The heat is on, and the AC's off

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

Most Mississippians over a certain age can remember when hot weather meant accepting some discomfort and reveling in whatever reliefs one could find.
Some Mississippians still reject the idea of living from May to September in a climate-controlled cocoon that gives up contact with nature – not to mention a pile of cash – for the privilege of not sweating.
“I watch the sun come up, I’ve got the doors open and I’m in the elements,” said New Albany resident Jean Ashcraft. “I’m really glad to be able to do that; you get to be so much more at one with nature.”
Ashcraft will employ a room air-conditioner when the weather is extreme, like when temperatures break into triple digits, and almost always when company is expected.
“I’m not being any kind of martyr with this,” she said. “It’s just realizing what’s going on in the natural world – and that’s especially important to me as a writer.”
Dealing with a certain amount of sweat, she said, makes her family appreciate small comforts. One recent steamy evening when the power was off and not even the fans were working, a cool breeze suddenly stirred, delighting everyone in the house.
“It was wonderful to feel the breeze change,” Ashcraft said. “How many people (using air-conditioners) even know it when the weather changes?”
Ashcraft’s home in the century-old Northside neighborhood enables her family to minimize their use of the AC. High first-floor ceilings, the natural drafts that hot air’s rising generates in a three-story house, and ceiling fans to stir the air in each room all help, as does the shady setting.
“My house is so serendipitous,” she said. “There’s a big oak tree in the northeast corner of my yard, and in the southwest corner I have a big black walnut tree. On the west and northwest corner I have wisteria and azalea; you can see that it’s completely shaded in here.”
A third-story remodeling project recently took out the attic fan that was one of the house’s chief advantages in comfort, but plans are under way to replace it soon.
The family’s motives for minimizing their artificial cooling also extend to personal health. Jean Ashcraft said that two professionals visiting her husband’s and son’s work site last week were overcome by the heat.
“They sit in their air-conditioned offices and get into their air-conditioned cars and come to the construction site, and they pass out in the same heat that the construction workers have been working in all week,” she said. “You tell me: Who’s the healthiest?”
Tolerating temperatures
With nine-foot ceilings and attic fans to draw in fresh air, Candis and Dave Varnell of Oxford challenge themselves each spring to see how long they can go before turning on their air-conditioner for the first time. Some years it’s well into June.
“We’re accustomed to having our thermostat set higher in the summer than a lot of people,” said Candis Varnell. “If my husband is by himself, it’s about 82, and if I’m around we have it on about 80.”
The office for Dave Varnell’s health care sales position is in their basement.
“I run a dehumidifier down there, but as long as we have a fan blowing, I don’t need any air-conditioning,” he said. “It usually stays between 72 and 78 degrees in the summer. It’s quite pleasant.”
The motives for the Varnells’ “extremely moderate” approach to climate control include saving money and energy as well as recapturing a bit of their early years.
“Dave and I grew up in the 50s, and we didn’t have air-conditioning,” Candis Varnell said. “It kind of reminds us of our childhood. That’s not really a motive, but there’s some nostalgia to it.”
They take the same approach in the winter, leaving the heating off until as late as early December and keeping the temperature on 68 after that.
“We try to be conservative on our energy use,” Dave Varnell said. “It just makes sense: Utilize what you need for your level of comfort.”
Relief is where you find it
For one pocket of people in Northeast Mississippi, air-conditioning is something found at the hardware and farm supply stores, never at home. Several families near Randolph belong to the Amish branch of Mennonites. Because their beliefs compel them to live without electricity and other utilities that would make them dependent on outsiders, they cope with the heat much as their ancestors and everybody else’s did.
One Amish resident, who asked to be identified in print only as Joe, found relatively cool work when the outside temperature was 103 degrees recently by picking figs on a ladder. The large-leafed tree provided an almost complete canopy against the sun.
“It’s hot, hot – bad hot. A lot of times we stay out of the sun when it’s that hot,” he said. “We find inside work or shade work.”
If there’s field work that can’t wait, “We get up way early and start before daylight, and work again in the evening,” Joe added. “We try to work early and late where the sun doesn’t beat you.”
While there’s a strong attitude of acceptance of discomfort among the Amish, they’re glad to have whatever reliefs from the heat their circumstances allow. Most Amish houses have two stories, which can help create a bit of extra drafts into lower-story windows, and some have breezeways, as many houses did a century or more ago. Some also use outbuildings as summer kitchens to keep the wood-fired cookstoves from further heating their houses.
Without even electric fans, the most comfortable place in an Amish house is often below ground.
“Sometimes to rest, we go to the basement on days like this,” Joe said. “Sometimes we sleep in the basement. Actually, there’s a few that sleep in the yard on the hottest nights. They put something in the line of a hammock outside.”
Even workspaces are built to mitigate the heat.
“On what they call a ‘groundhog’ sawmill, a lot of times the roof was low; that’s not good,” Joe said. “You need to get the roof up about 10 or 12 feet, and it’s a lot more comfortable than a low roof is.”
Joe said being accustomed to the seasons is an advantage in working during extreme weather.
“Everybody’s used to their air-conditioner,” he said. “When you get used to that, this kind of weather is terrible. It’ll beat you down.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com