Starry Starry Nights

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Stargazing adds to the pleasure of sleeping outdoors. Shown here: the glow of the Milky Way in the summer night sky.
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On warm summer nights in Idaho, David and Janeen Brown roll their bed outside and sleep to a lullaby of woodland sounds.
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At the Permaculture Institute of Northern California, Penny Livingston-Stark and James Stark sleep outdoors most of spring, summer, and fall in their bale (pronounced “balay”), a Balinese structure that raises their bed above the ground and puts a natural roof over their heads. “The joy of sleeping outdoors,” says Penny, “is hearing the owls at night and awakening to the predawn chorus. Sometimes the birds forget we're here and fly right through the bale.” Penny and James also use their “outdoor garden room” for dining and entertaining. The bale and linens are available from the Permaculture Institute, (415) 663-9090 or
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A bed of chamomile just below the bale helps dreamers drift off to sleep.

Almost everyone has a cherished memory of sleeping outdoors. A roof of stars, a cricket lullaby, the cool air on your face, awakening to the calls of birds and the first rays of the sun. It’s a welcome relief from the confines of a square room, stale indoor smells, and noisy appliances. One particular outdoor sleeping experience made me a believer. A friend and I were camping in late summer at the edge of a meadow in an oak woodland. We kept it simple: sleeping bags rolled out on a tarp. The first night I remember thinking, Is nature always this noisy? How am I supposed to sleep? To my city-numbed senses, it was all new: the low moan of the wind in the tree branches, the crunching footfall of small animals on dried leaves, the hoot of owls, the distant howl of coyotes. And that moon–won’t somebody turn out the light?

But by the second night, the living world had woven me into its tapestry. I fell asleep easily, held by the earth, stroked by sweet breezes, reassured by the rustling of life all around me. When we broke camp a few days later, I felt like I was being torn from maternal arms. All my cells, newly accustomed to a deep sense of homecoming, told me that something precious was being left behind.

I have since become an outdoor-sleeping epicure, savoring numerous regional flavors. I’ve fallen asleep on a Gold Country hillside bonding with Comet Hale-Bopp, dreamed peacefully beside a high mountain lake, and awakened to a desert sunrise with the scent of creosote bush on the still morning air. I’ve even enjoyed sleeping in an urban backyard, hearing the calls of night birds and noting the passage of the quarter-moon across the sky each time I turned over.

We were made for this stuff. Our ancestors were sleeping outdoors long before there were doors to sleep out of. Our senses, our psyches, our biological clocks are attuned to the rhythms of the sun and moon and the sounds, smells, and feel of the living web. When we sleep, we renew ourselves; there is no more important time to breathe clean, cool air and hear the thrumming of nature.

Sweet dreams

I’m not the only one with such tastes. My friend Gwen Nichols recalls, “One of my loveliest childhood memories is of waking up in a screened baby bed. I found myself in the shade of a tree on a beautiful warm day, feeling protected and utterly content.”

Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home, Safe Home (Putnam, 1997), says that her favorite sleeping experience, indoors or out, was as a camp counselor. “We lashed branches between small trees about ten feet off the ground to make sleeping platforms, then made ladders to climb up to them. It was wonderful sleeping in the trees with boughs and stars above. The trees swayed in the breeze, rocking us to sleep.”

Arizona architect Barbara Crisp recalls the sleeping porch at her grandparents’ Pennsylvania home. “The sleeping porch was a narrow room on the second floor, overlooking the backyard–big enough for a twin bed and side table, and screened on three sides. The moist summer air hung heavy, making the sheets feel dense on my body. And sound seemed amplified: cats calling, crickets chirping, cicadas, and street noise. I would lie there hoping to catch some breeze, feeling as if I were in a tree house–a separate world of my own.”

Oregon architect Marcia Mikesh has recent memories: “Last fall, my husband and I dragged our double-size camping mattress into the backyard on a tarp and slept out under the stars. Several neighborhood cats came and slept with us. We awoke to dew-dampened, toasty warm bedding and purring piles of cats. Very nice.”

The downside of the outdoors

Of course, the natural world is not always so nurturing. No doubt our predecessors were delighted by every protective innovation; a sleeping person is a vulnerable person, and good sleep requires a modicum of comfort. Being too hot, too cold, or wet; sleeping on hard ground; or being attacked by mosquitoes, mountain lions, or other humans can really mess up your night. This is why we developed shelter.

We all probably have some unpleasant memories of sleeping outdoors–either rain, snow, or wind, bears or moose rubbing up against the tent in the northern woods, scorpions in our boots in the southwestern desert, sand in the sleeping bag on a California beach, or something else.

But maybe we’ve gone too far with this protection thing. My body craves the hum of life and the gentle glow of moonlight, not the drone of the bedside clock and the relentless streetlight through my window. The art of sleeping outdoors involves protecting ourselves–but not too much. Camping is one way to sleep outdoors, with its tarps, tents, and other trappings to keep unwanted elements at bay. But what if you want to get out of your stuffy bedroom at home?

American porch dreams

A century ago, Americans became adept at creating environments for domestic outdoor sleeping. In the late 1800s, indoor air was a foul brew of combustion products from cooking, heating, and lighting, intensified by poor ventilation. As a new century dawned, Americans strained at their Victorian laces and rebelled against closed, dark homes. A tuberculosis epidemic launched a wave of health consciousness, and the sleeping porch was seen as the cure for contaminated lungs. In fact, both Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford extolled the virtues of porch sleeping.

The sleeping porch quickly became the most desirable room in the house, typically on the second floor to capture the “purer” air. Some homes had one large porch where families slept barracks-style, while other homes had a private porch off every bedroom. Some people used the porch to escape the summer heat, whereas others slept there year-round. Most porches had a solid roof. Some porches had open sides, some had screened walls, and some were curtained against wind, rain, and snow. Beds were often designed to slide indoors or out, depending on the weather.

The advent of cheap electricity and electric fans around 1920 was the death knell of the sleeping porch. It took another energy revolution–this time for conservation–and another surge of interest in health to revive the practice of sleeping outdoors.

A sleeping porch revival

Gwen Nichols’ early outdoor-sleeping memory may have been the seed for the screened porch on her family’s new strawbale house. “The house protects our north porch from most winds, so it makes a fine sleeping porch,” she says. “We mostly use it in summer, but also sometimes in winter when we have company, need a private spot, want a view of dawn color over the hill, or feel like reveling in fresh cool air to contrast with the snug warmth of a sleeping bag.”

Canadian green building designer David Rousseau created his first sleeping porch for clients in 1973. “It was on the north side of a modest cabin and was simply an enclosure under the sweeping curved eave, seven feet wide and twenty feet long. The porch walls were cedar louvers (with insect screen inside) up to a three-foot-high sill; from there screened panels in wood frames rose to the spruce planks of the roof–which was only about six-and-a-half feet high at the lowest, so it felt very protective. At our own house, we have three small shelters for summer guests that are really partial cabins with large screened openings–shelter from the storm, and pleasantly breezy.”

New Hampshire green building consultant Marc Rosenbaum is a convert, too. “The best room in my house is the second-floor sleeping porch. Entered through a door on the hallway to my bedroom, it’s just slightly larger than the bed. The pine sidewalls are about eighteen inches high, and above that are screens. There are one-foot roof overhangs–enough to sleep there in most rainstorms, which is a great experience. The roof is glass for complete sky viewing!”

Try this at home

If you need a breath of fresh air tonight, you can start inexpensively: Pitch a tent in the yard or pull your bed onto the deck in fair weather. If you enjoy the experience, you may want to build a permanent sleeping porch or pavilion. Or you can alter an existing room to open up when the weather is pleasant; a wall of windows or doors that move aside can bring the outdoors to you.

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