Cold Comfort

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

On the 18th November, I was still swimming in our un-heated pool where the water temperature hovered just below 70 degrees. Tonight, a couple of days after Thanksgiving I read that,

"Accumulating snow of up to 3 to 6 inches will be possible on the North Mountain slopes above 4000 feet from tonight through sun evening. The snow combined with gusty winds up to 60 miles per hour expected over the L.A./Ventura mountains has prompted the issuance of a Winter Storm Warning for the North Mountain slopes including the I-5 corridor above 3500 feet and the Grapevine." (Southwest California area forecast discussion, National Weather Service Los Angeles/Oxnard California 345 PM PST Sat Nov 27 2010)

My point being: I'm regretting the summer palace on the slope. Today was briefly warm - somewhere between this morning's cloud cover that rolled back to reveal blue skies mid-morning, and around two this afternoon when the first clouds marbled the sky ahead of a cold front that now, a little before five, has greyed our valley. Tonight will be cold like last night, and it will be colder still tomorrow and Monday; in the east end they will probably crank-up the smudge pots and wind-machines (The Citrus Belt ).

I know, I know, we are not talking east coast cold or heaven help us, Edmonton (Latitude 53° North), Canada cold (tonight's low, 4 degrees farenheit). Actually, New York is relatively balmy right at the moment, their night's low of 36° warmer than Ojai's 34° (29° tomorrow night); London's low (51° North) is 24°, Tokyo's low (the same latitude as Ojai, at 35° North) is a toasty (the heat island effect?) 44° and Vancouver's (49° North) is 33°. So enough already, it is cold - globally, or at least hemispherically cold (Sydney's low, 34° South, is 64°).

Psychologically, because we live in Southern California, it is very cold - a couple of weeks ago the high was 85° and two weeks before that, at the beginning of November we broke 100° on Koenigstein with the low around 60°. The truth is that that sort of weather could return anytime; 85° days in winter are not unusual. Which is why we are freezing now and not running around on a toasty radiantly heated slab. We made the call, relying on passive solar heating of the slab rather than active water or electrical coil heating and for a few days a year we suffer for it. The alternative is to have a heating system with a notorious lag time potentially overheating the house during the day just because you want a shot of warmth, say, between 7 am and 10 am.

OK, we are not freezing: last night we cranked up the Rais stove for the first time this season with beautifully seasoned oak of which we now have probably a two years supply. The oven temperature (the stove has a pizza oven at the top of the drum shaped fire chamber) reached around 150° Celsius quite quickly but that's a little shy of the 300-400° you need for actually baking a pizza in a traditional wood fired oven. But it warmed the dining room pleasantly enough and we turned the fan to a lazy whirr to bat the warmth down from the vault of the ceiling where it is wont to go.

It is now raining, and perhaps snowing on the Topa Topa peaks, and I am congratulating myself on having brought in enough fire-wood out of the weather to last us through to Christmas. Oh, and our dark secret is that in this all-electric house we use an electric heat pump to take the edge off the morning's chill.

it was my father who would intone the first line of T.S. Eliot's 1927 poem, Journey of the Magi, when we were out walking and there was the slightest nip in the air. He was mostly steeped in the great English poets of the nineteenth century but occasionally read work by writers of his own century. The wonder of it is that he read poetry at all. He rarely attributed his "lines" - they were embedded into his everyday syntax and thus, as a boy I did not recognize that his tastes also ran to at least one modernist; only that a sparkle of frost triggered "A cold coming we had of it".

The coldest night I have spent in California was in the high desert of the Mojave. Edmund C. Jaeger sensibly notes in his The California Deserts, Stanford University Press, 1933, "on the high Mojave Desert one may reasonably expect to experience a light fall of snow after the middle of November and as late as mid April.". Such was the case when my son Will and I camped along the Mojave road at around 5,000 feet in sight of the snow capped peaks of Pinto and Table Top Mountain, both well over six thousand feet. It was very early January and the evening was spent huddling around the camp fire, leaning well into it, ignoring the wood smoke and the smell of burning rubber as my feet got a little too intimate with the flames. We survived the night and the next day when we descended down towards Soda Lake the air warmed, we left the alpine vegetation behind and brilliant sunshine played over the desert vastness, punctuated only by the occasional creosote and burrobush.

In Southern California we are never far from this paradigm of the desert climate - warm days and cold nights. Sure, it is moderated at the beach: less warm days and less cold nights - but here in Ojai, we are firmly in the zone. Temperatures crash at sundown.

We live, as I have mentioned before, in prime passive-solar territory (Are We Green Yet? ). Baruch Givoni, father of modern passive solar design is an Israeli - he grew up in the desert, where the temperature conveniently trips from warm to cold at nightfall. By-pass this diode and you can achieve 365-24-7 thermal comfort: harvest the daytime warmth and dissipate it at night. Unfortunately, this only works well when you live in a place under the thrall of the desert climate paradigm - like So Cal and other desert regions of the south west.

Although in 2003, about 35,000 people died in Europe during a two-week heat wave, W. R. Keatinge, G. C. Donaldson, two British researchers note that,

"Cold-related deaths are far more numerous than heat-related deaths in the United States, Europe, and almost all countries outside the tropics, and almost all of them are due to common illnesses that are increased by cold. Coronary and cerebral thrombosis account for about half of the cold-related deaths and respiratory disease for about half the rest ".

Either way, thermal comfort is essential to good health. Here in Southern California we have the means to assure equitable temperatures year-round with minimal energy inputs: we aim to make of our simple barn in winter a summer palace; but if we occasionally miss the mark we will zip into a Patagonia fleece and think of Jimmy Carter.

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