- story and photo by Ellis Anderson
We who call the Gulf Coast our home live for this: The first night we can sleep with the windows open.
Of course it’s not the first night ever, or even the first time of the year we’ve been able to drift off to the pulsings of crickets. We call it the “first” because it’s been months since the windows have shifted in their casings.
Gradually, as the six-month summer has worn on, we’ve sealed ourselves in to our homes. To save on energy bills, we have plugged every crack and crevice where the precious air conditioning might escape.
In fact, in an older house like ours, the wood has forgotten how to slide easily, so when October rolls around at last, they need a bit of coaxing and banging around before moving up and leaving us face to face with the trees and the sky and a type of crisp air that was only a vague memory.
All summer on the coast, breathing outside is like inhaling hot fog. The atmosphere has a soft, sticky, almost smothering, quality. But the fall air has smooth edges and slides into our lungs like ice cream. The oxygen it carries is not muffled by moisture and instantly infuses our bodies with energy. This air even has a flavor, with hints of pine and salt, and underpinnings of oak and rosemary. In contrast, the filtered and recycled air we’ve grown accustomed to seems as bland as instant mashed potatoes.
So in October, with great delight at how we’ll be saving money and vexing the power companies, we turn off the house’s workaholic central air unit. It’s been running a marathon since May. The unit in the back yard groans and hisses as it shuts down. The household hum, the one that we don’t even notice any more, clicks off and a supernatural quiet settles down.
When we open the window, the quiet outside is startling too. Everyone else in the neighborhood has done the same. The only motor we hear is that of the crickets’ squeaky wheel. The jubilant song of the Mockingbird in our bottle brush tree is answered by the others in the neighborhood and becomes a layered chorus.
Under the sheet, and yes, the light quilt on top, head on the pillows, the breeze ruffles my hair. There's no mistaking it for the artificial breezes the ceiling fans churn up. The air off the gulf has a living quality, an unpredictable rhythm of its own. It surges into the room like a soft, rising tide. I fall asleep to the sound of a tree frog.
I’m not complaining about air conditioning, of course. I’m grateful to have it. When I was a kid, the Waldens next door had the only window unit in the block and lovely Mrs. Walden, who reminded me of June Cleaver, would allow a gaggle of sweaty, grimy kids, panting and red from playing outside, to cluster around the sacred machine, crowding each other for our share of the miraculous cold blasts.
In the 1960s, only 12 percent of Americans had some sort of air conditioning in their homes. The concept of “climate controlled” was a Popular Science fantasy. Many families like mine had a ceiling fan, its rumbling and clatterings dragging reluctant lava streams of hot air through the rooms. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a ceiling fan, metal box fans were propped into windows.
How quickly we grew spoiled. In many homes now, there’s a narrow comfort range on the thermostat and if some economy or environmentally-minded member of the family tries to change it, there will likely be a ugly mutiny.
But it turns out that a narrow range of temperatures slows our metabolisms. Research shows that it may have a significant bearing on the fact that Americans have more trouble with obesity than other countries – ones where climate control isn’t so prevalent.
Celestine Labat would seem to have proved the point. She was 99 years old when I met her and didn’t have an ounce of fat on her body. Her family called her Teenie because she was. Born in 1901, she distained air conditioning. I can recall only one visit where the window AC unit was running in the lovely high-ceilinged house her daddy built on Easterbrook, the home where she’d been born.
Most times I visited during warm weather months, she’d only have a fan running. The sweat would bead and drip off of me and I’d wonder why she didn’t seem affected.
Other times, I’d go over and find her raking the yard. Not fast, mind you, but pulling the rake through the grass, assembling little piles of dead leaves and twigs from the pecan trees. The cottony quality of the air didn’t seem to bother her. I think she just raked to be outside. She relished the fresh air in July as much as October.
Celestine lived to be 104. I thought of her last night as I was drifting off to sleep last night, with big open portals in the walls between me and the natural world.