Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Summer Breezes in the American Midwest

Entry for 3 August 2009:

When we got home from dinner on Saturday night, one of the first things we did was to open the windows. In Scotland, we have to keep the windows closed for most of the time in the summer. On a good day, we’ll open them 6 inches for a few hours. There are no screens, so the bugs come in, and after a while it starts to get cold in the flat, so we have to close them again.

In Toledo, at this time of year, there are many days where you can keep the windows open, day and night. We have to close the house up for thunderstorms, of course; also, if it gets warm, you might want to close them in the afternoon to keep the heat out; and if it get really hot and humid, then it’s better to just close up the house and run the air conditioning. These are normally things we take for granted, like closing the house up in mid-morning and drawing the blinds on hot days, practices that people don’t seem to understand in Scotland, even when the rare hot day or two comes along. A couple of times this past June, I annoyed my colleagues in the Counselling Unit by lecturing them on appropriate in-door climate control for hot days.

What this means is that the boundary between in-doors and out-doors feels much more permeable here in the US than in Scotland. The house, and our living in it, seems to breath more freely. When a week or two of really hot, humid weather does come along, so that we have to shut up the house in order to be able to get anything done or even to sleep properly at night, I feel stifled after a day or two and look hopefully for the weather to cool down, not so much because I hate really hot weather in itself (although I don’t really like it), but more than anything else just to be able to open things up again. The breeze comes up, blows the papers off the desk in my study, but feels heavenly and free. The cool mornings feel refreshing rather than cold. It all feels alive indoors and outside.

Apparently, there is good reason for this. A couple of months ago, a collection of faculty members at my university gathered for most of a day to talk about health-related research. One of them, either an engineer or an architect, started talking about indoor air pollution. “The air inside buildings,” he said, “is always dirtier than the air outside, even on the busy streets of the city centre. The air comes from outside, bringing all that with it, and gets even more dirty inside.”

So one of the joys of the period of the year from late Spring through early Fall here in the upper Midwest of US is being able to throw open the windows in order to air the house out and to let the fresh air in. There is a below-ground freeway (motorway) half a block from our house in Toledo; when we first moved here almost 25 years ago, it used to bother us, especially in May when we started opening the house up at night. By now, however, the passing cars and trucks are simply part of the susurrations of the summer’s night, like the sea or a waterfall in the middle distance. And in the early summer mornings, lying awake still with the remains of west-bound jet lag, the dawn chorus at 3 or 4 am is rich and intricate with polyphonic birdsong. The other morning I counted the counterpoint lines of 3 or 4 different species weaving together.

These times take me back to my childhood in Lodi, in the Central Valley of Northern California, when sometimes the magic would feel so strong that I simply had to get up and sneak out of the house at 4 or 5am, just to experience the streets empty of cars and people, a different world, familiar but alien in its peacefulness and the sense of clarity. At these times, I seem to come home not just to our old house here in Toledo, but also to a series of earlier selves from other places and other summers, when the open windows let in breezes, birdsong, and the sound of the occasional crop-dusting airplane flying in the early morning over the grapevines half a mile away, just outside of town.

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