Weeds: Heat used to drive is outdoors

In September 1934, Sylvester Krzmarzick and Alyce Soukup married and took up lives together west of Sleepy Eye. Electricity wouldn’t reach their farm for a couple years. Warming their home that first winter was by coal purchased in town. Staying warm in winter was the first order of business. That was life and death.

Staying cool in summer? Folks did the best they could. My parents married into the hottest, driest era in Minnesota history. 1935 was hotter than normal, followed ironically by the coldest winter on record.

1936 was the real scorcher, though. June was hot and dry, but July was historic. A stretch of 100 degree days included Minnesota’s record high of 114. I’ve thought about my young parents here on the farm and what that was like. In the middle of all that, they started a family. If there were ever a testimonial to young love, that might be it.

This was pre-air conditioning. This was pre-fan. There was no refrigerator to get a cool drink from. Shade and any breeze they could find were treasures. They probably went down to the Cottonwood River for a respite. All I know for sure, is they survived it.

Later in 1936, electricity did reach our farm. Soon, armaments in the fight against summer heat arrived. My older siblings remember fans blowing. Then came a refrigerator. Later they bought an International Harvester freezer. That’s still in our basement, now serving as a supersize strongbox.

I don’t remember being miserable in the summer as a kid. “Miserable” was baling oat straw on the worst day. I remember the fans running all the time. Sometimes I slept in the basement. And there were Popsicles. When I was older, we got a single, overworked air conditioner that struggled to cool our big old farmhouse.

Today most of us spend July days in air-conditioned spaces. Our homes, many of our workplaces, our cars and tractors have AC. It’s now possible to spend the majority of one’s life within a few degrees of 72. Like many technologies we take it for granted; it’s hard too remember or imagine life without it. But this artificially cool air has had impacts. Here’s one small example.

I work part time at Fort Ridgley State Park. A few years ago, I got the pleasure of working with Lloyd Hinderman. Lloydy grew up and farmed his whole life north of the park, and he had great stories to tell of days spent there.

One day, Lloydy and I were working in the upper picnic area. This has been home to picnics for a century. The amphitheater was constructed in the twenties and the granite shelter was constructed by CCC workers in the thirties. Lloyd told me when he was young, his father had to come there on Sunday morning early before church to reserve a table. By the afternoon, it was packed with families out on a summer day.

Today, if it’s a hot, we just assume no one will be there. The venerable old picnic ground sits empty on such days. It struck me how that has changed. Today if it is a hot day, everyone is inside. Before air conditioning, the absolute last place you wanted to be was inside your home. The air in there would be still and stuffy. Outdoors, you could get in the shade and hope to catch a breeze.

In rural places, a lot of us still work outside. I’m plunking at a keyboard right now, but I spend most days outdoors. The day I’m writing, it will be 90. I know there is some wind, and there’s a hose hooked to the hydrant. I’ll be OK.

Our bodies have a great capacity to adjust for the conditions. That explains how human beings come to live on most of our planet. Scientists call this the “adaptive model of comfort;” we adjust to the temperatures we’ve recently experienced.

What does it mean when we can choose to put ourselves into a narrow range of temperatures? Probably more than we know. Like the empty picnic ground at Fort Ridgely, the sidewalks in Sleepy Eye will be mostly empty today. Again, in years past people would have been out, doing things in the shade or just setting on lawn chairs. Is it a different community because of that?

The exception today will be kids biking to the pool. The other exception will be among the Hispanics living in town. They are often out on summer days, no matter the temp. It’s possible some don’t have air conditioning in their homes. But I think out-and-about visiting remains part of their culture.

There are larger costs to air conditioning than a decline in front-porch setting. Increasing obesity in America has coincided exactly with the expansion of air conditioning. More people are inside which means more sedentary activity levels. And our bodies don’t have to work to make the normal adjustments to temperature that our ancestors did.

America now uses more electricity for cooling than the entire continent of Africa uses for everything. And if you accept that our use of fossil fuels is contributing to global warming, you find yourself in the ultimate irony. Cooling your house is causing the world outside to heat up. Good luck getting your brain around that.

Do I want to give up the air conditioner that is toiling across the room? No, not really. Here in Sleepy Eye, we parishioners are considering air conditioning St. Mary’s Church. When I was a Grumpy Young Guy, I pooh-poohed that idea. “My grandparents didn’t need air conditioning, why do you?” I’m becoming a Less-Grumpy Old Guy. Now I support the effort. The fact is most folks under 40 have spent their lives in climate-controlled conditions. And I want them to come to mass if it’s 90 and muggy? Besides, I told Pam, if I die in July, I’d like somebody to come to the funeral.

I don’t want to give up my AC. But perhaps I want to be more mindful of its costs. It’s like all modern conveniences. It ain’t free.

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