[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]
Sleeping Al Fresco
About 14 years ago, we went on a family vacation to Hawaii. We rented a pretty cabin in Hana, Maui with our three kids. The bedrooms were spacious and well-appointed, each one with a skylight, and silhouetted against each skylight was a cheerfully chirping gecko, posing like a character out of a children’s book, but it was the futon bed on the screened-in porch (the lanai as it is called there) which called to my husband and me, and that is where we chose to sleep. Two weeks later, we arrived home to Bedford. I had barely dropped my suitcase on the floor of my bedroom before heading down to the mattress store to buy a futon bed for our own screened porch.
Since then, our nights sleeping al fresco have spread across nearly half the year. In April, we turn on the electric blanket about 20 minutes before venturing out into the chill of the early spring night; that, a down comforter, and the most elemental source of heat, another body, and we are as snug as can be. When summer blooms full on, we switch to a woven linen blanket, at once weighty and weightless. In late September, we plug in the electric blanket once again, and by early November, when it becomes too cold to hold a book in our hands, we move back into our bedroom (and its delicious heated floor) for the winter.
What is so elementally appealing about sleeping outside? For us, it has never been about the health benefits, which, according to a slew of sources, are real and varied: improved activity of the lungs by increasing oxygen assimilation, a strengthening of the central nervous system, and the stimulation of vital glands of internal secretion that produce hormones and tone up the skin. On the occasional solo night in the cold, when I’m scrunched up tight in a ball, I think about a New York Times piece about the benefits of cold sleeping to produce something known as “brown fat,” the kind we want in our bodies, and that makes the mild discomfort less so.
The healthy dividends are a mere bonus. We sleep outside because it just feels so good. A butterfly in Osaka flaps its wings, and our back porch in Bedford, my cheek is gently buffeted by a puff of air. During storms, we feel the spray of mist against our faces. Thunder comes from all sides. Lightning creates momentary strobe-lit tableaux, each window framing a distinct composition of trees against a steely sky. Sometimes we are woken from sleep thinking there’s a party gone out of hand nearby. We realize it is the near-human sound of a pack of coyotes wilding on a terrified mammal in the surrounding woods.
We listen with the rapt attention we’d give the most exotic nature documentary on TV. Nights on the screened porch are a study of the delineation between one thing and another. The place where my warm breath meets cool air. The distant place where an owl’s soft pipe song interrupts the velvet texture of silence. The place where, devoid of man-made sounds, we modern people can feel and hear night as it has been since un-modern times. In the dark calm of my Bedford backyard, I can begin to decode the language of the natural world. I listen for variations in the crickets’ song, try to guess where that barking dog is barking from, and attempt to record in my mind an animal’s nighttime cry so that I might search it online in the morning—the distress call of a baby fox? The ratchety chitter of a raccoon in a standoff with a cat? My cat?
“There are on earth,” wrote Jean Giono in his 1935 book, The Joy of Man’s Desiring, “moments of great beauty and peace.” Nights spent sleeping out our screened porch, we have access to so many more of those moments. –Andrea Raisfield