A major storm hit us today, dropping multiple inches of rain–including one particularly insane stretch of a downpour–and sweeping heavy winds across the farm. Facing such inclement weather, Brian decided to fire up the hot tub, which sits under a roof as part of the farm’s solar bath house but is otherwise exposed to the outdoors, making it a particularly alluring experience on a night such as tonight. The extreme comfort and relaxation of soaking in hot water contrasts nicely with torrential rain and driving wind–the discomforts of a particularly cutting storm.
While the rain had tapered off by the time I was soaking, the south wind had kicked into high gear. Occasional, loud gusts would swirl around me, the air cool and insistent and charged with an uncommon power. As the gusts hit, I found myself sitting up in the hot tub, exposing more of my upper body so I could feel the air–that energy, that coolness–and revel in the juxtaposition between it and the hot water that otherwise engulfed me. This juxtaposition of sensations reminded me of the often-noted idea that to appreciate something, you have to experience its opposite. The comfort of that hot water was, in a certain way, offset by the blustery cold of the wind. By raising my body from the hot water to feel the cold wind, I better appreciated and experienced both sensations–either one heightened by the contrast with the other.
The way the hot tub is heated, at least in the winter, is via a wood-fired stove. Water siphons through an intake pipe near the bottom of the hot tub, heats as it circulates through a pipe in the stove, then streams out of an opening above the intake. The water continually circulates, slowly heating the entire tub. The water coming out of the stove eventually becomes extremely hot and, as you sit in the tub, a layer of that very hot water forms at the top of the tub if you’re not circulating the water yourself. This layer makes itself particularly apparent when you sit up, as your upper body passes through that hot layer, creating–for me at least–a tightening of the chest and a brief moment of discomfort and shortness of breath. It’s not so extreme as to feel dangerous, but it provides a juxtaposition between the hot and the very hot, the comfortable and the uncomfortable.
As I experienced these contrasting sensations–the differing levels of hot water, the hot water and cold wind–I couldn’t help but again think of the ducks. The storm-heightened comfort of the hot tub seemed another version of my musings on the ducks. Their seeming ability to stay comfortable in the storm (and based on my observations today, they were plenty enjoying the storm) spoke, I imagined, to their enjoyment of it. Similarly, I spent the rainiest stretch of the day in my yurt reading, with the wood stove going, luxuriating in the warmth and the deafening sound of rain pounding upon my little home. This was the height of comfort for me: another good book, a dry wood-burning heat to contrast the drenching rain outside, and the understanding that the deafening roar around me was cold, nasty, driving rain that I did not have to be in. I had my warmth, I had my shelter, and I had my comfort even as all the opposites raged outside.
This, then, is part of the beauty of living simply, even of living in what can be defined as poverty. By living in a yurt–a very simple structure–I stay connected to what is happening outside. I hear the wind and the rain, I feel the cold and damp if I don’t have my wood stove cranking and I can very easily bring in a warm summer’s night breeze by opening the door and cracking the dome on the roof. Outside activity is accessible to me. In most houses, that isn’t the case at all. Rain often cannot be heard at all, unless it’s particularly heavy, and it’s the same for wind. What’s happening outside can easily be a mystery. Climate control, as well, can negate the impacts of the heat and the cold, keeping an even temperature at all times. In fact, the act of heating or cooling a space is often not an act at all, but an automation, maintained by machines with only the barest of provocation of humans: the turn of a thermostat. I can certainly heat my yurt, but it involves me actually building and maintaining a fire, and is thus a conscious act rather than an automation. As such, it helps to keep me in tune to what is happening around me. It makes me think about my comfort and to take responsibility for creating it.
I think this is good. And I think climate control is in many ways bad. In attempting to automate comfort, we lose sight of it. In living in environments in which comfort is a constant, we forget what comfort is. When it’s always 72, you cease to appreciate it. When it’s always warm inside while cold outside and always cool inside when hot outside–and you never play a direct role in making it so–then you often cease to even understand what hot and cold is. You become a slave to constant, moderate temperatures and your body loses much of its ability to adjust to anything else.
We’ve built, purchased, engineered and automated comfort to such an extent in our society, I think we’ve lost sight of what comfort is. We need the contrasts–the juxtaposition of comfort and discomfort–to keep us attuned to the reality of comfort and to allow us to appreciate it. We need cold mornings so we can burrow into–and fall in love with–our warm beds. We need the sound of rain on the roof–not to mention an occasional, or perhaps regular, drenching–to appreciate being warm and dry. We need, too, the actual act of creating our comfort so that we can understand it as something we do for ourselves, rather than something that just occurs, automated, always. Comfort is special and resonant and it can only remain that way if we don’t normalize it, don’t automate it, and allow ourselves to be uncomfortable at times. We need that juxtaposition so as not to slip into a life of sleepwalking, divorced from sensation and severed from true contentment.