Autumn in July

The morning glories are blooming. And the agastaches. And the monkshood! While the rest of the country is burning, deliquescing into lakes of molten misery, we in northern New England seem to be gifted with an early autumn. The mornings are cool, sometimes cold. Fog drapes the green mountains, drifting down to the river bed each morning, before lifting and evanescing into clear cerulean skies. The mornings are still. The crows make their dawn plans with the usual level of kerfuffle and vigor, but before the sun rises they are off, leaving a ballooning silence to greet the day.

My July meadow flowers

There is a particular crystalline glitter to autumnal light. Maybe it’s the trees, sending all that massive love into the atmosphere as they ready themselves for sleep. Maybe it’s the birds, fluttering about, fresh from the midsummer molt, chattering with anticipation of journeys to other starry skies. Autumn always pulls at the heart, with its hurry and its plenty that both herald departure, dormancy, death. The end of growth is so heartbreakingly beautiful. 

But this is not that time yet. The light is glittering and the fog is softening the dawn… in July. Thankfully the rudbeckias have resolutely refused to open early, and there are as yet no signs of asters or goldenrod. So not everybody is hastening on to winter. Still, morning glories. In July. Not even a month from the solstice. 

It never truly got hot here. Dry, yes. And windy, so windy, with pollen and dust and even the odd cow dumped on every surface. (Might be exaggerating about the cow…) The yellow grit thoroughly undid the window cleaning project I took on when winter finally relented. It’s back to looking like the windows have never once been brushed by a cleansing hand. But they are open, so that cicada song and the glittering light are dancing about in my dining room. This is unusual for July and it is upsetting my sense of rhythm.

Because the garden is in no way ready for fall. There have been no tomatoes yet. The beans are only just flowering. The zucchinis are hovering on the edge of their annual explosion. The basil is full and rich. I still am picking peas nearly every day. My garden knows it is July whatever the weather is saying. Though the cucurbits are all grumpy, partially wilting each afternoon to conserve moisture in the desiccating wind, they are not rushing to set fruit as they do when the days get short.

Apples, already ripening

True, there are apples on the young trees, but I think these poor things have not yet learned the year’s schedule. They bloomed so briefly and so fast on the heels of our very protracted winter, I didn’t think it possible that insects were awake yet to pollinate the blossoms. Clearly some were, but all the fruit is low on the tree, as though whoever was active in that May warm spell — the same one that sent all my arugula to seed — was seeking cover or just not sufficiently enlivened to make it all the way to the upper branches. So I don’t think apples signify in this case. They are confused just like I am. 

It is not autumn. It is just weirdness. This cool is particularly jarring when I talk to my mother who lives in the Midwest or my youngest sister down in the desert, both of whom are baking. I feel guilty saying, no, we are not melting into pools of sweat, no, we are not suffering heat stroke just walking out to the mailbox, no, we are not on fire. I feel like yelling: It’s not my fault Vermont is apparently bucking the climate trends! After all, Vermont ignores every other fashion.

Anyway, I’m extremely grateful that we’re, again, behind the times. Because this house does not have air conditioning. Most older homes in New England don’t. The Little Ice Age was sheer misery here and did not loose its grip until well into industrial age warming. Cooling a house was not a goal when this house was built. And then, there actually were houses here in the pre-carbonized climate of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, unlike much of the rest of this country. My house is young relative to many in New England, but ancient compared to, say, California, where nearly all homes were built after ducted air conditioning became cheap and ubiquitous. And necessary. I’m lucky to have a house with ductwork at all; my 18th century house in Massachusetts had grated holes in the floors — for warm air to rise. (Not sure it works the same on settling cold.) There were no ducts. I think this is fairly common in the older parts of New England.

No ductwork means no possibility of forced air for either heat or cooling. Heat, at least, will travel if you design your house well, and these houses are definitely designed to move the warmth upward. A candle flame will blow out in the stairwell vortex here. But that’s not how cold works. Heat radiates; cold condenses. A heat source in the lower levels can effectively warm the house, but a cold source in the upper levels is not going to have the same effect even though cold air will flow downwards. The problem is the source. Cold does not expand outwards and flow away from its source. It wants to stay put and gather any other cooling atoms into it.

Air conditioning works by forcing fluids over or through the cold source, cooling those fluids, and then transporting those fluids to the rest of the building using fans or some other kind of pressure. This is not a passive system. The fluids must be forced and they must have some sort of unobstructed pathway. Hence ducts. So installing air conditioning in a house like my Massachusetts home is just not an option. In those cases, the best we can do is put in heat pumps or other spot source coolers. And in fact, even where there are ducts, most older homes rely on window-unit AC, which is messy, smelly, usually damp (even when it’s not an actual swamp cooler), and extremely energy intensive. Hence not going to be around much longer in a world of rising energy costs and depleting fuels.

There are older methods of cooling. In a house with a central stairway, one that facilitates funneling air currents, we can use air pressure to move cool air. It’s not as effectual as passive convective flow, but it works well enough. It does require a cool basement or some other pool of air that is cooler than the rest of the building. The basements in New England are lined with massive field stones that I am fairly sure have not warmed substantially from their Ice Age days. This cold sink keeps the buried levels of the building about the same temperature as a cave all year round. The problem is forcing the air from these rooms to move upwards. The solution: create a vacuum. Allow air to readily flow into the house only in the basement, and allow it to flow out only on the upper levels. The warmest air will escape out the attic, particularly if you have a fan sucking the air out of the house, but all the air — even the cool basement air — will be forced upwards as you add mass to the bottom and take if off of the top. 

This system can be passive. That is, you don’t need the fan, though it substantially increases the air flow when I have it on up there. But this system is not passive in the sense that I can throw a switch and have it function. For one thing, windows can’t be open in rainstorms. So on days when there is a high chance of stormy wet weather, days that usually are sweltering hot until the storms break, I can’t leave the attic window open when I go off to work in the morning. Without that draw on the warmest air, the vacuum just doesn’t work. Well, the hottest air in the house still rises, but it pools in the upper levels — and it does not draw the cooling basement air upwards. 

It also doesn’t work at all well at night. This is probably because the sun’s heating on the attic is necessary to the air flow, though that doesn’t make much sense to me. Still, there is much less cooling air flow at night. So this method of climate control is a constant exercise in opening and closing windows. The house is closed up in the morning, but for the necessary inflow and outflow vents. This is usually a gradual process if I am home for the day. I close the upper levels sooner than the lower and the south side of the house earlier than the north because those areas are more exposed to hot air. But on work days, I just close it all at once. Then late in the evening I throw the whole house wide open, letting the day’s build-up of warm air vent out into the twilight. But again, windows can’t be open to windy rain, so not infrequently I have to dash around at 2am buttoning everything up again. 

This works well in summers like this one where the afternoon high temperatures are rarely above 85°F and there is little humidity except when it is going to rain (like today…). I can’t say what will happen if Vermont decides to join the rest of the country’s weather. Humidity seems to make the vacuum inefficient at best. I don’t know if this is actual physics, but it does seem logical to expect that air heavy with moisture is not going to flow upwards quite as willingly. Plus moist air just feels warmer, no matter if it actually is. Also, like evaporative cooling (those swamp coolers of the desert Southwest), this is a relative cool. There is no thermostat control aiming for a given temperature. And this is a temperature window in which a small change makes a big difference. To our bodies, the difference between 90° and 70° feels much greater than the difference between 120° and 100°. Outside our comfort zone (which is really not a large spread!), the temperature feels about the same — hot! (or cold! on the other end of the thermometer). So this relative cooling is effective when the weather is a little too warm, but not very much too warm. (Which indicates that swamp coolers are maybe not going to be the answer to an increasingly hot desert…)

Finally, it won’t work at all without that reservoir of cool air in the basement. If you have no underground level or if you have done things to make the ambient air on that level warm and insulated from the cool earth, then you are out of luck. This is perhaps a compelling argument against “finishing” the basement, especially if the goal is a bedroom or other space where activity is minimal and the body can’t warm itself. (Also you’ll probably want to consider making a root cellar down there in the not so distant future…) 

Glittering light

If this Vermont summer is somewhat normal going forwards, then New England will probably be the last comfortable summer place in the country, perhaps one of the last on the planet. However, if this is just La Niña having its way with the jet stream for a season or two, then I am concerned. In a land without ducts and lacking high flows of dependable electricity, artificial cooling isn’t an option. Though… even if we demolish all our homes and rebuild, it’s hard to see how AC is going to save us. Already, the South is learning that the energy grid simply can’t cope with climate change. California is making choices between water in the taps and hydroelectricity for climate control. (Because of stupid archaic treaties this means Arizona gets cut off of the Colorado River water first…) Furthermore, Vermont electricity is already less than dependable. It goes down when there are too many crows on the line, never mind thousands of energy-sucking AC units. (The crow thing may be an exaggeration also…)

Maybe we’ll all become birds, migrating to the opposite hemisphere each autumn. Only we’ll be running away from the sun, not toward the season of growth. Or maybe we’ll all dig in and make caves in Canada. Though someone will have to do something about the black-flies. Somehow I could see us taking on these ridiculously challenging adaptations to the mess we’ve made of things sooner than actually doing anything to just clean up the mess…

Meanwhile, Vermont is still comfortable. Though we are confused… and there are no tomatoes.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022