acclimatised to heat as the Irish are to the chill. Even in Missouri or the Deep South, moreover, everyone once lived without air conditioning, and society did not collapse.

Window in a pub near our home
Older homes in St. Louis don’t look ideal for the heat – they look like brick kilns – but they could be sealed off from the sun as Mediterranean homes are today, and instead of verandas they had porches. American homes built in the last few decades have tiny vestigial porches, but on homes built before cheap energy, they served a vital function, allowing people to work and live in shade and a breeze tunnel.

Before World War II, in fact, St. Louisans sometimes slept on their porches in the summer, or on balconies, or in rows of blankets on the grass of Forest Park. You can see a bit of this in the film Rear Window; during the heat wave, a couple sleeps on the fire escape, and the plot hinges on the fact that everyone keeps their windows open. You might think that nothing could be more dangerous than sleeping outside in St. Louis, but crime rates were lower then than now – and that in the middle of the Great Depression, when some people faced genuine starvation. Criminals find it difficult to raid a neighbourhood in which someone is always outside, and everyone knows everyone else.

Similarly, old neighbourhoods in almost any warm city had a range of features to cut down on heat. Some Arab countries feature lattices, which create shade themselves and could host climbing plants that shade further. Awnings draw attention to a window or door and offer protection from the sun, rain and snow, as do street-side trees. Southern homes had jalousie windows allowed air to pass while still offering shade, while Mediterranean homes have shutters that can be closed in mid-day, and many such buildings were white to reflect heat.

Almost all men and women once wore hats, statements not just of fashion but of profession and, most importantly, protection from the sun; hence the wide brims of European sun hats, cowboy hats, Asian bamboo hats and Mexican sombreros. Hats disappeared quickly in the 1960s, however – perhaps victims of changing fashion or the counterculture, or perhaps of the newly widespread office jobs and air conditioning.

Walk through endless miles of strip malls and asphalt in the USA today, and you notice a stunning absence of any basic features to make heat bearable using any method except air conditioning -- no awnings or trellises, no whitewashed roofs, few shutters or trees, and few hats or kerchiefs.

Nor do most modern cities feature amenities for winter; those same awnings would do wonders for keeping snow off the walkways, and those same trees and lattices would break up the wind. Insulated buildings, straw bales or firewood piles around walls, blankets in the attic, close quarters, sealed-off rooms, rows of black bottles in the southern windows – all of these and many more would reduce our winter expenses.

Just as importantly, we could adapt to far less heat in winter, even if we don’t have to walk barefoot in all seasons. A US organisation recommends an indoor winter temperature of around 22 degrees C (around 72F), but the British keep their homes at 17 degrees C (62F), and a few decades ago kept them at 12 degrees (53F), according to the UK’s Building Research Establishment. I don’t have statistics for this country, but I would guess it to be colder still. I’m getting used to it.

Most importantly, just as we can wear sun hats in summer, we can wear thermal undergarments in winter. Growing up I knew long johns mainly from old movies and cartoons, the favoured campfire dress of cowboys and prospectors, or what Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry always fell into on a washing line. As Kris deDecker of Low-Tech magazine pointed out recently, thermal underwear is an amazing heating resource, and recently developed fabrics allow us far better insulation than people had a few decades ago. A single layer of thermal underwear, he calculated, equates to four degrees of thermostat heat, letting you save you up to 40 per cent in heat energy.

The elderly people here remind me how little heat we need, just as other places remind me how much we can tolerate, both goals far beyond my current limits. My family lives with more heat than we truly need, I admit, but we live with about ten degrees less room heat now than when we first arrived in Ireland, and several years from now, one way or another, will live with less still. As with so many of our projects, we never feel like we are truly adapting, so slowly do the changes come. Then we look back several years, and realise how much we’ve changed.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I know that here in Wales (significantly hillier than either England or Ireland,and hence rainier (!) and colder (at least the eastern half)) houses were traditionally built with humungously thick walls - up to over a metre - and were low lying and squat, located in hollows. Presumably in order to make use of the insulation properties of soil, and to shelter from the ever present rain-bringing westerlies.

Brian Kaller said...

I almost went to Wales this weekend, and would love to see it. What were the walls made of?

brierrabbit said...

Yes it was a brutal summer here in Missouri. but like you said, people learned to live with it in those days. Eastern North America has summers that are quite literally tropically warm and humid, and sometimes polar winters. It make for an quite a change from year to year.
One of the mysteries to me is the popularity of decks over a traditional porch. Decks were originally developed in California, where humidity is low, and it doesn't rain all that often. the climate here is quite unsuitable for decks. It rains rather a lot at times, usually very heavy when it does. Humidity is tropically high, both of which create the conditions for deterioration via fungus, and rot. Plus, winter ice and snow may sit on it for days at a time. No protection for caring groceries, etc indoors, slippery deck boards, raking leaves off it, etc. Plus porches are architecturally more interesting, and last longer, because of the roof. Plus, I should note. nothing is as nice as sitting around on a nice screened porch in the evening, talking with a good friend, sipping ice tea, and watching fireflies dance in the dusk, while heat lightning flickers on the horizon. I sure glad our nights aren't as short as Irelands are. Winter there must seem like twilight never ends. I be sleepy all the time!