HEAT WAVE: Made in the Shade

Commentary by Liza Field

How’s your cooling system, this summer?

“Down,” said a lot of hot people in early July, when extreme high temperatures kicked fierce storms up — and a swath of the power grid down — across the mid-Atlantic.

We Americans, who live mainly indoors now, emerged from buildings like bugs pouring out of boxes. Neighbors greeted neighbors they’d never met. People looked at the sky, hoping for clouds, and toted chairs around the landscape, looking for shade.

It was like the old days — almost!

As in earlier centuries, many windows (long shut) were opened to the summertime air. But newer buildings, designed on the groundless premise of unceasing electric power, offered only plate glass windows never meant to open, and quickly became heat traps.

Even many windows that did open were met by relentless heat from sun-baked landscapes of lawn and unshaded asphalt.

So offices, retail stores and churches closed; apartments, houses and trailer courts emptied — everyone looking for a livable refuge from the greenhouse effect of these sun-broiled boxes.

Temporary shelters opened and a state of emergency got declared — not because a disaster had destroyed homes, but because the contemporary American home itself, unplugged from the power grid, now constitutes a disaster. Who can live in a broiling greenhouse, many people wondered for the first time, walking outside in a daze?

Old Coolers

Our forebears, just 100 years ago, would have marveled over this 21st-century crisis.

While many had electricity, even some window fans, a power outage would hardly have put them out of their homes.

For one thing, many were frequently “out” already. Far more American life took place outdoors, between the ground, water and sky.

“Air conditioning” consisted of cold creeks, rivers and springhouses, an evening porch, open windows, and nature’s oldest cooling unit.

“When Americans got air conditioning, they cut down their trees and moved indoors,” observed Betty Besal, city arborist for Lexington, Va. She’d noticed this enormous cultural change over a few brief decades.

The United States has become one vast landscape of giant walk-in coolers (the buildings in which we now spend more than 90 percent of our lives). Residential trees have become “unnecessary.”

They’re obstacles in the lawnmower’s way; they drop messy fruit and leaves on the perfect lawn, might fall, might buckle the driveway asphalt, might get “too big.”

We find so many reasons, ridiculous or expedient, to cut down residential trees, why keep any standing?

Another Shelter

The only people I know who didn’t suffer from the July power outages lived among trees. Many had never had air conditioning and were amazed that anyone’s lack of it constituted a federal emergency.

Personally, I’d seen how a building could become an oven.

When I moved into my little ranch house 18 years ago, only two trees grew in the broad lawn. The sun-beaten house roasted like a brick oven, storing up heat to radiate long into the night.

The previous owner had installed a heat pump, whose cooling mechanism apparently allowed her to survive without shade. I used it greedily, indifferent to the power-bill spike, but began planting trees.

Today, a shady woodland has grown up and the summer power bill has plummeted. These trees are now my only “AC,” shading the yard, the street, the house walls and much of the roof.

Branching Out

Community forest programs raise this kind of cooling effect over entire cities. According to The City of Pittsburgh Shade Tree Commission, “20,000 new trees = $800,000 worth of utility savings to our region annually.” Why?

Tree-shade keeps asphalt from absorbing and radiating heat.

Trees also help stir up much-needed summer rains. They then absorb storm-water, helping to recharge the local aquifer. Later, they slow evaporation with two water “lids:” their shade and the humus they drop as needles or leaf debris.

All of this helps because groundwater keeps local springs, creeks and rivers flowing during dry spells. These waters, in summer, provide nature’s coolant to their region, modifying the larger climate.

Currently, we assume we can escape that larger climate and live indefinitely within artificial, indoor climates, but the inside and outside of our walls are not as separate as we think.

Air conditioning’s massive draw on the U.S. power grid requires expensive reserve operations to meet each summer’s peak demand. That costly reserve operation drives up everyone’s electricity rate.

It also accelerates global warming, as the planet's fossil fuels go up in smoke, for “air conditioning.” In essence, we’re burning the planet to stay cool.

How long can that insanity last?

Not as long, perhaps, as a shade tree and its older form of climate control.

Liza Field teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor’s School and Wytheville Community College. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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