By Tom Poland
It was like stepping back into the 1960s, sitting in that cool, refreshing gazebo up North Carolina way. Its vines and emerald green leaves, translucent and bright, revived memories of my Granddad Walker’s front porch. Back in the fifties and sixties he didn’t have air conditioning, not even a window unit, but he had something pretty cool, literally and figuratively—a dense screen of kudzu growing and weaving throughout a lattice of hemp rope.
Of the many memories of that homeplace long burnt to the ground, Granddad’s summer porch stands above all. Each spring he’d string hemp rope in crisscrossing patterns across eight columns and plant cuttings of kudzu at the porch’s base. Kudzu propagates easily and each cutting would grow 10 to 25 feet by summer time when the living is supposedly easy. He grew a green haven from the western sun that blasted his front porch. You could step behind that green screen and the temperature plummeted.
Now we change filters and pay techs to keep air conditioning units in good shape. AC is nice but it comes with a price. It eats electricity and it killed off quaint customs. Until I saw that North Carolina gazebo, I had not seen a leafy green screen in close to sixty years.
And what about hemp? Mention hemp to some folks and it brings to mind weed, reefer, cannabis, marijuana or “marry-j-wanna” as some refer to it. So here we have two bad boy plants in need of some good publicity. Well, there was a time they teamed up to do something good: bring cool relief to feverish summers down South, but those days are gone with the wind.
Before AC arrived full force we made do. We’d sit beneath a shade tree where a breeze felt wonderful. In church we used funeral home fans. How well I recall those hot summer days when window fans and attic fans cooled us. My Grandmom Poland kept a glass jar of water in the fridge. An old orange juice jar it was. The water was as cold as if it had seeped from a glacier.
I improvised. On a blistering summer day spent picking plums, biking, exploring woods, and climbing trees, I’d go to my parents’ back porch, open the freezer locker, and lean into it as far as I could. For the briefest of moments I escaped to Antarctica. Pure cold air coming off snow-white frost chilled me in a flash and back out into the heat I went.
These days summers seem as hot as the hinges of Hell. I suppose aging makes it tougher to tolerate the heat, though the humidity is what’s so onerous down here. It wilts outsiders, a good thing. More than anything though, the omnipresence of air conditioning ruined us. From home to car to restaurant, the thermostat gets a lot of attention, and tolerating heat isn’t easy. We’re just not used to it anymore.
As for green screens of kudzu, I don’t see them anymore but that gazebo comes close. These days about as close to an environmental positive way of cooling we get are continuous ridge vents and wind-operated attic turbines.
A cold glass of ice tea works too. How I’d love to sip tea one more time behind Granddad’s green screen of kudzu, the plant that ate the South.
P.S. As I write I hear the heat pump working away … pumping away heat nobody needs right now. It’ll be a different story come winter.
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