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Essay: Here Comes Hammock Season

Liz West/Flickr

The humble hammock, harbinger of summertime, has a long history.

Work is good for you. It strengthens the body, focuses the mind, purifies the heart and elevates the spirit. I wouldn’t know this from personal experience, but it’s what I’ve always heard. In the all too brief and fleeting months of summer, I spend a lot of time in my hammock considering work and its dubious virtues, and diligently pondering how it is best avoided. And while we’re at it, let’s consider that the word “work” falls neatly into the four-letter word category, meaning that it is likely distasteful and probably dangerous.

Few other contrivance so invite such joyous abandon to sloth and indifference as the hammock, and it is justly emblematic of pure lassitude. It is connected in the popular imagination with warm, sultry weather, the indolence of summer and the tender, scented breezes of tropical climes. Everyone has a vision of a rope hammock slung between two sloping palms at the edge of a bath water-warm Polynesian lagoon of purist turquoise. Simply put, it is at once an austere yet luxurious berth in the wind.

But don’t underestimate the humble hammock. Make no mistake: it has a history. Indeed, its origin goes back to pre-Columbian antiquity. The word hammock comes from the Taino (“tah-eeno”) people of Haiti, and their word hamac, meaning “fish net.” You might imagine some enlightened soul, following a long day of fishing, flopping in a net that had been hung up to dry. One may well see then how the connection of the hammock with leisure formed and spread with abandon.

It’s no accident that hammocks likely originated in a hot climate. It’s hard to imagine them being invented in Finland, for example, as they are eminently practical in the jungles and rain forests of the world. In suspending his bed above ground, the inhabitant is thus better protected from venomous serpents, ants, tarantulas and other creepy-crawlies, and even the occasional flash flood.

Columbus first saw hammocks in the late 15th century on the island of Exuma in what we now know as the Bahamas, and introduced them to Europe when he brought several back to Spain.

Hammocks have long been employed by explorers or soldiers traveling in warm, heavily wooded regions, and indeed their connection with adventure is well-established. Who could forget the hammock’s celebration of intrepid endurance on Gilligan’s Island, a portrayal that made you want to be marooned on an uncharted desert isle, just so you’d be joyously compelled to life in a hammock.

The British Royal Navy formally adopted them in 1597, and they proved highly effective in the crowded depths of 17th and 18th century naval vessels which packed increasing multiples of cannon. Unlike wooden bunks, in battle hammocks could be quickly taken down or tied up and stowed, and didn’t splinter dangerously when shattered by cannon fire. At sea, hammocks traditionally served as burial shrouds. A dead mariner might be sewn into his hammock with a weight of shot and, after his obsequies had been duly recited, sent over the side and committed to the deep.

The hammock proved ideal in the time-honored maritime practice of “hot racking,” assigning more than one crew member to a berth—or “rack”—to reduce space. Depending upon the watch system, two or even three crewmen could end up sharing the same hammock. In hot-racking, it is likewise a simple matter to turn a lazy sailor out of his bunk: a hammock can be easily tipped with one hand, or sent to the floor in an instant with the slash of a knife. My wife and I have been careful to avoid hot-racking by maintaining separate hammocks, and thus preserving marital harmony.

The naval use of hammocks continued into the 20th century. During World War II, troopships employed hammocks to increase available space and troop carrying capacity. Many leisure sailors even today prefer hammocks over bunks. Since a slung hammock moves in concert with the roll of a sea-going vessel, the occupant stays well-balanced in rough weather.

Hammocks have also been employed on spacecraft, notably during the Apollo program, when the commander and lunar module pilot slept in them between moonwalks. They’re also particularly useful aboard submarines where maximization of space is critical.

My own connection with the hammock is storied and cherished. My hammock is a harbinger of summer, coming out of storage upon the first run of fair weather in the spring, and by mutual agreement doesn’t come down until after election day. My wife gave me a new hammock a few years ago, and I wasted no time testing it exhaustively, rating it for stability, lift, comfort and support—all the virtues that have made underwear a success since probably the Council of Trent. And indeed, hammocks can be just as personal.

I’ve found the hammock’s generous latitudes, provision of weightlessness and suspension above this care-worn globe to encourage an exploration of the many questions central to human cognition: Is there a god? What are our moral responsibilities in the face of an amoral culture? Is true justice possible? And how do you keep your beer from spilling if you fall asleep? Hint: take a tennis shoe with you into the hammock. Wedge it next to your leg and put your beer in it before you nod off.

So, the next time you spend an hour or two in your hammock instead of mowing the lawn, rest assured— you’re not shirking, you’re a part of history.

Here’s my poem, “Hammock Season:”

Hawsered in this languorous snare,

I’m lolling in summer’s blue estuaries,

breaking the sky’s miraculous

code under the eyelid’s revenant eclipse

where July’s fireworks flower.

Indolence is the virtue

of those suspended, slumped

in the sag of slumber. How easily

my vocabulary yields to the z’s of idleness:

doze, daze, drowse and laze.

I’ve grown the pelt of the sloth

and can no longer grasp

the yard rake or the hoe.

Let the compost go unturned,

the grass become deep as a bed.

Let the employable and the conscientious

ruffle and fuss, for I am weightless with the gods

of the sun, nodding like a sunflower in the breeze.

And when the Muse arrives, tell her

to come back when I’m not so busy.

This is going to take awhile.

Lake Effect essayist Richard Hedderman is a poet and writer. He lives in Wauwatosa.