At the moment, I am sitting on a leather sofa right up tight against a one-hundred year-old wood burning stove. My feet are covered with some hand-knit socks made by my charming wife. My toes are so comfortable, they are smiling and occasionally dozing off. The radiant warmth is like sunshine, on a spring morning, flooding on my face. The Earl Gray tea is especially delightful with the carefully chosen amount of fragrant, locally-produced honey. I am in a position of comfort and I am aware of it, not just accepting it, but actually reveling in the glory of it all. That is to say, I am profoundly thankful.
In this position of extreme comfort, it is possible to look outside and see the wind howling, snow whipping over huge piles of frozen winter. One can sense the ten-degree temperature that the local Chickadees sitting on the feeder are having to endure, their little feathers lifting with each gust as they cower behind the bouncing wooden feeder. There is no sign of comfort there. I watch from my privileged position and reflect.
One might say, “Oh, birds don’t even care about comfort. They always live out there and like it. It is what they do.” But I remember an obese chicken we had, one called, Heavy Hen, who when given the opportunity, would sneak into the shop, actually, I let her in, because she would beg, would strut across the room and plop herself on the arm of the old raggedy stuffed chair right next to the wood burning stove. She would do this even if Brown, our hound dog was in the chair lounging. Like that lush-of-a-dog, that bird knew comfort and sought it out.
So in a fit of thinking and reflecting from my privileged position, it seemed appropriate to visit comfort, say the comfort of mankind, or better yet the history of comfort. I wondered how long has this more-than-pleasant situation been around? Do we have more comfort than any generation gone before?
The bigger question becomes, how much comfort have people, and I mean average people, known through history? Sixty years ago in my childhood home, we heated with coal and I remember being comfortable even though if it was below zero, the house was not always toasty and I can recall lying on the floor heat register as a way, like Heavy Hen, of absorbing comfort. It has to be assumed that elsewhere in the house, it was not exactly comfortable, at least not like today where every room is climate controlled to accommodate our changing moods.
This last year, we clamored through an unoccupied “apartment” of a castle in Italy and noticed that each small room had a rude fireplace. This particular residence had not been occupied since prior to World War II and many artifacts were still laying about. This picturesque castle village had been there and occupied for 400 to 500 years—and was still largely occupied. It was not hard to imagine living there, cramped, totally cold as the place was clearly impossible to heat, unless using modern equipment and fuels. To top it off, the landscape obviously had been stripped of most wood hundreds of years ago. They must have used lumps of coal, sheep dung, maybe twigs right up until the war. Little imagination also indicated the place had to be filled with vermin of all sorts. It simply seemed improbable there had been much comfort in this life style.
In reading bits and pieces on early Wisconsin settlement, fascinating tidbits of information show up that make me ponder even more. They talk of mattresses filled with straw, and coarse wool blankets spun at home, and again the open fireplace. Iron stoves, of the type that bring me such pleasure, didn’t show up until the mid-eighteen hundreds. Prior to that, all folks needing warmth, possibly with the exception of the Scandinavians and their masonry stoves, had to huddle around an open fire during the big freeze.
I have read of potatoes stored under the beds to prevent them from freezing, and it was implied they still froze—what does that say about the temperature of the place? There were no over-stuffed sofas, no down jackets. Insulation was unknown even in the 1910 house we live in now. No stove could have kept that structure warm at 30 below. Comfort must have been like candy. A person could just get it once in a while sitting, face to the summer sun.
I recall being at my wife’s family farm in the mid-sixties and realizing that in the winter only one room was being heated, the kitchen. Yes, there was comfort next to the cook stove and next to the small glass of schnapps that grandpa Otto seemed intent in finding as we huddled about in the warmth of fire and friendship.
In going back in time even farther, people lived in bark-covered huts with nothing but a pit fire and a mound of skins—filled with how many bugs? At twenty-five below, I am not sure comfort was even a word that crossed the lips of a single soul. I suspect that is why on this day, as I sit here with unbounded comfort, without a hunger pain in my stomach, not a single bug bite, I have not a miniscule of doubt on the nature of my good fortune, and that is why I am marveling at this tick of time, here in this western world, when every day, we live in total comfort.