on The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature by Charlie Hailey

In the first chapter of The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature, Charlie Hailey defines the porch as a place of meeting and exchange: “Porch is that place where inside and outside mix, where architecture’s edges encounter climate, where hosts meet guests, and where we all might acclimate.” The book is a meditation on the porch generally, as an architectural fixture, and the porch of his simple fishing cabin on the Homossasa River specifically, just north of Tampa Bay. It’s a book of blurring, of no hard lines. Though Hailey is a professor of architecture at the University of Florida, he draws as much on literature as history or architectural theory, blending these with his personal narrative. And though the book is called Porch, it is as much about where Hailey’s porch is situated, an estuary in Florida, as about the porch itself. 

The book happens in Florida because Hailey is in Florida, but Florida, existing as it does on the edge of the nation, the edge of the water, is always seconds away from being pushed one way or the other. He writes that “a porch is a bellwether,” ostensibly for the ways that it allows porch dwellers to “embrace exposure,” but embrace means also damage, weathering, and this porch in particular “along a river near the coast is particularly vulnerable.” The precarity of life near the water, made worse by climate change, is the more concrete, terrifying thread that weaves through the book, even as we seek comfort in the porch. From nearly the first page, he tells us that “this porch where I write will soon be underwater,” that the porch has already passed the midpoint of its life, the reality of climate change making itself known. This structure will not last, and more, tenure on his porch will put him increasingly in danger, in the path of storms. Yet he accepts this. Hailey is not defeatist about the rising waters. Though he knows that something he loves may not be able to be saved, that nature, set off-course by humans, will come to destroy the structure he uses to connect with the world outside of himself, the loss of the personal is not reason enough to give up trying to solve the greater issue. 

Despite the wide cross-section of porches—he includes Northern porches that must be braved with piles of blankets, the architecture of ancient Greece, even sleeping porches commissioned by past presidents off hidden corners of the White House—they are primarily a warm-weather fixture, which in the United States means Southern. Hailey notes that porches begin to disappear in homes built after World War II and the increasing ubiquity of air conditioning. In hotter climes, porches provide shade without the stuffiness of the indoors, allowing access to breezes. The porch is also credited with facilitating something of a trope in Southern life: gossip. Hailey writes, “Sound travels faster in humid air, and I wonder if traditions of storytelling on porches might rely in some part on that thickened medium.” Sharing stories—gossiping—is traced to Homer and ancient Greek rules of hospitality, xenia, the expectation for a host to provide for travelers, as well as to the porches in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the stories of Carson McCullers. Hailey centers the porch as a means by which to entertain guests, to show due respect, without having to give over access to one’s inner sanctum. At the fishing cabin, amateur boaters are blown to Hailey’s sphere by a storm—his account of their stories, of their mingling with his family, has both an absurdity and dreaminess to it that seem pulled from the Southern literary tradition he references. 

Beyond Agee and McCullers, Hailey references the Florida stories of two transplanted writers: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I’ve lived near both Stowe’s and Rawlings’s homes, having grown up in Alachua County (home to Rawlings’s Cross Creek) and spent a year of my twenties in Jacksonville, just up the river from Stowe’s home in Mandarin. I’ve walked across Rawlings’s porch a few times and read her autobiography of land in the eponymous 1942 nonfiction work Cross Creek. For Hailey, Rawlings’s porch at Cross Creek is notable for its dimensions (large and deep and with an exaggerated tilt), but also, it seems, for the connection it affords Hailey to make from one writer to another. After moving to Cross Creek in the late 1920s, Rawlings became the unofficial author of Florida with the novels South Moon Under and The Yearling. She was credited by critics of her time with presenting a real Florida to the rest of the nation. Both Hailey and Rawlings, writing eighty years apart, pull from their Florida porches stories of accepting an environment that will not bend to control. A 1942 review in Time presents Cross Creek as “the story of a sophisticated city woman’s experiences in learning how to live on the soil and from the soil and with the people of the soil, and like it, and succeed in it.” It is a guide to “how to adjust to and control nature, and how to get along with your neighbors, which we Americans, in our perhaps brief span of nomadic life on wheels, have many of us forgotten, but will have to learn again.” It is a text that mixes the natural and the human, the idea of adapting to the world around you and opening your home to the people nearby, that employs much of Hailey’s porch mentality, of meeting in the middle, of openness. 

Hailey is, like Stowe and Rawlings, like the majority of Floridians, from elsewhere, a Tennessee transplant taken further south by his academic career. But he has adapted to the state, acclimated, to borrow from the title of his book’s final chapter, not just to the heat, the landscapes, but also to the inevitability of change. In that final chapter, he describes a home he once lived in that takes the ethos of the porch in all things. An A-frame located further south on the peninsula than the fishing cabin, “the entire cabin was a veritable screened porch,” he writes. During his time in this porch-home, he learns to detect minute changes in temperature, in the humidity, becoming a barometer—the changes pass through, around him. The house also proves that the best way to survive a hurricane is not necessarily with a fortress. The house is older than Hurricane Andrew, a storm so intense it marks a “before and after” point for Floridians. In 1992, when it made landfall as a category five, it killed forty-four people in Florida and cost an estimated $25 billion in damages to structures. There are the pre- and post-Andrew building codes, those following the storm marked by the need for structures to withstand high winds as well as rising water. “While most every other house in the area was destroyed, this A-frame survived . . . what really saved this house from destruction was its openness. Its porosity let shards of wind move through, allowed pressures to equalize, and generally turned itself to the churned air.” To survive is notable, a feat. We have accelerated the climate crisis, he reminds us, through our inability to acclimate. Our reliance on air conditioning has released more and more carbon into our atmosphere, feeding storms like Andrew and those that followed mere decades later, storms deadlier, more destructive, more common. 

The decline of the porch signals this refusal to acclimate, a preference for simply bulldozing over the natural environment. Florida’s swamps never needed to be drained; we are not fixing a problem so much as creating a new one. There’s a theory that science writer David Quammen champions: if mosquitoes have any value to humans, it is that they have prevented us from entering and reforming natural spaces that we might have otherwise ruined with our hubris. We need nature to thwart us. The story of Florida, at least since air conditioning and the construction of dams and drainage ditches, is one of trying to refashion places that we have no business changing. Of trying to force a singular vision of what the state should be onto land that doesn’t react well to being paved over. 

At one point, in response to hearing a friend describe the fishing cabin porch as “Shangri-La,” Hailey writes that “the idyllic nature of this place is certainly fiction and its reality much more complicated.” That is Florida. He describes the Stowes in 1867 as having “found an enthralling climate and an exotic landscape that readily mixed the actual with the imagined.” Frequently called paradise or Eden in accounts and promotional materials stretching from William Bartram’s travels in 1775 to the present, the state has been a place of welcome and unwelcome, both by its nature and its inhabitants. The porch is meant to be the mingling of human and nature, a place for strangers to find respite and hospitality. For Harriet Beecher Stowe and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Florida was a place of welcome, and they in turn, through their porches and their writings, welcomed others. 

The porch, though, is not a permanent inhabitance. One may stop there for a time before returning inside, or moving on, and it seems increasingly that this facet of the porch is what Florida has become. The fishing cabin will disappear in the next seventy years. The state may be underwater. Before then, even, the state may be made uninhabitable by the laws that have been enacted with such rapid succession in the last few years. The fallacy of believing in a singular vision that wreaked havoc on the state’s ecosystem now damages the people of the state. The balance is off, pushed as we are to a place that wants hard divisions, hard lines, definite truths (irrespective of verity). There is no mixing in the air, the two spheres too alien to reach an equilibrium. The thing that makes the porch a space to stop and find peace is fast disappearing. Porches are designed with a tilt, a feature meant to help shed water and debris, to keep these less pleasant things from the outside from seeping in, coming in the front door. Something has gone wrong with the tilt of our porch. 


The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature. By Charlie Hailey. University of Chicago Press, 2021. 267 pp. $22.50. 


Sarah Shermyen is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Georgia. She has published fiction in Image and criticism in Studies in American Humor. She specializes in American literature, how we define and create regional identity, and the problems of beauty.