Only 52 days left of summer in the northern hemisphere. I didn’t always count the days till the end of summer, or if I did, it was how many days till school began. I didn’t always dread the summer months. In my childhood and youth, summers were gentler, kinder, happier. Seldom were heat records broken.
As we say good-bye to July, the hottest month worldwide since record-keeping began, I mourn for the way summer used to be.
I’ve never been a great fan of heat, or so my mom told a few years ago, before she passed away. I couldn’t wait to move to the foggy shores of the San Francisco Bay when I was old enough to go to college. I was eager to escape the hot, smoggy summers of L.A. for the cooler climate of Berkeley.
But I don’t remember actually suffering during the summer. Childhood summers were leisurely days of playing with friends in the back yard, block parties for 4th of July with homemade ice cream, learning to garden, pulling weeds if I had “talked back” too much, playing with the family cat—and reading, reading, reading.
In subtropical Southern California in the 60’s, not much marked the seasons, but there were even more flowers in the summer. June usually heralded the “June gloom.” Mornings would dawn under a thick, foggy marine layer that extended miles inland and slowly burned off, moderating the temperatures as we took our final exams. Generally the heat waves would wait for the week school started, right after Labor Day, and then the almost imperceptible cooling down of autumn would slowly begin.
We were fortunate to have neighbors who had a swimming pool. I was often invited to join the older teens, or even to come over and swim laps by myself. I’d learned to swim at the YWCA when I was six or seven, and even got up my courage to go off the high dive (now pretty much non-existent due to insurance concerns, I hear). My dad taught me to ocean swimming in the cool and then-clean waters of the Pacific Ocean in Pacific Palisades, where my grandparents lived. After being knocked over by the waves a few times, I learned to dive through the breakers to the other side, so the waves never broke right on top of me.
And we hiked, my parents and I—and once our Siamese cat—to a place we called Hawk Rock, a nesting place for red-tailed hawks on a trail high above the San Fernando Valley. In those days it was even safe for 11 and 12-year-old girls to walk the two miles from my parents’ house down to Ventura Boulevard. My best friend Erin and I would go to a movie, buy some nail polish, have a Coke in the drug store, and then walk home. I don’t remember ever being hot and miserable on the long uphill walk.
Erin and I would check books out of the public library and just sit and read together for hours in my upstairs princess room with the lavender walls and the crystal chandeliers, the windows wide open to cooling breezes. When we had sleepovers, we’d fall asleep with the windows open, dreaming of the UFO’s we were reading about in our sci-fi and metaphysical books.
When I was in my teens, my friends and I would take the bus all the way out Sunset Boulevard to the beach in Pacific Palisades. I remember one very painful ride home after I had given myself second degree burns by falling asleep in the sun in a bikini. Sunscreen was unheard of. The pale-skinned among us used Coppertone, cultivating that rich tan that few who hadn’t been born with that skin tone could ever attain—and mostly I just turned lobster red.
After I got my driver’s license, my mom would sometimes arrange her work schedule as a costumer for a children’s TV show so that I could borrow the car and spend the day at a friend’s parents’ rented beach house in Malibu. We knew we were lucky, children of privilege—though my parents had both grown up in extreme rural poverty during the Great Depression. Through very hard work, talent, and the luck never to get seriously ill, they had attained the American Dream of a successful small business and comfortable upper middle class lifestyle. But I went to public school at Hollywood High, where I took film and drama classes alongside enviable academic offerings, and rubbed elbows with kids whose parents were sound engineers, screenwriters, and actors in “the Industry.”
We had curfews, but sometimes on warm summer nights my parents would tactfully go out, leaving me and my teen friends to listen to music—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, the Who. I so envied the slightly older kids who had actually gotten to go to Woodstock with their college-age siblings.
It was a time of innocence in some ways—a gentle first kiss that didn’t automatically lead to first sexual experience—and yet not. The Vietnam War still raged on in the early 70’s, and four college students had been shot dead at Kent State in Ohio. I had to sneak away to anti-war demonstrations, sneaking not because my parents weren’t against the war by then, but because demonstrations had become dangerous.
The first Earth Day was in 1970. It awoke in so many of us a passion for the Earth born of our love for Nature. As a pre-teen Girl Scout I had joined in planting native pine seedlings after forest fires in Tujunga. We got to take seedlings home to plant. By the time I sold the house a few years ago after my parents’ deaths, two had grown into 50-year-old 50-foot-high trees that sheltered hawks and owls.
Air conditioning was something only the very wealthy had, and really wasn’t needed, and seldom missed (except for that hot first week of school). Every afternoon the wind would come up and cool the house while blowing the smog farther inland.
Going to rock, folk, and jazz concerts at the outdoor Greek theater was always a treat. So was going to classical concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. I remember one Brandenburg Concerto punctuated by two spectacular shooting stars that caused the whole audience to gasp aloud with wonder.
When I started at UC Berkeley, I was happy in the cooler climate, and stayed there to work during the summers. I was even more thrilled to move to England to attend Sussex University on a junior year abroad program. Travel was something both my parents valued highly as an opportunity for exploration and education, so I had been fortunate to join my mom on summer driving trips through Europe, including the then-Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. I don’t remember being too hot except for the day we climbed Mt. Vesuvius. When we got to the top, we were so happy to be offered ice with our Cokes—Europeans never cooled their drinks with ice at the time, and it was hard to find—until a telltale fishy taste informed us the source of the ice.
I even loved the cool, misty, rainy, British summers of those mid-70’s years. I lived in Brighton on sea, and took long misty walks on the Downs wearing a gray wool clocak and fancying myself a character in a Romantic novel. A truly lovely day was in the low 70’s (about 20 degrees C).
My relationship to heat—and I now suspect, Earth’s temperature itself—began to change around 1980. I spent the summer of 1979 in Pakistan and India. I escaped the broiling plains for the cooler temperatures of the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayas. Only it wasn’t all that cool. I’d read historical accounts of British hill stations and as I sweated in a tiny room in a backpacker’s hotel and slapped at bedbugs and mosquitos, I wondered why they were described as so pleasantly cool.
In 1982, I suffered serious heat stroke while crossing the Shandur Pass in Pakistan in a hired Jeep. I thought I had enough water with me, and drank till it was all gone. I will never know what the temperature was, but as the heat refracted in almost palpable weaves off the stone walls of the Karakoram Mountains, I realized that I had stopped sweating, a dangerous sign. I remember reaching a village in the nick of time and throwing myself in an irrigation channel contaminated with animal waste. It was the only thing I could think of to do, other than to ask in a weak voice in broken Urdu for “pure water.” The villagers were kind and concerned, and the village medic tore open packets of a glucose rehydration solution, which quite possibly saved my life.
I was dizzy for days afterwards, as there was no escape from the relentless heat until I got down to my Afghan refugee friends’ home in Peshawar a week later. They had air conditioning—an almost unimaginable luxury—and ran it in the sitting room and in their master bedroom.
I’ve never been able to bear heat well since then, which has been mostly an inconvenience and upon occasion a frightening trauma. I start to feel faint, light-headed, cranky, and sleepy long before the heat bothers most people.
The first few years I coped okay. My parents had finally gotten air conditioning, so when I was in the US I had that luxury. As a journalist, I still traveled frequently, but I preferred spending time in Europe during summers and realized I could no longer travel in Asia in summer. And then in the mid-90’s I discovered Alaska. I went there to do energy healing work and spiritual counseling, and enjoyed the misty summer days that never ever got too warm. I loved the long days of the sub-Arctic summer, and the short and cool nights. A warm day was in the mid-60’s (about 18 C). I could happily wear a tee shirt and even a cotton shirt over it while my Alaskan friends threw on shorts and tank tops.
I moved to Santa Fe in the mid-90’s partly to escape the heat in L.A. At that time northern New Mexico was a paradise of four beautiful seasons. Although June was usually hot, most years the monsoons started around summer solstice and really got going by the 4th of July. Days would dawn azure and cloudless, with wisps of clouds by late morning gathering into towering thunderheads by early afternoon. Most days it rained like clockwork in the mid to late afternoon, intense but fairly short downpours of huge drops that the Navajo call the “male rains” that would leave puddles on the land, cool the temperatures into the 60’s or even 50’s (14 to 18 C), and often create spectacular double rainbows.
When did it all change? Looking at the graphs of both carbon in the atmosphere and temperatures suddenly going straight up like a hockey stick, about 1980 was a marker. As politics tilted to the right in Britain and the US with Thatcher’s and Reagan’s love affair with fossil fuels, so the planetary axis metaphorically tilted out of the balance it had been in for the last several millennia, and the climate lost its stability.
I started dreading the summers probably about 2000. My passive solar adobe house, designed so scientifically for the climate of the last 5000 years, began to get too hot and not cool off. The first few years I lived in it, the monsoon-cooled breezes and a ceiling fan were enough to cool it down. Then I added shades on the floor-to-ceiling windows. Then blackout shades. Next was a portable swamp cooler, then a few years later a whole-house swamp cooler. And portable room air conditioners for the office so I could work, and the bedroom so I could sleep. Finally, last year, I got mini-split (heat pump) air conditioning. At least my solar panels make me feel less guilty about using all this electricity to keep myself cool enough to function.
I used to escape to Alaska for part of the summer, but this year the temperature hit 80 F (27 C) by the time I left Anchorage in late June, as the forest fire smoke blanketed the city. I left just before it hit the record-breaking mark of 90 F (32 C)—hotter than Santa Fe and, for that matter, some places on the Equator—and the smoke choked Anchorage, Fairbanks, and many villages in the Interior.
Ironically, this summer Santa Fe has been relatively cool, almost normal. The monsoons have not yet materialized except for a few days of good rains here and there, but except for spates of several days in the high 80’s to mid-90’s (31 to 35 C), it hasn’t been too bad. We are grateful for the rain we’ve had, but on the days it doesn’t rain, it might not cool off till nearly midnight, and the air is still and breathless.
Unless we can change the trajectory we are on, today’s children will never know the gentle and balmy summers of my childhood. As Greta Thunberg and thousands of children and youth sweat in record-breaking heat in Europe, stoically carrying on with their climate strikes, I feel sad that they may never know the truly carefree summers that the more privileged among us enjoyed.
I choose to envision the miracle where we somehow, at the very last minute, do everything right. We make an unprecedentedly rapid transition off of fossil fuels. Geniuses invent alternative, non-fossil-fuel-based fuels for cars and airplanes that are easily and economically retrofittable. The strangling hold of the corporations and international oligarchs is broken, leaving human creativity and compassion free to create new economic and ecological models of justice. Together, no longer separated from Nature or separated from each other by imaginary lines of borders, or by race, religion, or gender, we work to restore and regenerate our world.
The only limits are our imaginations. Together we plant trillions of trees, especially in the tropics. We restore mangrove swamps and sea grass. We draw down carbon from the skies. The Arctic ice and mountain glaciers, year by year, begin to reform as the atmosphere comes back into balance.
Because the alternative is unthinkable.
So go tell the stories. Remember your own childhood summers, if you are old enough to have enjoyed the old normal. Hold close the memories, hold the space, take the actions, for restoration and regeneration, for healing of the balance in every way. See future generations playing on clean beaches, swimming in pristine oceans abundant with fish, marine mammals, and plankton. See them hiking, awestruck by the aquamarine glow of glaciers.
Envision their gratitude—as they look back and learn about how very close humanity had come to blowing it all—that at the very last minute, we did it.
How we did it we don’t yet know. Envision the outcome, look back, and maybe together we’ll figure out how.
Debra Denker is the author of the ecotopian cli-fi novel Weather Menders.