Cold-Water Swimmers: A Blog about Nature, Food, and Food from Nature
Cold water throws us into briskness and clarity. Plus, it's fun. The writing here is about finding flavor in nature, foraging, jumping into surprising arenas. Living brightly but slowly. Feeling cold water in dark weather, living in hills and dales, among leaves and trunks, with each plant and fruit and berry, each marrow and mallow.
**Photo of bee balm dried seed pods, by John Lodder, Flickr Creative Commons.
Having just returned from the woods, I’m
being still, letting the natural remain about my shoulders. I'm in a dim,
November-dusk room--sitting near a clear bag of
bright-green garlic mustard, an invasive plant that raises havoc nationwide, but tastes succulent. It has round, rippled leaves, a bit like those of an English violet.
Not having seen it before, I held onto the bag until I reached home, wondering if I had simply
harvested violet leaves past flowering time. Even so, I was pretty sure it was the right thing, and I felt proud of my weighty zip-loc.
**Photo of Garlic Mustard, by Jacob Enos, Flickr Creative Commons.
Now -- having checked several photos and descriptions online -- I'm sure it is garlic mustard, which
is good news. It’s energy-full stuff, despite being bad for
soil here in North America. But harvesting it (and not adding it to any
compost or yard waste) is a good way to clear the woods, while gaining vitamins. Hurrah. That’ll help, because my energy is
low. I'm congested, and have been for days. Dust and indoor allergens
that flare once the heat is turned on each fall have caused the problem. Mold causes it, in particular. There are other indoor factors: In other apartments, I've noticed the effect of chemical fragrances in winter – laundry detergents, harsh cleansers.
Pre-chemical use, we all cleaned with Bon Ami and maybe lye, or rosemary and other
That said, perhaps mold wouldn't trouble me if
I lived in a yurt and moved it from place to place, or if I knew all the herbs
to boost my immunity each winter. Meanwhile, I’m planning how to cook the
garlic mustard--and having nettle tea, which contains Vitamin C. It seems to be
**Photo of a log in fall woods, by Yo La Tengo, Flickr Creative Commons.
The forest has leaf molds too, but I
love walking its paths—and they don’t bother me because of the open air. Other than the green garlic mustard
scattered in small patches, the woods were all shades of brown and tan. There were beds of brown leaves, bare branches, and many walnut-colored
seed pods on long, bent stems.
After seven years in the Northwest, seeing
deciduous woods in winter -- not the damp, moss- and fern-thick woods of the Cascades -- is striking but invigorating. In the garden outside of my house
are dark brown pods, a bit like I imagine dried husks of bees would
look. These, the gardener told me, are what is left of our spring/summer bee
balm—a pink and sprightly flower and herb that is used in teas and other concoctions. It’s exciting to see this cycle, to know that the bee balm isn’t
gone, just different.
**Photo of seed pods by Lindy, Flickr Creative Commons.
Walking along the rock wall that lifts
the sidewalk on my street, one passes under trees, past rows of sere
and brown varieties of seed pods. All of those are changed now from the bright young plants
they were in late spring--but they're still beautiful, if a bit melancholy. It’s only
melancholy, though, because I want them to last
forever, in my human way. Eventually, hopefully, I’ll know how
each pod appeared in its past, and be able to contrast that with its current look.
Walking the brown paths was calming. I
thought about my need for nature, and reflected that maybe we aren’t meant to see
crowds of people, humans all the time, our faces rarely interrupted by tree
branches, sedge seed pods, tall grasses, clear streams.
I thought about how to
be in nature more often—it's an age-old question. How can we do that while still being
among like-minded, like-aged people and well-employed? There’s a graduate
program that focuses on nature and creativity. I wondered if that would be a
For now, I’ll give myself an assignment: Cover nature weekly.
Peace, happy late-November--it’s time to cook garlic mustard!
**Photo of garlic mustard and orange cup fungus, by Mightyjoepye, Flickr Creative Commons.
short season of adding ice to tall glasses of water has ended, it seems. We are in mid-September, and my recent trip to southern Maine has punched up the view
**Photo of Saco River, by Carter Brown, Flickr Creative Commons.
Of my four
days there, two were gray, two were glowing. They included pancakes, a house tour by a charismatic
six-year-old, and dark, tannic river swimming. Also a meeting; local cheese and
beer in an Edwardian neighborhood; and a Saturday farmers’ market that is everything organic-farm
and progressive and LGBT and collective in culture in southern Maine, at an Olmsted-ian downtown park.These crunchy views are less visible where I live, in Staten Island.
**Photo of carrots at Deering Oaks Farmers' Market by Mebrett, Flickr Creative Commons. That said, Portland’s overlay of organic and tech and foodie culture is only an overlay, it seems. For a city of 40,000 to have a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s is surprising--but it clearly has a hard-bitten side as well. It might be part Burlington, part Boston working-class suburb in a natural setting.
My last afternoon in Portland was
spent near the bus station, hearing about a non-working EBT
machine at the convenience store across the street, about coffee house
offerings being too expensive and too strong in flavor, about how much money is left on food-stamp cards this month, and a long bus trip to Corpus Christi,
Texas for a job and a return to Maine after finding only overnight heat and
contaminated beach water.
**Hilltop Superette, Munjoy Hill, Portland, by Kate, Flickr Creative Commons.
People are friendly. At the bus-station convenience store, the counter-women at the
pizza/Italian sandwich counter peer toward me as I choose a drink
and call, “How are ya?” in a kind, harsh-voiced way that sounds close to a
Boston accent to me, but different. I hear that only tourists eat lobster rolls,
although I can’t tell, because they seem only to be sold on the coast and in
rural areas, not in Portland.
At a coffee shop,
people smile to be in one another’s company in the line for espresso. In some
regions, smiling appears to be more of an obligation—but here,
people seem glad to be with one another, happy to be in a natural place.
**Photo toward Mackworth Island, from Portland, Maine, by Jeff Dunn, Flickr Creative Commons.
Outside of town, the rural roads have a kinship with small-town anywhere: mountain-side burgs in Washington state; wooded East Texas.
Leaving Portland, my bus
passes pine woods and rocky areas blasted for the highway.Two
retired women behind me are discussing Mount Holyoke and whether Devil in the
White City is indeed based on a true story.
As we near Boston, we
cross from woods and a certain amount of dereliction into the Northeast
Metropolitan Complex--there is a palpable feeling of emerging into the
swift click of the cities. With surprise, I realize that I have spent four days
outside of the metro area between Boston and Baltimore, which seems to be pulling us in. Now we're in the Tip
O’Neill Memorial Tunnel, then passing a farmer’s market on a busy square. City dwellers in business suits shop for dinner, not looking up to make eye
contact--they can't show a reaction to every passing
Greyhound bus, after all.
At Boston’s South
Street Station, a young man asks me to watch his trail backpack while he fetches
food. Noticing an Appalachian Trail patch ironed onto his pack, I mention it when he returns.
He completed the trail
the day before, he says—he and others drank champagne and made toasts after fog
cleared at the Katahdin summit. It seems magnificent and unusual and
world-breaking--I have the urge to give him five, but I refrain from some sense
of big-city decorum that I’m not sure is even necessary. He is a laid-back
trail kid, a recent NYU graduate with a green-careers degree. I grin and say it’s
amazing, how exciting that he did the trail.
After Boston, we drive
in darkness past conifers and across waterways. The passengers who
boarded in Boston are visibly more diverse and more prosperous: Back in the urban areas, middle-class people use public-transit, and ride long-distance buses between metro centers. In Portland, Somalian
and other African refugees were most of the non-white residents, but middle-class
African-Americans live near and south of Boston. The passengers around me seem buoyed
by suburban security and education. Because only a few of the electrical outlets are
working, people allow others to plug smartphones into their outlets. They assure each other that this is fine:“Thank you very much!” and “You’re welcome." This feels like kindness, but also like the urban politeness of strangers.
**Photo of woods in Maine, by Bryan Alexander, Flickr Creative Commons.
In the four hours
between Boston and New York, we pass land, land, the insurance
buildings of Hartford, rivers, then more land. I drowse, then wake to realize that buildings are on all sides, and this must be the Bronx. On one side, a stacked garage like a cruise-ship has an outlet mall's name in Roman letters that shine into the night. We whoosh past innumerable
buildings, glimpse the tiny red spire of the Empire State Building far ahead, cross
a river, then land on Amsterdam or Lexington and head south past the
small shops and cafes of Harlem.
Near Times Square, we
turn down an alley and find what seems unlikely: a two-story, yawning opening
into a garage, our secret entrance into Port Authority. Our bus tucks in with dozens of other buses. I ask the hiker, who is across the
aisle, what it’s like to be in the woods for days and days, then here.
He grins, bending to
pick up his large knapsack, and says, “It’s—scary, that’s what.” He pauses, then says with decision: “I’m
not sure I like it here anymore.”
For the next couple of
weeks, he’ll hide out in New Jersey. “Hopefully, I can ease back in,” he says.
He plans to work as a bike mechanic in the city, then seek work in
I wonder to myself whether I still like New York, either. I’m sure I’d
dislike it if I were returning from months on a trail. I’d react against it. I reflect on how it felt to be in a smaller city, with nature not so far beyond it.
Admittedly, there’s a security in
the Mid-Atlantic that I like—it’s an established place, with jobs and culture
and milder weather. The temperature is 12 degrees higher here than it was in
Portland, and the air is less freighted with chilly moisture.
As it happens, I have returned to the mega-metropolis at an optimal time, 11 p.m. on a weekday. In the 42nd
Street subway station, people move about but there's room to drag my roller bag
behind me. The platform is relatively quiet until a man starts singing, his voice like James
Brown with a busted voice. He wheezes and shouts, “I *need* you!” in a way
that’s a little disturbing. Many performers here seem like naturals, but I wonder how long he's been at it—it’s more that we’re doing him a favor by listening. A man glances over in bemusement when I move further down the
tracks, toward the front of where the R train will stop.
The Staten Island
ferry, which I’ll ride to go home, stands quiet as a ghost ship. It is like a dream I might have had but didn't realize could materialize: The doors stand wide open to let a trickling stream of people onto the boat, not the usual shopping-mall size crowd.
**Photo of Staten Island Ferry (daylight), by Rev Stan, Flickr Creative Commons.
I rest on the orange
benches on the ship’s side, 10 or so seats from the next person,
and gaze into clear night toward Brooklyn and Governor’s
Island. I have never seen the boat or the city this peaceful, and I think of the articles I've read about night workers here. Perhaps I can only go forth after 11, I think. How would that feel?
On Staten Island, I
board a bus with many others, people returning in a business-like manner to
their homes. It is midnight, but the evening feels benign. At my stop I debark with three others,
and we walk quickly along the streets. It seems
well-lit, as if the streets are quiet but
alive. The city is large, its boundaries unseen from here, and I reflect on how that feels around me. I'd been staying in a house with a roommate for a few days, and I wonder if I'll miss the companionship in this city.
On the way up my block, I pass a woman walking a small
dog. I don’t know her. Still, filled with Maine largesse, I wave. She calls out hello, then she continues singing a song in a strong voice.
Her dog is scrappy, a Tramp-like terrier.
I don’t know whether I’ll be glad to be away from Portland's easy nature, or easy-smiling Mainers. It's possible that I will miss it. Still, I feel a certain
goodwill toward New York as I walk the last incline up my street, and climb the
rocky stairs to my house.
**Photo by Pleasant Point Inn, Flickr Creative Commons. Maine.
Our setting: a 1930s kitchen with wide windows. Peonies, pink and white and multi-layered, brim from tin cans. All is quiet.
Yesterday was trains and crowds and noise.
This morning I stood and looked at the impervious blue horizon of New York Bay, the view from my housemate's tall window.
This is an island in the Atlantic Ocean.
Each day in these boroughs is stirring in countless ways. Moods change like air currents, like the ocean. In the summer, energy builds--and it is nice to release it in a calm day.
I recall heat-wave days in Seattle, rare spans adding up to two or so weeks each summer. Skirts, sandals, hollering. Outdoor seating, bars, green-markets. Full Lake Washington beaches, bathers in patched-together thrift-store swimsuits. A populace suddenly finding use for sunglasses. A normally quiet people who hollered as they walked streets late into the night. Beaming rowdiness.
**Photo in Maine by Carl Lender, Flickr Creative Commons.**
Each summer weekend in New York is a bit like
this, but with the addition of hundreds of thousands of tourists.
I often like to lie low. I love Monday through Thursday because they are more normal, less whooping.
In summer, New Yorkers go to their habitual places.
Many drive or train to un-fancy cabins and little houses that aren’t outfitted
for winter, set in woods, by quiet lakes, along the Hudson River.
They return on Monday, talking about zucchini
and tomatoes and sugar snap peas. They love these spots with wood-paneled
walls, afternoon light, drinks on the porch, chats at little stores.
**Currants, by Liz West, Flickr Creative Commons
The introvert in me appreciates such breaks. I like to be sheltered by forest and find mysteries among the tall trees.
By contrast, yesterday ended loudly and fulsomely, after dinner in a
non-green section of New Jersey on the Hudson’s edge. Then a train under the Hudson, a subway to the ferry. Waiting in the large and mall-like ferry landing. A band played ‘70s-style R&B
electro-funk music. It was midnight, then 12:05, and the
ferry had not arrived. With the delay came uncertainty: Until recently, the ferry arrived hourly on weekends, and none of us were sure we weren't returning to such a schedule.
Two children under seven whirled and slid a breakdance.
Their skill was exhilarating--but how many of us clapped willingly and how many were captive onlookers there in the fluorescent lighting? We watched for the ferry's arriving orange/blue bulk, for wide glass doors to slide open to admit the massive, waiting crowd.
It was a lot for midnight, as it sometimes
Today, I am in the 1930s kitchen, here on Staten Island. I sit at a formica table, looking toward a plane tree and a vegetable garden. A different house-mate rolls ruggelagh dough. She has poured chai iced tea into glasses for us both.
The craftsmanship makes me happy: the
preparation of the dough, the addition of fig jam, and lemon and sugar in the tea.
This kitchen is like a summer cabin, here on this island that was New York's summer escape in decades past. “Must be the wood paneling,” says my housemate, referring to the wood
**Photo of Pennsylvania forest, by Nicholas A. Tonelli, Flickr Creative Commons.
I will talk to nature-seekers. Cabin-goers. Ecologists and naturalists and nature writers.
**photo of lower Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry, by DieselDemon, Flickr Creative Commons.
Today’s high is 82 degrees. It is bunched and muggy and
mostly euphoric on the sidewalks. The temperature has set the city into a
different tone today, one of skirt-awareness, bare-arm awareness, warmth-on-skin awareness.
My route to the ferry landing passes a bus stop that is a
long, peopled alcove, like Venus’ half shell. People there seem bored, waiting,
like they could be prone to catcalls or sneering. They haven’t, so far, and I’ve
needed to grant (reluctantly, sometimes, and the reluctance is with good reason)
points to Staten Island.
This morning I passed the bus stop without incident, but next
went by two teenage boys, one of whom was speaking to the air in front of me as
I walked past. I was surprised by the anatomical
specificity of what he was saying. The other boy said to him, “Are you talking
to her?” The first boy spun away and said, “Hell No!” It was one of those
teenage things. I have no idea to whom he was talking. He was a good-looking kid, which
might help him--and I do think our culture tells him it’s fine to be that
direct. Maybe this will last a year or two, his way of talking. In a way I felt sympathetic for his raw teenage
struggle, his awkwardness. I wondered
how far this would get him. (On the other hand, ick, boundaries.)
But it was just part of the heat-wave morning, and I breezed
onto the ferry, where the front and back doors of the ship were left ajar for
air to waft in from the bay, and we multitudes sat on long, multi-colored
benches, trying not to crib body heat in our proximity. The sun was low and a heated yellow
in the sky, the Statue of Liberty glinting in its light. The water had a muggy, blurred edge.
**photo by Lindsey Turner, Flickr Creative Commons.
Later, at a Midtown
elevator, a man in a suit said to me, “I was waiting for you." I said, “Ah.
Well, thanks,” meaning for not letting the door shut too fast. I remarked about the weather. “Hot day!” he declared. I observed that we were expecting
rain, and that it might get cooler. “Yes, but HOT rain!” he said. We laughed, though I was a little uncertain. “You
will not be satisfied!” he said. “By this rain,” he continued after a pause.
Heat waves bring out strange things, yes. It is an electric
Photo of Canada Geese, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, NY, by Howard Brier, Flickr Creative Commons. **
a sunny day by the salt marshes in Marine Park, Brooklyn, I raced home and ate
a red-garnet spud as if it were the last food in the pantry.
was all part of the “Love this cold” and “Boy, this winter my diet is best
described as ‘farm-hand deluxe’” line of thinking.
Honestly, cold ranks high in my esteem. Shorter days—I’m never certain about those. But chill
weather seems thrilling to me. Indeed, all winter sports seem great -- and the
presence of snow, ice, and blue skies are why I like the season.
very little snow remains here lately. But winter is still around.
part of me that is excited by Antarctica and ice caves and frozen-over Lake
Superior’s edge and the other pole and glaciers and Greenland--all of those
sled-dog locales--and Maine and the rest of New England and eastern Canada and
Scandinavia and maybe even Siberia to some extent, thinks that’s cool.
of the benefits? Winter can amp up the adventure feeling.
A few things first, though. Today at the salt marshes was mild and beautiful. A trumpeter swan arced into the sky like a massive crane (like the basis of all European child-origin
tales), a flock of Canada geese flew against blue sky, and an
osprey nest sat on high. We were at the breathing edge of Brooklyn, mere steps from detached
row houses and basketball courts and pumped-up vehicles and deals on tanning
salons. Those things, so nearby, were a little hard to forget. But the flock of
geese made an image for me. They fixed in my head, and they also fixed my head
the sun was low as I headed back to the subway, and was nearly gone when I
emerged near Prospect Park. Heading
up an avenue, I donned the hood on my down coat. It had seemed like too much
to have along, earlier in the day.
Reaching the brownstone, I shook myself at the fast
descent of cold, the chill that rises from beneath bright, sunny days once winter sun fades.
Indoors, I found pasta and red sauce in Tupperware, and looked around for
more carbs. Yes, white-flour pastas are on my "avoid" list, because they’re sugar--and because, hey, I saw that episode of Portlandia. That's the one in which Fred Armisen asks Carrie Brownstein if he looks fat and demonstrates
by standing behind a sheet and casting his shadow, a la Hitchcock. They decide, in their horror at the results, to eliminate the pasta--but later, he main-lines noodles and ziti in a seedy
hotel room, in homage to Breaking Bad.
At any rate,
the pasta with sauce seemed damned good. I ate it cold, too, so you know that’s,
around for other scarf-able food sources, I recalled (with a really
questionable degree of joy) that I had another Tupperware containing wedges of roasted sweet potato.
Fetching it, I sliced the beautiful orange wedges--and had it with sliced sausage and
Then it became necessary to prepare and consume lots more food.
I cooked low-fat Kielbasa. And quinoa. And steamed kale.
True, none of these ranks too highly in the "sinful food" category. But I was trying for balance--and basically, let's not give me too many points--they were around.
have plans, too, to steam some spinach and drink a bit of whiskey.
sure why I’m sharing all of this, except that that’s what cold does: Makes one
able to main-line calories, as long as we move around a good bit, too.
Seeing geese flying against the blue sky doesn’t hurt, in a good day, either. ##
*Photo of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, by EdenPictures, Flickr Creative Commons.
**photo of Barton Springs, Austin, Tex., by AnnainAustin, Flickr Creative Commons.
In Seattle, the desire for cold-water swimming was about
seeking clarity and a bright sharpness in gray weather. It’s also about the
feeling of sinking into cool water--even if that water turns out to
be fiercely cold in lakes shaded by mountains, ha.
Here in the state where I was raised, Texas, it’s
mid-October and the long, wild summer seems to have abated for now. Labor Day is a false "end' to the
season--we maintained 90s temperatures until around Oct. 15. This weekend I head out for cool-water swimming at Barton Springs, in Austin. The
water temperature will likely be around 66 degrees, which will be lovely and compares pretty favorably with the average Cascade lake.
It’s going to be a great weekend, heading from green Houston
to tawny Austin in the golden fall, in light that plays especially well on the bone-white
Hill Country limestone surfaces.
**photo of Pedernales River, Texas Hill Country, by Jdeeringdavis on Flickr Creative Commons.
I'm going for the Texas Book Festival, where
I hope to hear readings by Jonathan Lethem, Sherman Alexie, Geoff Dyer, and
maybe Marion Winik, Meg Wolitzer, and Diana Kennedy. I also hope to see a few friends, and maybe attend a taping of the arts radio show Overheard
with Evan Smith.
Re-charging myself is another purpose of the trip. Austin,
like Seattle, has more 30s and 40s creative workers than Houston, and is a bit more
densely populated as well. I’m hoping that Austin will be a
nice trial run for deciding whether I should move to another city, like New
York or somewhere else.
So, don’t I like Houston a lot? I do like Houston, and it
has much that is not known elsewhere as Houston-defining. It has truly original
food twists and developments, and an interesting art scene. It has many
really great people. That said, it has the dichotomy of
politics that we’ve recently seen in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has
Maseratis and Porsche SUVs and people who seem not to care about the extreme
social inequalities here. Its inner loop neighborhoods have many bike trails,
which is great—but the city also has people who are afraid to bicycle because
drivers are habitually unaware of anyone but themselves on the road. Its racial
and social inequities are evident on its bus system.
So, yes, I don’t love everything here. And, you might say,
does one ever? Here’s the thing—let's hope some things will change. Even in other Texas cities, there’s more driver
respect for pedestrians and cyclists, from what I’ve seen. When I visited Fort
Worth in May, I was struck by the non-flashy cars and the fact that cars didn’t
pull up right next to pedestrians when they walked along a sidewalk and crossed
a parking lot entrance. The so-called rolling stop is standard in Houston—drivers’
way of saying they’re more important and that you should just hurry up and get
out of the way—and, we’ll skip the pun here, it has to stop.
All that said, here in Houston I’ve found that thinking in a
Zen way has helped me. I recently was told by friends about the website ZenHabits.net, by Leo Babauta.
If you’ve seen Babauta’s website, you know it’s the tale of
a mid-30s, married father of six who simplified his life and makes a living
writing and talking about what he loves. He shows us how to live minimally, be
at peace, and still travel. Behind it all, he demonstrates a healthy
relationship and parenthood. It’s inspiring stuff, and the website is
appealingly simple—generally without photos, featuring instead large-print text
on white, working to avoid jarring us with more online images. It seems to
This kind of calmness is what I need. It’s maybe
what we all need. A recent passage tells how to deal with people who annoy us: people who behave badly in traffic, talk too
loudly, are rude to us. One approach is to think that others are like twigs in a
stream in which we all float. Each twig is doing its own thing, and isn’t
trying to annoy us. We’ll peacefully interact with the other twigs, and won’t
let them bother us. Another is to recognize that others act badly out of fear
or discomfort. If we think about this, and maybe give them mental hugs, we’re
better off, too.
Learning to deal with things that annoy us has been useful in Houston, because there is so much here that I'd like to change. Treating these things as twigs in a stream is actually a bit better for my blood pressure. I’d like good transit again, and to see
greater density on the streets. I’d like to be among more people in their 30s
and 40s who are out doing things, rather than arriving by car and departing the
Having said that, I’ve enjoyed living again in a garden-y
city. Houston is green, it is lush, with bougainvilleas blooming and tangerines and limes starting--here in nearly-November. New York has
parks and tree-lined streets in some neighborhoods, but I recall walking (when
I lived there) and wishing for a bit of green to break up the wide sidewalks
that extend to the curbs.
Here in Houston, the inner-loop streets are green, but I seldom see many pedestrians, and I miss that. Frequently I’m walking along a sidewalk and see another person, and my heart leaps: company in pedestrianism! Then they get into a car. This happens with sad frequency. At times I see someone else walking and, because I’m so unused to having others on the streets with me, I feel slightly antisocial. This is the feeling that isolation-by-car-culture builds, quite frankly. In September, a visitor from Cleveland
talked about crowds on the street in Montreal, as he and I sat in a Houston café,
and we looked out the windows onto a main thoroughfare and saw no crowds at all.
I recall crowds,
from Seattle and Chicago and New York and elsewhere. But I almost had to be
reminded of their presence elsewhere.
The fact is, July through September, and sometimes earlier
or later, Houston is not a pleasant place to walk. The heat, sun, and humidity
are everything. Throughout the summer, I rode my bike, and I saw others
biking. But I had to be careful in the same ways that I did when walking on
near-zero days in Chicago, when the wind whipped between buildings and I flexed my fingers in double-ply gloves. I had to
carry water, keep to shade, and survive. In mid-June, a Boston visitor asked about my decision to be car-free here. Although he was moving to New York and
looked forward to selling his car and taking the train, he was astounded that I
would go without a car in Houston. I asked if he wondered because it was so
hot, or because it was spread out. He said for both reasons.
Yes, getting through the summer in Houston
without a car was not easy. At first, riding my bike in sunlight was fun. After seven years in Seattle, I am still glad for all sunlit days. Even
when days were long and hot, as long as they were unhumid—and humidity is less frequent in the ongoing drought—I was in pretty good spirits. But oppressive heat causes cabin fever. There’s nowhere to go, unless we have swimming pools or get in cars and drive to large,
How I did it, car-free: I learned to live
differently, to live simply. But I also felt oppressed by heat. I biked, but
then I collapsed at home and rested, and I felt that the long hot day was eating up my
life. I stayed indoors for much of the afternoon. The evenings were often nearly as hot.
It became clear to me: Although I am infinitely happier
where there is sunlight, and I was never as bereft in Houston as in Seattle, I’d
be better off spending summers in cooler climates. But in a place with light.
So, what is ideal in cities, in your opinion? It seems to me that escaping from crowds--as one can do in Chicago, Seattle,
Philadelphia, and some other cities--can be nice. In New York, the
fact that people are almost always everywhere that one is—that’s wearing to me.
I grew up with vegetable farms and horses and raccoons and camping, and I love
having those things as an option—not as a difficult mental transition to make from one's daily life.
Some European cities are good at balancing nature with urban:
Copenhagen, and cities in Germany and the Netherlands, have large parks and trees that ring cities. Barcelona has promenades to the ocean.
Are the streets of very old cities sufficiently green? One friend in Scotland says they're too tightly set for her, and she misses the trees of Austin. Would I tire of cobbled streets, narrow lanes,
houses everywhere? In some cities, I feel like Heidi, looking for a church
tower to climb, trying to see the Alps.
At any rate, now the weather is gorgeous: Cool, sudsy, brisk in the
mornings and calmly cloudless in the afternoons. Days begin and end with genial
sun. We have earned it, and hope to continue it. I am happy that the outdoor weather matches my
idea of fall: golden air. Here's to a trip to Austin, and to continuing to reevaulate our cities.
**photo of foliage in Texas Hill Country by Gruenemann, Flickr Creative Commons.ere's to a trip to
photo of Wortham Fountain by Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, by eflon, Flickr Creative Commons.
For Memorial Day weekend, the
traditional gateway to summer, I bused to Fort Worth to see
two cousins. They're old enough to have 40-something kids, but these cousins run an active organ-building shop that employs people as
passionate about music as themselves. They also busily interact with neighbors and friends,
and sit each day on the porch to watch birds pull antics in tall pecan trees, red oaks, and blue chaste trees.
They live all summer in their rambling, high-ceilinged old north Texas house with open windows. The cousins don’t use air conditioning, it seems. Each morning of my visit, cool air wafted in the tall old casement windows, along with sharp and detailed bird-calls.
In Houston--four hours south of Fort Worth and 20 miles from the Gulf -- I had had the a/c on, at night, for exactly one week. My 1943 building has old windows, some of which stick. Plus, Houston is a place
where humidity eventually descends. Of my three neighbors, two had used a/c since mid-March. I was being a hold-out, waiting till late May to turn on air in coastal Texas.
photo of Westheimer Street in Houston, J. Jackson Photography, Flickr Creative Commons.
Still, I was a happy hold-out. The natural way pleases me: open windows, saving energy, feeling air. There
are many things I could say about heat and humidity--one is that I
learned to adjust more easily to both by living in northern states.
Surprising, yes. In New York when
humidity rose from the ground, women wore sundresses and skirts, and men wore
the lightest fabrics. We opened windows, employed fans. The same was true in Chicago, in
Missoula, MT (where part of the summer can be fire-cracker hot), and
in Seattle for the occasional heat waves of a week or two.
Heat varied greatly, from place to place -- like the types of plants that can grow in each particular soil.
Philadelphia, 80 miles inland, was hotter and more humid, for longer, than New York. In Chicago, as they say, it's cooler by the lake. My first Chicago summer was spent three miles west
of the lake, where my roommate (a European) and I sometimes lay on the floor like
beached cats, to feel the better air along the floorboards. When I moved nearer to Lake
Michigan, I could usually catch a breeze by walking along the lake. On certain days, though, nothing short of setting sail toward
Michigan seemed to help.
Naturally, all this experience in withstanding
heat on certain days, while being aware that eventually the heat will go away –
as one is certain in northern climates – tended to build my
hubris. I began to feel that I was a heat expert.
(Yes, I was all about the high-velocity
fan. My favorite brand is Vornado, if you want to know.)
It’s true that sometimes heat is hard
to take, even in northern climates. In normally temperate Seattle, a heat wave of a week’s duration could bring many of us to work with
raccoon eyes -- not having slept well on our overheated bed sheets
the previous night.
Maybe peculiarly, I regarded all this
as character-building. I thought of it as what we did to make up for weeks and
weeks of cool weather, or for having lolled in sunlight on Lake
Washington beaches crowded with suddenly lively Northwest-dwellers.
Because I still feel a bit that way, I’m glad that I was able to sleep at the cousins’ house with the windows open
on Memorial Day weekend in north Texas. Lying there with breezes wafting in,
hearing the trees stir -- felt lovely. With a good-enough fan, there are
nights when it could be done here in Houston as well.
I guess that's what's changed for me: Now I see Houston's weather as varying, too. I see the individual parts, the mornings and late afternoons. In the same way that I now notice which plants we have at different points, I now see that some mornings start out cooler, while others don't--and that some evenings, after the crush of certain days, are sublime for sitting in wafting breezes with an iced coffee.
Photo of interior of Brasil coffeehouse, Houston, by Sarah Fleming, Flickr Creative Commons. **
It’s still early, but I like things about the summer. Definitely, it's a thing to prepare for, like winter in Chicago. Handily, my apartment is old, shady, and wasn't built with only a/c in mind. Dressing for the weather is important. This means choosing fabrics that breathe--which I can find at Goodwill but
not at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, which sell a baffling selection of
synthetic-material, short-sleeved “sundresses." I carry Gatorade and water. During the heat of the day, I walk slowly and in the shade, and am not outside for long periods. Working indoors during the main
part of the day helps. Because evenings can be nice, I probably wouldn’t want to spend them working, anyhow.
Does this mean I'm finished with cold climates? Not really, no. It just means, I think, that I want to experience the many flavors of a place's most emblematic season. I want to hold back summer a bit, so that I can look at it more closely. I don't want it rushing by outside of some air-conditioned car--not all the time, at least.
By the same token, I think I'd like to spend at least a week (or more) in fall and winter in the Northeast or in mountains. Because those are traditionally my favorite seasons, in crisp, golden-aired climates. And guess where the cousins always spent their summer vacations? Colorado or New Mexico. "We wanted to escape the heat!" said one of the cousins. Yep, I can get that.
But it's early yet, and I'm enjoying getting to know the seasons here. A week after Fort Worth, I sat one night with two new friends at Brasil, a Houston coffeehouse with a large courtyard next to an arty street. In the leafy shade of palmettos and other plants, we can spend time with our weather. All three of us had returned this spring to Houston, and we knew the city. We looked around at the late-night shadows of
trees, felt the light air, and collectively agreed, “You know, I like it here.”
photo of crape myrtles at Menil Collection, Houston, by J.E. Theriot, Flickr Creative Commons.