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Roughing it

By Andrew Bard Schmookler / February 2, 1999



Is it so ludicrous an idea, that notion that the willingness to rough it is a form of virtue?

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What makes me wonder are some conversations I've had lately about the temperature we keep in our home in the winter, out in the mountains of Virginia. We've got a wood stove for heat, and it's work to keep it stoked. Even since I stopped harvesting dead wood from our forest and chopping it all with my ax, it's still something to split the logs I buy, carry them, and get them stacked, keep them dry, and bring them into the house to feed our stove. It's still a whole lot more work than setting the thermostat on 70 degrees and then writing a check at the end of the month.

We know where our winter warmth comes from.

Our place has no furnace, but we do have electricity, and when it's really cold we can plug in some electric heaters to supplement the wood. Expensive stuff, electric heat.

So we don't insist, like some of our city-dwelling friends, on our indoor temperature being the same all year round. In the summer, we let mountain breezes coursing through our open windows keep us cool. In the winter, we shoot for 65 degrees inside, and don't object so long as the temperature is above the 50s.

"It's positively un-American!" At least that's how some of our visitors seem to regard it. Maybe they're right. After all, this is a country where you need a jacket in some public indoor places in the summer, they're so air-conditioned. And in the winter those places are so heated you need to peel down to short sleeves.

I tell my college-age kids, home on visits, they need to wear a sweater to get the standing to complain about the cold in our house. Why should humans insist their environment do all the adapting to them, and not meet the environment halfway. If a creature demands a uniform temperature year round, and can't tolerate a 10- or 20-degree range, what else will that creature be unable to handle?

The idea that softness is a form of moral decadence has an ancient pedigree. Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun described the pattern where the vigor of conquering tribes would decline by the third generation - grandchildren, grown fat and self-indulgent from luxuries, lose the strength to preserve the privilege they inherit, until a more vigorous tribe takes it from them.

But even if I do believe in the virtue of roughing it, I generally boost the heat to keep our city visitors happy. I don't want them getting all hot under the collar about how cold it is.

*Andrew Bard Schmookler lives in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.