The 5th of February 2011 was the hottest night on record in Sydney—33.2 °C at midnight; 27.6 °C at the coolest part of the night, just before the sun rose. While most people were hiding from the heat, locked up in air-conditioned rooms, I decided to hold a pool party. I don’t actually have a pool; I have four blue plastic shells, kiddie-sized kitsch parodies of Botticelli’s Venus birthing shell, which I laid around the garden like lilies and filled with water.
My friends arrived at about seven p.m. in their swimmers and we proceeded to spend the night getting with the heat: lounging in the pools one at a time like frogs; doing the limbo under the hose, which we had strung up over the washing line; dancing under the fairy lights in the garden with our kids; drinking wine and lying heavy-limbed on the couch, the heat in us like butter; and idly chatting about this and that.
One friend, dripping from a dip in the plastic pond, remarked that what we were doing was working with the season, not against it. Being lazy, languid, up late like they are in the countries that lie in the world’s heat belts. Moving with the world rather than against it. We realised that she was right. And we realised how infrequently we do it. And then we got on with lying about.
In the days that followed I found myself stuck in a thinking rut, a bit like a stuck record, ruminating on two things. The first thing I couldn’t dislodge was the fact that moving with the world around us is a way of life we in the West, especially in the urban West, have largely lost, with our air-conditioners and rushing about. We behave as if the world around us didn’t shift and slow and speed up and hibernate, as if the year were one long seasonal monotony. We have alienated our bodies, our minds and our way of life from the rhythms of the natural world. In Australia, this largely means ignoring the heat and the languidness it inspires. This is not a new idea, but somehow since that evening I felt, and still feel, that idea in a new way.
Which brought me to the terrible irony of it all, that in so doing, in cooling ourselves down, we are in the process of heating ourselves up. The more we hide in air-conditioned rooms, the hotter it is going to get out there. The more we teach our children to be wary of the warmth and to live by climate control, the warmer the world will become and the harder the climate to control.
One of the ladies who lounged with me that hot, hot evening had just returned from an extended stay with family in Uruguay. As we sat there under the slow muscle-melt of the air, sipping our wine spritzers and dousing ourselves with the hose while the city around us lay quiet and empty, everyone cooped up in front of the cold-air box, she told us about life over there. It was pretty different.
The thing that had struck her the most was how late everyone stayed up, how much they lived their lives at night during the summer. She had been to the dentist at ten p.m.; packed into the car at midnight and headed off to visit the great-aunts; strolled along the thronged promenade at one a.m., old folks propped up in fold-out chairs and kiddies running wild. Over there, she said, most people stay up until two or three, until the early morning cooling begins. They rise late if they can, sleeping through the morning heat, and everyone eats and rests in the afternoon, not resisting the bodily doldrums that come with the waxing heat. Then, as darkness and relative coolness come, life begins.
This made perfect sense to us: the night, hot as it was, was so much more pleasant than the day had been and, as midnight rolled by and the mercury sat at 33.2 °C, sleep was never going to happen anyway.
Uruguay is a pretty good country of comparison for Australia. Both countries lie in the southern subtropical latitudes, within the world’s heat belts and all that comes with them (think Henry Miller’s lascivious Tropic of Capricorn and you get the picture). Looking at the climate page of my massive old Times Atlas, eastern Australia and Uruguay are both warm and green. (Most of the rest of Australia is sandy yellow, sharing a climate with the Middle East and the African deserts. We probably have a lot to learn from them as well, but that belongs to another night.) I fell to wondering why it is that we live so differently. Perhaps the answer lies in our past, in the countries we inherited our habits from and the climates that shaped them.
Uruguay was colonised by Spain, another heat-belter, occupying the northern equivalent of our latitudes, also pulsing greenly on the map. And so modern Uruguayan culture descended at least in part from the Spanish way of life, with its siestas and late meals and midnight fiestas. We in white Australia, on the other hand, inherited our way of life predominantly from the English, whose homeland does not lie in the subtropics but in the dark-green cooler temperate regions two bands above them. Our way of life emerged from the rhythms of a cooler climate—one where heat and light were precious commodities, where the working day had to follow the sun and hide from the cold.
Looking at photos of the early colonists, with their long high-collared dresses, full skirts and petticoats, the long-armed and long-legged suits and shirts of the men, it is easy to see just how ridiculous they look in this environment. They look wrong. Just like many early paintings do, with their strangely curvaceous trees and moist greens. That way of dressing and looking had little to do with the hot, harsh and often aridly beautiful land in which they found themselves.
We have, of course, moved on sartorially, and our landscape painting has come into its own. And yet, in many ways, our current way of life is just as inappropriate as our paintings and clothes used to be. Technology has allowed us to extend and develop the odd habits of our forebears and entrench a way of living that bears little relation to the world we live in. Even our eating habits are divorced from the ebbs and flows of the seasons. (I have a wonderful standard cookbook from the 1970s that is organised around the seasonal availability of produce: this way of eating and the climatic rhythm and shifts that it carries seem sadly quaint now—or the purview of a few dedicated idealists.) Summer, because it affects us so violently, is often something that is endured as we rush from house to car to office unless, of course, we are at the beach or having an evening beer. We have learnt to insulate ourselves from the world and in many ways have come to see the world as an unwelcome intrusion into our way of life, rather than its foundation. And it seemed to me that wonderfully hot night, as I lay in the plastic pool, that we pay dearly for our hubris.
Which brings me at last to the second thing that stuck in my mind in the days following my pool soiree. We pay with more than a loss of seasonal living and the variety of joys and activities and ways of being that it brings. We will pay with the loss of our climate. Australia is infamous for its carbon heavy-footedness—it takes a lot of the earth to ignore the earth. It is interesting to compare our carbon footprint with that of the better adapted Uruguayans. According to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Carbon Footprint of Nations website, Australia produces an average of 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita per year while Uruguay produces an average of 6.8 tonnes. (And yet neither of us gets an A: the sustainable climate level is 1 tonne of carbon dioxide per capita per year.)
The effects of climate change have begun emerging from the abstract in rather startling and sometimes even pleasing ways. This year my poor confused wisteria flowered twice, the first time even before winter was over. I smelt jasmine in the air long before I expected it. Spring was early (twelve days early, according to some gardener on the radio). Unfortunately, climate change will not simply be a question of spring flowers. It will inevitably be a question of more heat, the kind of heat we spend so much energy avoiding.
The day leading up to the hottest night on record was also unusual. It was a blistering 43 °C where I live. Walking around my suburb in a desperate hunt for a fan was like walking around a ghost town in the desert, the sun burning whitely everywhere. The lights in the shops flickered weakly and half their electronic appliances didn’t work—they’d had to cut the energy supply down to 160 volts so there was enough to go around. The streets were deserted. It struck me that this was a vision of the Australia of the future.
We’re going to have to learn to live with the world again. The last few months, with their cataclysmic rains, Western Australian conflagrations and cyclonic near misses, have shown us, if nothing else, that seeking to control the weather and deny the seasons is a fool’s game. The world won’t stand for it. How much better, then, to loosen up a little and learn to live with the heat, learn to relax and to slow and to lie on the couch and swim at night, than to corral ourselves into an unbearable future.
My friends finally left at about two a.m., just as the temperature was heading down into the twenties, and we headed off to bed. We put on damp T-shirts, hung wet cloths over the windows, put a spare mattress on the floor for my daughter, turned our only fan on high and slept like logs until mid morning.