Human Microclimates

Gardeners, especially gardeners living in challenging climates, are familiar with the concept of microclimates – small areas that by virtue of their aspect, soil type, proximity to water, or other geographic feature offer growing conditions significantly different from the prevailing climate of the surrounding area. I think a similar phenomenon might be more important than we realize in providing conditions for humans to thrive as well.

I start from the notion that one’s geographic location is a dominant factor in quality of life. For instance, of the people I went to college with, the vast majority either stayed around Cambridge, or moved to the SF bay area. It becomes a sort of mental rule of thumb – Boston and SF must be the places where technologists and nerd hippies can thrive, to the near exclusion of other options. There are small islands of possibility around Madison, Ann Arbor, and Boulder, and a couple of modest outposts in the Northwest, but at least anecdotally an overwhelming fraction of the people I know have gravitated to one of the two poles. But a large city can’t be homogeneous enough to be a real predictor of happiness, which like healthy organic produce is bound to derive from a more specific match between the organism and its immediate surrounding ecosystem. I propose that much of what really dictates quality of life is sufficiently ecologically specific and geographically concise as could aptly be called human microclimate.

In my life, music and the outdoors provide two of the best examples of what I’m trying to say. When Alexis and I lived in Flagstaff, we were surrounded by recreation opportunities – rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, canyoneering, kayaking, etc., all within a couple hours drive. And I’d say we took pretty good advantage of the opportunities in the area, but we were both working full time jobs, and the thing that really made the difference in our quality of life was not the 12,000 foot mountain half an hour from our house, or the Grand Canyon fifty miles away, or the red rock country an hour to the south. What really made our quality of life was that the house we bought literally had a mountain in the backyard – We lived on a street called Appalachian road, and right behind our house was the Coconino National Forest and Mount Elden, over 9000 feet tall. Very often after work we would walk or ride mountain bikes along the network of trails just behind the house, which while not as spectacular as other nearby scenery were quite pleasant. It sounds kind of stupid, but if we had lived even literally a block or two further down the hill and weren’t constantly looking out our kitchen window into the forest, we wouldn’t have spent nearly so much time outdoors. And even on a Saturday, given the choice of getting in the car and driving somewhere to go hiking, we would usually chose to climb Mount Elden yet again, since it was right there, and really it was very nice. [By good fortune, our house in Flagstaff also inhabited a favorable microclimate in the classic sense – the so-called “banana belt” part way up the south slope of Mount Elden – the rocks held the heat of the day, and the slope allowed cold air to drain away, keeping garden-killing summer frosts at bay. We still had to water the garden like crazy though…]

Around 2005 we left Flagstaff and moved to Lebanon, NH for Alexis to go to med school. We were excited since in college we had spent many weekends driving up to the White Mountains to go hiking, and now we were going to live a whole hour closer – surely we would spend that much more time hiking. But we were both really busy, and in reality we made it over to the White Mountains maybe twice a year. Once again, what actually made the difference was microclimate – we lived right across the road from Quarry Hill in Lebanon, a very modest rise lacking even a view from the top, but with an informal network of very pleasant hiking trails; about forty minutes to the top, which featured the interesting remnant of an abandoned granite quarry. We did that modest hike scores and scores of times, and it made a huge difference in our quality of life. The interesting thing is, I doubt we would have done it 1/10th as often if we had had to drive even three minutes to get to the trailhead – that’s what I mean by human microclimate. [In another unintended episode of stupendous good fortune, we happened to land not three miles from Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, which has what’s probably the finest assortment of cider apples in the nation.]

I think a similar dynamic is at work with music. For years I have been attempting in fits and starts to learn to play the fiddle, and now I’m fortunate to live in the Boston area, which has a great reputation as a hot spot for traditional music. But being lame I rarely get to concerts, which cost a lot of money and require at least some degree of planning ahead. What actually makes the difference for me is that I have a couple of friends who also like to play music, and they live just a pleasant five minute bike ride away – so we get together as often as once a week to talk and play. If we were separated by 45 minutes of traffic, I’m sure we wouldn’t get together nearly as often – and that would make a lot more of a practical difference than whether I lived in Boston or, say, Hartford. I was fortunate to have similar groups in Lebanon and Flagstaff, and I think that kind of experience has more of an effect on satisfaction than we realize. A very interesting piece by David Brooks in the NYT not too long ago pointed to research that found that on average “joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income” – the same piece noted that the strongest negative predictor of happiness was a long commute.

Along with music and the outdoors, I’m pretty sure that whether I have ready access to a good machine shop is strongly correlated with my mood and mental health. And proximity to good friends is perhaps the most important factor of all. My friend Joshua once pointed out that while most people make an effort to be within driving distance of friends and family, the friends that we will actually interact with on a daily basis are mostly within a ten minute radius. That’s why I think it’s so fantastic that Joanna and her kids are back in Five Islands – there are now four generations of family living on the land, all practically withing shouting distance of one another.

In thinking about all this, it seems pretty likely to me that what really makes the difference is not so much whether you live in Boston, the Bay Area, or some less distinguished region, but rather whether the specific niche you inhabit is favorable: do you spend two hours a day driving back and forth to the south bay? Or you can walk to work, climb a mountain in your backyard, canoe from the end of your street, or jam with neighbors on your front porch? The answers to those questions vary literally block by block, and I think we’d do well in making life decisions to pay less attention to broad regional reputations, and more to the human microclimate.

3 Responses to “Human Microclimates”

  1. Jan Says:

    I cannot agree with you more. I actually live in the Upper Connecticut Valley (live in Sharon, VT and work in Norwich) not far from your former abode in Lebanon. My house in Sharon abuts Downer State Forest. My Golden Retriver and I have the good fortune of being able to head down our driveway when ever the notion strikes us and accross a small field lies a Vermont State forest complete with miles of hiking trails, logging road and in the winter, X-C ski trails. No cars, no roads, just woods and trails to run on and ski on. We, of course are very spoiled, but it make a big difference in how much we run and ski. Nothing like looking out on a full moon, snow covered evening and deciding to go skiing through the woods at 11:30 at night. Love my micro-climate!

  2. fiveislandsorchard Says:

    Hi Jan – glad you feel so happy where you live! As it happens I just spent the weekend with your neighbor, Jeremiah McLane, at his music workshop/camp over at Newfound Lake – and fond memories of your neighborhood – where he used to teach music classes.

    I haven’t heard people describe it in this way, but it’s important that people find places to live that they love, and invest in the communities there, from an ecological perspective – the happier people are where they live, the less they will feel the need to travel all the time.

  3. Jan Says:

    Small world! Very true about traveling. I don’t mind traveling from time to time and seeing new places, but I rarely find a burning need to leave home- there is always so much I like to do here.

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