After my brother was born, dad and the neighbors transformed the attic into a bedroom for my sister and me. Tongue and groove knotty pine boards on walls and ceiling created an atmosphere of rustic log cabin. The men also created a built-in table that served as both desk and vanity, a big double closet, and even a little sewing nook with built-in cabinet storage and a top big enough for laying out and cutting the fabric. Twin beds were placed on either side of the south-facing window, each with its own reading lamp. It’s a sweet space that I use to this day. I’m typing this article at a computer I’ve set up on that built-in desk.
Being just under the roof, the temperature of the room varies widely with the season and the weather. The heat of a summer night can be mitigated by a window fan placed in the north window, blowing out, pulling cool night air past the beds. It works brilliantly on all but the hottest and most humid nights. The cold of winter can be managed by leaving the door at the bottom of the stairs open and opening a floor vent that allows heat to rise from the 1st floor furnace. But I like it cold and I like wearing sweaters, so I rarely resort to these measures. In fact, I only close the windows when an unruly wind blows the rain in, or when the winter temperatures are truly frigid.
I realized recently what an intimate relationship I have with nature in my neighborhood as a result of those open windows, an intimacy that goes beyond an awareness of seasons and weather brought to me by variations in temperature and humidity. That realization started with a scritchy-scratchy noise outside the south window, just under the roof. It didn’t take me long to decide it must be a bat. The next day, when it was light enough to see, little “chocolate sprinkles” attached to the screen added evidence to support my guess. Guano. I was pretty sure. It was months before I finally saw the dark silhouette of a bat in flight swooping from under the roof just after hearing the scritchy-scratchy noise.
One morning, awake and procrastinating the start of my day, the sound of bat’s return coincided with the whinny of an Eastern Screech Owl, and that got me thinking about the soundscape outside my window. I began a mental list of the dusk-night-dawn animals I know are out there because I’ve heard them. In spring my lullaby might be the high clear peeps of Spring Peepers and the elegant trill of American Toads. In summer I fall asleep to the chirp of crickets and katydids calling out their own names. There are times of year when I don’t need to set an alarm because the dawn chorus coincides exactly with the time I wish to awaken. Robins, phoebes, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, crows, and others sing me awake, or a Red Squirrel might chatter in the boundary line of spruces. The soundscape might include the non-animal conversation of winds, sometimes gentle and sometimes aggressive, rain or hail on the roof, long low rumbles of distant thunder, sudden explosions of nearby thunder, or a muffled snowy quiet.
Odors come through the windows, too: that fresh air smell that doesn’t have a name, the smell of rain that does (petrichor). A skunk went through the neighborhood more than once over the years. And let’s not forget that humans are a part of nature: the smoke from summer campfires tells tales of friendly gatherings and is often accompanied by guitar music, songs and laughter. The winter fireplace smoke is quiet and feels warm and cozy.
When I’m outside during the day, I favor my sense of sight and neglect my other senses to a certain extent. When I’m in my room, sight takes a back seat, but isn’t totally useless. I awoke at 1:00 a.m. a few days ago thinking I had overslept. A glorious full moon was flooding my room with light. And I love to put sleep aside and don my glasses during a thunderstorm so I can get glimpses of lightning bolts.
I work at an organization whose mission is to connect people with nature. To that end, we often implore you to get outside. Today, I invite you to connect with your backyard by sleeping with your windows open.
Jennifer Schlick is program director at Audubon Community Nature Center. ACNC is located one-quarter mile east of Route 60 on Riverside Road between Jamestown, New York and Warren Pennsylvania. Visit auduboncnc.org or call (716) 569-2345 for more information.