Climate And Happiness by Charles Dudley Warner

Story type: Essay

The idea of the relation of climate to happiness is modern. It is probably born of the telegraph and of the possibility of rapid travel, and it is more disturbing to serenity of mind than any other. Providence had so ordered it that if we sat still in almost any region of the globe except the tropics we would have, in course of the year, almost all the kinds of climate that exist. The ancient societies did not trouble themselves about the matter; they froze or thawed, were hot or cold, as it pleased the gods. They did not think of fleeing from winter any more than from the summer solstice, and consequently they enjoyed a certain contentment of mind that is absent from modern life. We are more intelligent, and therefore more discontented and unhappy. We are always trying to escape winter when we are not trying to escape summer. We are half the time ‘in transitu’, flying hither and thither, craving that exact adaptation of the weather to our whimsical bodies promised only to the saints who seek a “better country.” There are places, to be sure, where nature is in a sort of equilibrium, but usually those are places where we can neither make money nor spend it to our satisfaction. They lack either any stimulus to ambition or a historic association, and we soon find that the mind insists upon being cared for quite as much as the body.

How many wanderers in the past winter left comfortable homes in the United States to seek a mild climate! Did they find it in the sleet and bone-piercing cold of Paris, or anywhere in France, where the wolves were forced to come into the villages in the hope of picking up a tender child? If they traveled farther, were the railway carriages anything but refrigerators tempered by cans of cooling water? Was there a place in Europe from Spain to Greece, where the American could once be warm –really warm without effort–in or out of doors? Was it any better in divine Florence than on the chill Riviera? Northern Italy was blanketed with snow, the Apennines were white, and through the clean streets of the beautiful town a raw wind searched every nook and corner, penetrating through the thickest of English wraps, and harder to endure than ingratitude, while a frosty mist enveloped all. The traveler forgot to bring with him the contented mind of the Italian. Could he go about in a long cloak and a slouch hat, curl up in doorways out of the blast, and be content in a feeling of his own picturesqueness? Could he sit all day on the stone pavement and hold out his chilblained hand for soldi? Could he even deceive himself, in a palatial apartment with a frescoed ceiling, by an appearance of warmth in two sticks ignited by a pine cone set in an aperture in one end of the vast room, and giving out scarcely heat enough to drive the swallows from the chimney? One must be born to this sort of thing in order to enjoy it. He needs the poetic temperament which can feel in January the breath of June. The pampered American is not adapted to this kind of pleasure. He is very crude, not to say barbarous, yet in many of his tastes, but he has reached one of the desirable things in civilization, and that is a thorough appreciation of physical comfort. He has had the ingenuity to protect himself in his own climate, but when he travels he is at the mercy of customs and traditions in which the idea of physical comfort is still rudimentary. He cannot warm himself before a group of statuary, or extract heat from a canvas by Raphael, nor keep his teeth from chattering by the exquisite view from the Boboli Gardens. The cold American is insensible to art, and shivers in the presence of the warmest historical associations. It is doubtful if there is a spot in Europe where he can be ordinarily warm in winter. The world, indeed, does not care whether he is warm or not, but it is a matter of great importance to him. As he wanders from palace to palace–and he cannot escape the impression that nothing is good enough for him except a palace–he cannot think of any cottage in any hamlet in America that is not more comfortable in winter than any palace he can find. And so he is driven on in cold and weary stretches of travel to dwell among the French in Algeria, or with the Jews in Tunis, or the Moslems in Cairo. He longs for warmth as the Crusader longed for Jerusalem, but not short of Africa shall he find it. The glacial period is coming back on Europe.

The citizens of the great republic have a reputation for inordinate self-appreciation, but we are thinking that they undervalue many of the advantages their ingenuity has won. It is admitted that they are restless, and must always be seeking something that they have not at home. But aside from their ability to be warm in any part of their own country at any time of the year, where else can they travel three thousand miles on a stretch in a well-heated–too much heated–car, without change of car, without revision of tickets, without encountering a customhouse, without the necessity of stepping outdoors either for food or drink, for a library, for a bath–for any item, in short, that goes to the comfort of a civilized being? And yet we are always prating of the superior civilization of Europe. Nay, more, the traveler steps into a car–which is as comfortable as a house–in Boston, and alights from it only in the City of Mexico. In what other part of the world can that achievement in comfort and convenience be approached?

But this is not all as to climate and comfort. We have climates of all sorts within easy reach, and in quantity, both good and bad, enough to export more in fact than we need of all sorts. If heat is all we want, there are only three or four days between the zero of Maine and the 80 deg. of Florida. If New England is inhospitable and New York freezing, it is only a matter of four days to the sun and the exhilarating air of New Mexico and Arizona, and only five to the oranges and roses of that semi-tropical kingdom by the sea, Southern California. And if this does not content us, a day or two more lands us, without sea-sickness, in the land of the Aztecs, where we can live in the temperate or the tropic zone, eat strange fruits, and be reminded of Egypt and Spain and Italy, and see all the colors that the ingenuity of man has been able to give his skin. Fruits and flowers and sun in the winter-time, a climate to lounge and be happy in–all this is within easy reach, with the minimum of disturbance to our daily habits. We started out, when we turned our backs on the Old World, with the declaration that all men are free, and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of an agreeable climate. We have yet to learn, it seems, that we can indulge in that pursuit best on our own continent. There is no winter climate elsewhere to compare with that found in our extreme Southwest or in Mexico, and the sooner we put this fact into poetry and literature, and begin to make a tradition of it, the better will it be for our peace of mind and for our children. And if the continent does not satisfy us, there lie the West Indies within a few hours’ sail, with all the luxuriance and geniality of the tropics. We are only half emancipated yet. We are still apt to see the world through the imagination of England, whose literature we adopted, or of Germany. To these bleak lands Italy was a paradise, and was so sung by poets who had no conception of a winter without frost. We have a winter climate of another sort from any in Europe; we have easy and comfortable access to it. The only thing we need to do now is to correct our imagination, which has been led astray. Our poets can at least do this for us by the help of a quasi-international copyright.