A Winter Problem


THERE is an international tradition of a tourist who had devoted a lifetime to the comparative study of pleasure resorts, and was asked to summarize the result of his inquiries. “ If you are traveling in quest of comfort,” said he, “just watch the flight of migratory birds, and go in the opposite direction.” If we confine our comparison to the comforts of city life, the apparent paradox must, indeed, be accepted as a practical truism. In the course of the last fifty years, the polytechnic science of our Northland cities has accomplished miracles in perfecting the contrivances for making home life pleasant. Weather-tight roofs, moistureproof walls, ingenious window-frames, self-regulating stoves, faultless lamps, carpets, parlor gardens, and musical automata combine to sweeten the austerities of climate with an artificial summer, decidedly preferable to the season of mosquitoes and sweltering nights ; and at the very time when our summer birds seek refuge in the distant South, many thousands of our migratory fellow-men voluntarily return to their homes in the icy North.

Yet in the mean time the progress of another science has rather complicated the winter problem for a large number of our Northern city dwellers. Modern hygiene has demonstrated, with arguments supported by the logic of an everwidening experience, that habitual indoor life is incompatible with the cure of respiratory disorders. Consumption has proved to be a house disease. On both sides of the Atlantic, the prevalence of pulmonary affections has been found to bear an exact proportion to the prevalence of out-door occupations. On the prairies of our northwestern territories, as well as in the deserts of Tunis and Turkestan, the tent life of pastoral nomads has been ascertained to afford an almost absolute immunity from lung diseases.

And yet the results of practical experiments have hardly encouraged the plan of sending our consumptives to the winter resorts of the lower latitudes. Four out of five visitors of our Southern sanitariums return before the end of winter, or hibernate in the hostelries of the next larger city. After New Year the health resorts of our southern Gulf-coast are patronized chiefly by sportsmen and land-prospectors. The fact is that the territories of civilization do not comprise a perennial summerland. The genial winter of our Southern frontier is at best but a mild, rainy season. Lounging on a dripping veranda is dreary fun, and in a crowded rendezvous of consumptives even the pluckiest patients are apt to succumb to the dismal influence of an “ atmosphere of mutual condolence and mutual infection.” Sleet-storms range a hundred miles beyond the valley of the Rio Grande, and in a choice between the alternatives of indoor life the home method naturally gets the preference.

Home cures thus rise in demand; and science assures us that cold pure air, as a lung specific, excels warm pure air, as well as warm impure air. Cold is a tonic and an antiseptic, and the same frosts that terminate the mosquito season also destroy or neutralize countless disease germs, in the slums of our reeking factory towns as in the fever swamps of Florida and Arkansas. The intense cold of the highest latitudes so thoroughly expurgates the morbific elements of the human organism that the natives of the Arctic regions know lung diseases only from hearsay, and in extreme cases intelligent physicians have actually begun to send consumptives to the wintercamps of the Adirondac highlands. Pure air, though, might be found nearer home, and the temperature of the “ northers ” that visit the cities of our snow States should be supposed to guarantee their entire freedom from disease germs.

The trouble is that disagreeable remedies are apt to reconcile the patient to the consequences of the let-alone plan. Experience will teach even medical enthusiasts to renounce the prescription of heroic specifics. A friend of mine for years urged the possibility of removing digestive disorders by fasting-cures, but at last concluded to leave an unredeemable world to its fate. “ I have done what I could,” he writes, “ but find I must let the Sybarites join their idols. In stress of extremes they shriek for help, and their letters really could make one believe in their willingness to earn it; but after weeks of correspondence I cannot resist the conclusion that they are fishing for pills. They decline to let me cure the evil by the removal of the cause, but would pay me a liberal premium for working a miracle and mixing up a nostrum enabling them to indulge their surfeits with impunity.” He ended by compromising the difficulty, and limiting his prescriptions of abstinence to a rather popular and, as he sorely feared, rather ineffectual minimum. The cold-air cure, too, can avoid ostracism only by homæopathic doses. The pupils of civilization will consent to a stroll on a sunny promenade, or a brief sleigh-ride; but the mere idea of a protracted foot-tour in a snowstorm would take away their breath in a way to make asthma seem a lesser evil. Cold indoor air would prove equally objectionable. Mechanics would be hampered by a load of warm clothing. The arguments against frozen ink and frostnumbed fingers could not be refuted with a fur cloak.

There remains, however, one obvious expedient, equally unexceptionable from a theoretical and experimental point of view, and prejudiced only by the influence of the night-air superstition. The genesis of that superstition is a suggestive study. Its root, like that of numerous other popular delusions, is the intellectual bias which the schoolmen of old used to define as the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, — the disposition to mistake a coincidence for a causal connection. Woodpeckers are found on dead branches, and thus incur the suspicion of having caused the decay of the tree, the common speckled variety of the genus picus being widely known as the “sap-sucker.” After a long drought, small frogs leave their hiding-places during the first brisk shower; hence the irrepressible myth of “ frog-rains.” Lung complaints are more frequent in winter than in summer for the simple reason that winter is the season of habitual indoor life. But the coincidence of frosts and catarrhs evolved the theory of their causal connection; and that tenet once established, night-air, as nearly always colder than day-air, became the scapegoat of innumerable sins against the health laws of nature.

Yet that Upas of popular superstition might become a panacea of respiratory disorders. The instinctive shudder in the draught of a cold-air current should certainly warn us against the danger of a direct exposure to the influence of a low temperature, just as the shivering discomfort of a cold winter bath should refute the arguments of the cold-air extremists. But to the lungs cold, pure air is as welcome as cold spring water to the stomach. Boiler-makers, who ply their trade in a temperature of more than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, find constant sips of cold water a positive luxury, and when the body is warmed in a snug cover of bed-clothes the respiratory organs imbibe cold air with a pleasure that must convert a believer in oracle of instinct at the first experiment. In a warm Turkish hath, a small stream of fresh water will cool the outstretched arm so delightfully that it requires some effort of will-force to withdraw it; but the cold-air thirst of congested lungs has a motive besides the craving for refrigeration. With every breath of fresh air the purifying element is brought in contact with every fibre of the respiratory apparatus, and thus exerts an expurgative influence which, in the course of six hours, suffices to neutralize all the morbific tendencies of the preceding day. Three warm blankets, supplemented by head-shawls and nook-wrappers, make the direct influx of the cool night-air a luxury which habitués will not readily forego. A week’s experiment is almost sure to lead to the permanent adoption of a plan which, to many thousands, would for the first time reveal all the sweetness of perfect sleep ; and the expediency of closing the bedroom windows during the coldest nights is justified only by the circumstance that the influence of a severe frost will expurgate the indoor atmosphere in spite of such obstacles.

The question remains whether the benefits of the night-air cure could not be excelled by the advantages of a climate making out-door exercise a perennial pleasure, and superseding pulmonary specifics by obviating their necessity. With the addition of a few social inducements, certain regions of Central America might possibly answer that purpose ; but it is quite certain that no portion of our national territory or adjoining countries combines the requisite climatic conditions, and that the plan of semi-annual migrations must be excluded from a list of staple remedies. Mataraoras enjoys a protracted Indian summer, but broils in August, and drips from New Year to April. The tableland cities of Central Mexico are shrouded in winter mists; Jalapa, for instance, often for six consecutive weeks. The rainless winters of the Gila Valley are offset by sandstorms and superheated dogdays ; the heavenly summers of the Southern Alleghanies by dreary winters. The project of Baron Lesseps, however, promises to transform the social status of the Isthmus countries, and in the Elysian terrace-lands of Honduras and Nicaragua the children of the American colonists would soon forget the winter sorrows of their ancestors. Forest culture may idtimately reclaim the drought climate of Southern California sufficiently to make San Diego a perennial sanitarium. Nor is it impossible that the progress of hygienic chemistry may yet teach us a method for making the air of our winter dwellings both comfortable and uninfeetious; but in the mean time the practical solution of the winter problem will depend on the chance of opening an Isthmus canal, unless we should prefer the alternative of opening our bedroom windows.