Heat Wave: A Matter of Degree

July 18, 1993|By PETER A. JAY PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- During the lingering visit of the latest Bermuda High, I took to going around the house in the morning pulling curtains across windows. As the sun climbed and outdoor temperatures rose above 100, this made the indoors more livable.

At least I thought it did. One steamy afternoon when I'd been baling hay, I headed back to the house for a drink. The interior was dark and refreshingly cool. It would have seemed even cooler if I hadn't looked at the indoor thermometer, which registered 90. Comfort is a matter of degree.

Later, the weather seemed to break, and we all remarked how much more bearable it seemed. At night, outdoors, the temperature by bedtime was a fraction below 80. Indoors it was about 85. Not much cooler, but enough to make a difference. A matter of degree.

In extreme weather, little differences in temperature seem especially noticeable. Animals are wiser to them than we are. Recently the cows have been spending most of the day in any shady place where there's a little breeze, and then moving out into the fields after the sun goes down.

Our big barn is built more or less on an east-west axis, and in summer the wide ground-floor doors are always open at each end. This creates a long shady wind tunnel that's one of the coolest places on the farm, while the hayloft, just overhead, is one of the hottest.

At the very highest part of the loft, some 25 feet above the floor, is a steel track with pulleys on it. From the pulleys is suspended an electric conveyer we use to move bales of hay. When we shifted the conveyer a few days ago a rope broke right at the rooftop pulley, and I had to climb a ladder to fix it.

I didn't carry a thermometer, but the temperature there right under the metal roof must have been 30 degrees above that on the floor of the loft, and 40 degrees above that at ground level. In the range of known temperatures, 10 or 20 or even 40 degrees isn't much, but it can be the difference between comfortable and almost unbearable.

Visitors to our house sometimes ask why we don't have air conditioning, and there's no good answer to that question. I usually say that I just don't like it, and that going back and forth from outdoor heat to indoor refrigeration makes the heat seem worse. But while that's true as far as it goes, it isn't entirely logical.

In winter, after all, I don't fuss about not liking central heating. The furnace, helped by the woodstove, keeps the house at what we consider a comfortable temperature no matter what it's like outside. This is what most people with air conditioning do in summer, and we could do it too. In recent years, because not all members of my family feel as I do, we've put an air conditioner in one room for those who feel they need it.

But inside an air-conditioned house everything seems so still. I like to feel that first touch of breeze that comes, on most evenings, just after sunset. And I like to hear what's going on outside, whether it's the buzz of katydids, the sound of rain on the leaves, a cow complaining or a mockingbird up on the chimney singing to the moon. With the windows tight shut most of that's lost.

Besides, the heat is transitory, like all things.

Outside our house to the west are three trees. There is an osage orange, which some people around here call a hedge-apple. North of that is a white ash. North of that is a walnut. They're useful for shade, and also for some basic astronomical observations.

In midwinter, when I stand on the corner of my porch at the end of the day and watch the sun fall into the woods to the west, it is south of the osage orange. As the year advances, the sunsets ease north, first to the ash and then, in late spring as the days grow long, to the walnut and beyond.

During the last week in June, it was north of the walnut by about the width of my thumb. Now, at about 8:30 in the evening, as I take my position on my quarterdeck/porch and raise my sextant/thumb for a sighting, I can already detect an important change. The round red blob is no longer creeping north. As it starts to disappear, it's less than a thumb-width from the walnut tree.

Soon it's gone, leaving the hot still afternoon dissolving into a hot still evening. Behind me the old French ceiling fan I brought back from Saigon makes its endless mechanical mutter as it churns the tepid air -- au revoir, au revoir, au revoir, it might be saying. From beneath the sycamores out in the field the cows begin to emerge.

The sun's almost imperceptible shift to the south is a timely reminder of two reassuring facts. Winter will come. And not only will it come, but it's already on its way.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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