There’s no doubt that nature plays a big role in creativity, both inspiring works of art and being part of the art that is produced. Examples abound, but just a few come immediately to mind: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, not to mention countless numbers of poems and paintings.
That truth was one of the thoughts that came to me one day as I walked through my neighborhood on a gorgeous and mild late-spring day, with temperatures in the mid- to upper-70s and low humidity levels. Despite the comfortable conditions, more than one air conditioner was grumbling its way through the afternoon, and it got me thinking: how did we get so spoiled and addicted to air conditioning that some of us would have it going on a day on which, when I was a child, we’d likely not even be using fans?
Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, no one (at least, no one I knew) had air-conditioning in their home. It’s true that nowadays, we have more days above 90 than we did back then, but we still had our fair share of scorchers. So we Northerners did what folks in the South who routinely contended with scorching summers did: Closed our windows and blinds in the heat of the day, drank cool drinks, sat under the shade of a tree or porch, and went swimming. And used fans. Then, when the heat of the day had passed, we opened our shades and windows and let in the cooler air. And used fans.
Even now that I’m older and more intolerant of the heat and humidity (experiencing high summer in cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, and Cairo while encased from head to toe in polyester nun’s dress likely had something to do with this, but that’s another story), I rarely turn on our air conditioning. For one thing, it seems strange to me to be sealed in a box of artificially cooled air, removed from the environment. With the windows closed and the air on, you can’t hear birds calling or the squeaks and cries of other creatures. When you’re sealed off from the outside, you don’t feel or give thanks for the sudden and miraculous and refreshing breeze that springs up to cool and dry your brow. And you don’t get the inspiration from the natural world for art or music or writing that artists throughout the centuries have.
Imagine William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Harper Lee, or even Barbara Kingsolver, all quintessential writers and chroniclers of life in the South, sealing themselves off in air-conditioned rooms while writing. My guess is they probably wouldn’t have come up with those fabulous descriptions of the (outdoor) South in their novels. They’d have had to imagine them rather than drawing on direct experience, their memories of evenings spent outdoors, perhaps imbibing a cool drink or two, for example (Faulkner was known to have favored mint juleps), doing the things Southerners did during the summer months. And while novelists are known for having great imaginations, there’s nothing like direct experience to inform writing.
Another reason I rarely turn on my air conditioning is this: I can’t help but think what the exponential growth of the use of air conditioning is doing to the environment. Sales of air conditioners have exploded worldwide over the last few years, and the use of AC is predicted to continue to rise substantially all over the world.
I don’t mean to suggest that those who really need air conditioning shouldn’t have it. Those living in tropical or subtropical areas, in countries like India, for example; or those living in the inner-city heat islands, where there are no trees to speak of (the irony being that poorer people in such areas either have no access to or can’t afford air conditioning), should and must have access to what could be life-saving cooling. But we must realize that AC’s increased use all over the world will result of billions of tons of carbon dioxide being dumped into the atmosphere, which will lead to higher temperatures, which will then lead to more use of air conditioning, and so on and so forth, in a vicious cycle.
Since I don’t live in such an area (though it can feel like it sometimes!), I choose to limit my use of air conditioning to heat waves, when the temperature is consistently above 90 degrees for days at a time, humidity is high, and the heat index approaches 100. At those times, I set the thermostat high, at around 79 degrees. There’s just no need for the inside of buildings to feel like the innards of a refrigerator or even a freezer, as so many offices and stores do! And let’s not forget that the most important thing is to reduce humidity levels. It’s high humidity levels that make us uncomfortable more than high temperatures. Otherwise, I do what I described above: Rely on shades and curtains to keep the hottest air out, opening shades and curtains and windows when it cools down, and using fans. In particular, in our bedroom, we turn on our window fan, the type that can be set to either expel hot air out or draw cool air in. We have it run for a few hours drawing cool air in before we go to bed. As a result, as long as there is cool air outside (which there is most of the time, except during extended heat waves), we cool down our bedroom sufficiently to be able to sleep comfortably.
One final thought: When we use air conditioning all the time and have our thermostat set low, what happens when the power goes out? Someone like me will likely have a much easier time of it, as my body is adjusted to higher temperatures, but those of us who spend all our days in artificially cooled air will no doubt suffer a great deal without it. Power outages are likely to happen more and more in the future, both because of the increased demand for electricity during heat waves, and the stronger and more intense storms that are predicted to occur (that are already occurring!) due to climate change. So just like weight training, you can train your body to withstand higher temperatures by gradually raising your thermostat in the summer.
As I write this, I’m sitting under my apple tree, enjoying the early-evening breeze that has sprung up, watching the birds flit about, listening to them chirp and warble. I’m not drinking a mint julep, but I might treat myself to a cool drink a bit later, when the sun starts to set and the fireflies come out.