Remembering Leigh
Warchild: The Testimony and Music of Emmanuel Jal

The Mixed Legacy of Air Conditioning

air When I picked up my daughter from camp in the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri today, she did not complain about the lack of air conditioning and over 90 degree weather of the past two weeks.  However, after a three hour closing program in the heat, I eagerly climbed into the car, rolled up the windows, and hit the “Maximum AC” button.  The cool air flowed and I began to breathe again.  Then my daughter rolled her window down and I felt the blast of hot air circulate through the car.  I asked her if she felt OK, did she need air, and she said she was fine, that she “just needed some Missouri air.”

My daughter had gotten used to life without conditioned air, could smell the difference in the air, enjoyed the feel of natural air, even hot air.  I had a picture of her come to mind, lying in her bunk, sweating at first, the night still hot, then as her body cooled, actually getting cold under the fan, listening to cicadas, to the breeze in the trees, to raindrops on the roof, smelling that musty smell of old wood, wet clothes, and insufficiently washed campers.  I know she loved it all.  She was simply taking in a last breath of it before returning to the air conditioned world of civilization.

I don’t really remember a time without air conditioning.  When we moved into a new home in 1962, when I was four, we put in central air.  Since then it has been a fixture of my life.  My wife grew up differently.  She lived in an older home with no air conditioning.  It had high ceilings, large windows, and a canopy of old oak and maple trees shading it. If on occasion it was uncomfortable in the Summer, having lived there for a while myself, there is still something I miss about it.  Part of living in that house was the sense of connection with the world outside.  With the windows open at night, we took in the noises of the neighborhood outside, both the human and non-human.  We felt the seasons change.  And if we were in a troubled season of our own, there was a comforting constancy about the sounds of traffic passing by, cicadas that always sang, birds that woke us with their morning chatter, trees that creaked in the wind, a steady rain with the sometimes gush sometimes drip of water in the downspouts.  We were a part of something greater than ourselves, something larger than the environment we had made for ourselves.

I had forgotten how much air conditioning changed our lives.  I had particularly forgotten how this technology has both positive and negative impacts on us.  A 2005 article in American Heritage Magazine lamented the mixed results brought by the widespread use of air conditioning, noting that while business productivity increased, “[p]orch culture in rural areas, and stoop and street culture in the cities, declined as Americans chose to stay indoors and watch television instead.”  Forced outside for the sake of cool air, we were more neighborly.  Even vocational life changed around seasons.  I have a friend whose father shuttered his real estate practice in June and took his family to a un-air-conditioned cottage at the beach for the Summer, enjoying cooler ocean air, slowing down.  Even I can remember when work slowed down in the Summer, even in the 1980s.  Not so, now.

Not everyone liked air conditioning, either.  Playwright Horton Foote (“Tender Mercies,” “The Trip to Bountiful”) complained in 1995 that “Every place is air conditioned.  I don’t hear the train whistles like I used to.  That haunting lonely sound.  When the cotton mills were running full-time and they had a cotton seed mill, we would have this wonderful odor permeating the house.  I find myself thinking, ‘What was that really like and why did it vanish?’”  Novelist William Faulkner refused to allow air conditioning in his steamy Oxford, Mississippi home, rejecting this modern effort to "do away with the weather." (And yet, the day after his funeral in 1962, his wife, Estelle, installed a unit.)  Because the availability of air conditioning has so affected the way our homes and public buildings are designed, we find it difficult to do without it; structures once built to cool us passively --- with large windows, high ceilings, and fans --- now often have smallish windows or windows that do not even open.  Weather becomes an abstraction for most of us, since regardless of temperature, we live and work and shop in places that are pretty much the same temperature year round.  In that, something is lost.

There’s no going back, of course.  Porch culture is unlikely to return, even though we glimpse it fleetingly in moments of widespread and lengthy power loss.  And yet just because you have a thing like air conditioning doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time.  Open a window.  Feel that hot Missouri air.  Sleep under a fan.  Listen to cicadas.  Remember that you are a part of a larger community, a larger world outside --- not for some dip into nostalgia but because you need it. . . now.