The house was just awful most of the time. It was extremely hot and stuffy. I had long hours of each day where I could hardly get work done. We slept funny hours, and did so all crowded into the basement. The windows were open for most of the day to let air through. And, since all the screens were broken, this meant that we had a constant influx of spiders, moths, flies, and earwigs. By the end of seven short days, we were tired, we all had bug bites, and we were sick of being anywhere near each other.
Fortunately, on Wednesday we were able to get a new cooler and furnace installed. It’s been a huge relief and has also given me a lot to think about. I learned a few things during our hot, stuffy, bug-bitten week.
That wasn’t completely comfortable, but we adjusted and did just fine. We tended to be active early and late in the day, with a slower period when temperatures were at their high in late afternoon. We opened windows at night and closed blinds during the day. And we spent a lot of the summer in the basement or in the shaded parts of the yard. We cooked outside or ate cold foods most of the time.
And that’s actually the most important thing learned in this last week: I remembered what it’s like to participate in the world around me instead of taking it completely for granted. It’s like bicycling to work on a route that you usually drive. You suddenly notice that a road you drive on every day has a slight uphill slant. It looks level when you’re in the car, but the slight grade constantly reminds you on your bike that you can’t stop peddling and can’t coast long before you’ll come to a dead stop. Your car is also working a bit harder on that road (and using a little more fuel and causing a little more pollution), but you don’t notice since it keeps you so comfortable and protected from the reality.
Our life was like that during the week. Things we have taken for granted suddenly mattered a lot. We didn’t do any cooking or laundry during the day, only at night, so that we didn’t overheat the house even more. We even kept most lights off during the day since they, too, generated a surprising amount of extra heat. When we wanted hot food, we used the crockpot or the outside grill. I knew the weather forecast—right down to the hour—every single day, and planned everything accordingly. We knew right when to open and close windows to maximize the temperature changes outside. And I similarly adjusted my work schedule so that I was very productive in the morning and at night, with a slower period in the middle of the day—usually taking a long break or even a nap during the hottest part of the day.
I also got some appreciation for what it means to subdue the earth and what it means to be a steward of the earth. We’re told to do both in the scriptures: to take dominion of the earth but also to tend to it and care for it. That always seemed contradictory to me, and I’ve never cared for the words “subdue” or “dominion” when it comes to talking about the environment. Those just sounded harsh and old-fashioned.
But I can tell you that I was fully on board with subduing the earth once I was face-to-face with it: when my kids had spider bites, when I couldn’t do simple chores without breaking a sweat, and when my shower was full of earwigs. In addition to inviting the air conditioning guys over this week, we made sure also to invite the screen repair guy and the bug spray guy.
I was reminded that to subdue the world around me really just means to set meaningful, respectful boundaries that ultimately lead to more beauty and more freedom. It’s just like subduing my body or my appetites. Just like me, the earth is alive, was specially created, and has a glorious and eternal potential. And, in the same way that I can’t just give into my constant urges for Doritos and cookie dough or else I’ll eventually end up losing all freedom and beauty in my life, I also need to work with the environment around me to beautify and care for it without just letting it run wild. I’m not really caring for the earth at all if I’m letting it overrun me with three-foot-long weeds in my yard and a house full of earwigs. I’m just letting it go.
It’s a principle illustrated in a talk that Elder Quentin Cook gave at a recent LDS General Conference.
He described a day when he drove his 90-year-old grandfather back to the old farm he’d lived on for years. There had never been air conditioning or even any plumbing there. The whole place relied on a pristine well that supplied cool, clean water for plants, animals, and human beings. Sadly, when they went back to visit, the fence around the well had not been maintained, and the well had been contaminated and ruined by cows who had wandered in. Now it was of no good use to anyone. His grandfather was heartbroken and felt responsible. He felt like he had violated a relationship he had with the world around him; he’d been entrusted with a valuable resource, and negligence had destroyed that resource.
Now that our air is back on and we’re once again in the very seat of comfort, I’m thinking a lot about how we should be treating our own small piece of land on this earth. As we decide how to set up our garden and revive the dilapidated yard, we are thinking about the impact we might have. What trees will naturally cool the house? If we clean up the messy grass and wood trimmings, we’ll scare off the quail that live there. But if we plant raspberries along the back fence, will they stay? How cool do we really need to keep our house? A few degrees warmer would be quite livable and might save us a lot of money plus reduce our consumption. How carefully are we recycling? Why are we watering the grass with city water when we have free irrigation water and need to do just a couple hours of repairs to be able to use it? And why are we baking cupcakes in the middle of the day again? How much more energy do we waste trying to cool the house with an oven on?
It’s not always easy to figure out how to manage through this. And sometimes any conversation about conservation and stewardship becomes hopelessly politicized. But I think we can all do some basic, easy steps to be better stewards and to subdue in a creative, rather than destructive, way.
Maybe to keep it fresh in our minds, we’ll have to turn the air conditioner off for a few days every month.