Friday, September 15, 2006

Perfect Air

September 15

I seldom think of time-travel, but yesterday it occurred to me spontaneously, twice. Both times I was in a large store buying stuff, and I wondered what a visitor from the 1800's would have though if he could have been brought forward into that particular moment.

I was reminded of the hero of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, a book I have mentioned on this blog before. The hapless hero, in his heavy woolen suit, high-button shoes, and celluloid collar, is transported to the future. In the book he is awed to be in an enormous shopping emporium, as envisioned by the author, himself trapped in the nineteenth century and only wishing. Bellamy's point is the ease of shopping in a world where needs are pre-alloted for you by your benevolent government, and you go to a desk and tell a clerk who sends someone to the warehouse in back and fills your order. It didn't work out quite that way, but the atmosphere of Home Depot and Staples is oddly futuristic, or would seem so to our time traveler. But all I could think of his how this fellow would feel if allowed to enter the building in loose shorts and a tee shirt, and how the atmosphere of conditioned air after the sweltering, humid soup that is Lower Alabama air in mid-September, would seem to him (or her). It would almost have to be the greatest non-anticipated miracle of the 20th Century.

When I look at the lovely pictures of Fairhope in the early 1900's, with everybody in long sleeves and the ladies in long dresses, I wonder how they could stand it. Fairhope was a winter resort, mostly, for visitors from Chicago and the Northeast, but there were those summer residents who found the breezes off the bay cooling and relaxing. Much activity was held outside, including intellectual discussion groups, concerts and lectures. A Shakespearean scholar named Sarah Willard Heistand founded the first Alabama Shakespeare Festival (no connection to the one now housed in a 50 million dollar facility in Montgomery), with performances by local talent -- everyone in town -- on the beach with the gully walls as a backdrop. This was held every summer throughout the 1920's. There is a chapter about it in my book When We Had the Sky, which has not yet found a publisher.

In early Fairhope a visitor from Barcelona designed an outdoor plaza near where the new library stands -- it was to be in Spanish style, with roofs over performance spaces. He thought this the perfect climate for outdoor presentations of music, dance and theatre. The plaza was never built.

The Beach Theater, mentioned here in an earlier post, was an open-air space on the beach to watch movies in the 1950's. Doomed by a particularly rainy summer, it was a novelty that would never catch on after the advent of air conditioning. I can remember when weather was so hot the only thing to do was go outside; today, the only thing to do is stay inside.

It has changed us, this perfect air, and with all its wonders, we have had to forfeit something as well.

I'm not suggesting we do without it, but I do sometimes wish that I and others had not become so dependent on it, and could better enjoy the planet as it was given to us. With the coming of a gentle Alabama fall, how we'll love the nights with nature's own air conditioning, and that pleasant snap-to of anticipation as we step outside into a cooler, drier morning.

1 comment:

jon said...

They just stood it. Maybe it was not quite so hot or intense back then. Dressing for traditional acceptance for them was much more important than comfort. It was then the Victorian era of rigidity and conformity. Now not, at least in those terms. Here is another thought in time and humanity. Try going to the Globe in your imagination as a time traveler. I would first notice the stench and nastiness of the entire area and notice unhealthy, unsanitary behaviors. Yet, those in the pit enjoy the gathering nonetheless and the better-off in higher galleries, with nose gays, enjoying being there too. I am not sure that I could without some adjustment as the old adage about being in Rome avers. Regardless of time travel, people will always react to seasonal change. I hope that we keep on having seasons and the greenhouse effect does not get any worse. I love the out door life. What is worse than extreme weather? Mosquitoes, yellow flies and noseeums. Maybe the mode of dress you mention aided in the defense against them. Today is a great day to be outside. I'm there.