Peter Shelton

Global Cooling

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on May 26, 2011

We turned off the heat May 1. This is not a rule at our house. It just seemed like time. High temps were in the 70s. I think it got up to 81 degrees one day near the end of April.

We have friends who turn off their boiler religiously on May 1 and pride themselves on not turning it back on until November 1. You can usually get away with this kind of thing here in the Colona banana belt.

In fact, when the days were warming up a few weeks ago, and the sun was beaming in early and setting later and later, I began to fear, ever so viscerally, the heat that can shove a temperate spring into the oven of summer.

Then, of course, it started to snow again.

Our house is solid; it has tons of concrete in the floors and walls. It kept its warmth for a few days into that first May cold snap. But day-by-day, without any solar gain, the inside temps crept lower. Each cold, cloudy morning Ellen and I would get up, out from under our winter quilt, and look at the thermometer: 67 degrees, 66, 64, 62.

We’re nothing if not stubborn. All of that concrete takes a long time to reheat – many hours, days actually. And the propane – Oy! We weren’t going there. The sun would be out again soon.

One bitter, drippy afternoon Ellen drove into Ridgway, to the Watch office, and took our grandson for a walk while his mom Cecily and I worked on the paper. Boden was fine inside his Chariot, with its high-tech, zip-in plastic bubble. Ellen was another story.

I wasn’t paying attention when they got back from their stroll around town. (I must have been proofing page layouts.) The next I noticed, Ellen was lying on the conference room floor with her shoes and socks and pants off, half covered in a baby blanket, huddled by the forced-air vent. Her hair was damp, and her pants were hanging on a chair, soaked through.

She insisted she was fine, and headed home before me. But when I got there I found her on what is usually a sunny bench seat, curled inward, like a half-buried sled dog in a storm.

There were just enough dry sticks in the woodbox to start a fire in the fireplace. I pulled a chair up to the hearth, put Ellen in it, and put her feet up to within inches of the screen. I insisted she wear a hat, too, a fuzzy rabbit-fur mop I’d brought home from Srinagar, and she didn’t refuse.

Now this fireplace is a thing of beauty. But it is mainly for show. It doesn’t put out the heat a caste-iron woodstove does. And, being a fireplace it tears through wood like an amped-up beaver. To keep the heat coming we were going to need more wood. And our woodpile was out beside the driveway under five days worth of soggy snow.

I felt like such an amateur. For 23 years in Telluride and Ridgway we had depended on woodstoves for all of our heat. We’d kept our woodpile dry. And become masters with a single-bit axe. One of the reasons we built this house, with its mass and its in-floor heat, was to leave behind those drafty, six-cord winters. But now here we were crowded around a small flame, like Neanderthals in our cave, soaking up its heat.

I managed to split up some of the bigger juniper rounds to get at the dry wood inside. And once the fire got going, even the wet oak burned pretty well. Slowly, Ellen began to thaw out.

She couldn’t stop talking about the fire, how nice it was. She was babbling. She admitted to being really really cold, and said she’d thought more than casually that day about Marcel Proust, how he’d caught a chill while waiting for a taxi in Paris, took to his bed, and died.

Our bed wasn’t exactly toasty when we crawled in. The bedroom is at the far end of the house from the fireplace. I told Ellen I was sure the survival manuals all said the best way for someone with hypothermia, or even someone who is just a little chilly, to get warm was to spoon together under the covers, skin-on-skin, with an amenable volunteer.

Two days later the sun came out. When, a week after that, the second May 2011 cold-and-snow event arrived, we were just as unprepared.

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