Fall always makes me think of Wisconsin. I grew up there, and some of my fondest memories of home involve the crisp, radiantly blue-skied days of early autumn, when the maples were flashy in buttery oranges and tomato reds and the birches were aglow in sweet-corn yellows. The air was refreshing after the languid, humid summer, and we went apple picking, treating ourselves to hot spiced cider afterwards.
The first frosts inevitably came, of course, and with them the need to prepare for winter. We replaced screens with storm windows to create a double-buffer against the cold outdoors, split and stacked the cord of wood which would feed the wood-burning stove that heated the majority of our first floor, and checked the seals around our doors for cracks or leaks. Wisconsin's long history of cold winters meant we had help on some fronts from those who’d come before us: our pipes were wrapped to maintain the warmth of our water as it traveled from heating tank to showerhead; our basements shielded our floors from the frozen ground; and our insulated walls and attics guarded against the bitter air.
I used to think such activities were primarily for the benefit of those of us silly enough to settle in places in which we're so ill-adapted to survive. But our winter-proofing was also a service, however modest, to the planet. Rather than crank the thermostat to “balmy,” we were attempting to eliminate our need for such extra energy in the first place.
Ironically enough, now that I live in Washington, where the skies melt away into mist and rain rather than snow and ice, I sometimes have to work a harder to keep warm and prevent wasted heat. The milder climate of the Pacific Northwest often means the houses lack things I took for granted in Wisconsin. The charm of this area’s iconic older bungalows cools a bit, for example, in the face of their dial thermostats (which can’t be programmed much beyond “on” or “off”) and their uninsulated walls, as cold to the touch as their single-paned windows.
To compensate, I’ve learned to do such things as:
- Invest in (or make out of heavy plastic sheeting or even thick curtains) window insulation kits
- Cover exposed pipes with discarded foam or rags.
- Close off unused or poorly insulated rooms like sun porches or additions not built over foundations to eliminate the need to heat them at all.
- Seal up ventilation fans in attics and check for other vents or passages between inside and out which could allow warm air to escape and cold air to enter rooms.
- Pay attention to the thermostat. Get a programmable one, if possible, or manually turn the heat down—or off—when leaving the house or sleeping.
- Make friends and acquire housemates! A couch full of folks under blankets is a great fossil fuel-free way to keep warm.
- Discourage the tendency to combat winter’s shorter, darker days by flipping on more light switches. Come evening, gather family together in one room to do homework or relax, saving electricity through community.
- If possible, get a home energy audit to discover and correct for energy waste.
These may seem like small gestures, especially since the real goal must be to make all our structures, not just our homes, energy self-sufficient rather than simply efficient—but no action is inconsequential when it comes to how we live on our planet. For now, just as fall will continue to remind me of Wisconsin, it will also remind me to dig out the extra layers, eat a few extra helpings of autumn’s bounty for warmth, and get ready for the change in the season with an eye towards the ongoing changes in the climate.