In his short work “Le Lit” (The Bed), Guy de Maupassant wrote “Le lit c’est l’homme” or “the bed is the man.” This is not just because we spend a third of our lives sleeping, but because our beds witness much more of our lives than that. Most of life’s biggest events happen in bed: birth, sex and death generally all happen within the comforting, graceful embrace of sheets. We go to them when we’re weak and sick. And because they often see us at our most vulnerable, they’ve come to be an ultimate motherly symbol of comfort and security in our lives.
The bed’s psychological importance is probably irrespective of how fluffy or divine its trappings are, too. Evolutionary Biologist David Samson of Duke university told Van Winkle’s that the Hadza people of Northern Tanzania sleep on “just a single animal hide, or sheet, maybe millimeters thick.” “They don’t even have a word for pillow,” he said. Yet poor sleep is not a problem they often deal with.
The bed, then, serves almost as a personal sanctuary of sorts. A place for mental rest as well as corporeal. Sometimes this is further enhanced and cultivated, wrote anthropologist and social scientist Jacques de Visscher, when we personalize our sleeping space, as well. By draping ourselves in particular sheets and blankets, or by putting personal items on display next to us while we sleep, we define it. We make it our own. Here’s how astronauts, submarine sailors and aquatic inhabitants all lay their heads — and retain a sense of normalcy and comfort — in their dangerous and stressful surroundings.
Living and working 250 miles above Earth brings its own unique set of sleep challenges. For starters, the concept of “a day” in space becomes kind of a moot point when aboard the International Space Station. Hurtling at 17,000 miles an hour around Earth, astronauts inside peer out at 15 sunrises during the duration of one “day” down here on the blue dot. In order to not destroy the crew’s circadian rhythm, however, measures are taken: For instance, the crew observes Coordinated Universal Time; during sleeping hours, the windows are covered to simulate darkness.
Each crew member of the space station has their own private sleeping station where they can slip reassuringly into a tethered sleeping bag, which helps keep them warm in the cold space as well as keep them secure (otherwise they’d float around in the zero gravity environment and bump their heads.) Inside these person-sized booths are also nets and shelves for an astronaut to affix personal belongings or pictures, a reading lamp and laptop setups — all of which help create that feeling of personal sanctuary. And while the booths are orientated “standing up” (although there is no up or down in space), it doesn’t matter, because in zero gravity, to sleep all you have to do is just relax your muscles. It’s not possible to fall down anywhere.
When climbers are attempting to scale complicated cliff faces that reach thousands of feet into the air, it’s usually going to take them a couple of days to complete the task. This means they need a way to sleep and eat during their long ascent. For this, climbers have invented the portaledge.
The portaledge is essentially a cot that’s strung up by ropes and carabiners, creating a nylon ledge thousands of feet above the ground. When it’s secured, big wall climbers can sleep in a surprisingly comfortable manner dangling from a rock face. In good weather they can be open, allowing the adventurous sleeper to gaze at the stars or peer over the edge into the void below; in cold climates or rough weather they can have a cover, or fly, that encloses the climbers inside like a tent — albeit a hershey-kiss-shaped one fastened to a cliff. These conditions are certainly extreme, as well as impermanent, but sleeping bags and blankets coupled with a bed-like surface beneath them provides exhausted climbers with some sense of comfort and perhaps security in an altogether abnormal setting.
For sailors aboard a nuclear attack submarine, creating a personal sanctuary out of their sleeping quarters is almost laughable considering the premium on space. A Virginia class attack submarine houses a crew of 135 that must make do with approximately 94 beds. Constantly rotating shifts allow for everyone to have a bed, but this requires some to share their bunks with someone else — a practice lovingly called “hot-racking.” Even the beds themselves are sometimes hung amidst torpedoes or other supplies. One CNN correspondent even described sleeping in a submarine bunk as akin to sidling into an MRI machine.
Yet amid the sweaty, cramped confines of a giant steel tube, people find ways to individualize their beds. Some sailors rig up video games, others read or listen to music on their headphones (silence is golden on a sub because everyone works a different shift). It’s a shining example of the impersonal made personal.
Approximately 10,000 feet above sea level on the Antarctic plateau lies the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a tiny oasis of humanity dropped in the middle of a vast barren desert of ice. The southernmost point on the globe, this American led research station in Antarctica has recorded some of the coldest temperatures on Earth. As with many of the other environments listed here, scientists and crew at Amundsen-Scott Station experience bizarre daytime schedules that mess with our natural circadian rhythms. Besides the North Pole, it is the only other place in the world where the sun rises and sets just once each year.
When it comes to sleeping arrangements, Amundsen-Scott is probably the most luxurious of the bunch here, offering up individual (albeit small) rooms to workers with an actual bed and nightstand. These rooms can easily be personalized with photos and other amenities of mental comfort. Here, a researcher or station worker can set up a home away from home to sleep, rest and feel secure. That is, until the next time they go outside into one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.
Dropped down into the ocean like a pebble to the bottom of a stream, the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory run by Florida International University sits on a sand patch 60 feet below the surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off of Key Largo. The only sealab in the world at present, Aquarius is designed specifically so “aquanauts” can engage in what is called saturation diving — living and diving at the same depth so they don’t have to worry about the bends and can spend more time in the water. This doesn’t mean the aquanauts don’t need time for sleep however.
Inside the three-quarter-inch thick steel hull of Aquarius are six bunks for visiting aquanauts to catch some shut-eye in. The “aquanauts," which include anyone from biologists studying the reefs, to NASA astronauts or U.S. Navy divers in training, spend anywhere from 3 to 30 days on a mission. It’s a little bit of a tight fit, however, that, like bunks on a submarine, don’t allow for much personal space.
“Aquanauts sleep comfortably in the bunk room, but there is not a lot of room for personal items,” director Tom Potts told Van Winkle’s, explaining further that “aquanauts don’t spend much time in the bunk room other than to sleep,” since they spend most waking hours of the day out in the deep blue. Despite this, it is likely easier on the brain to live in a watery world for two weeks when there is that place of comfort to which they can retreat and catch some shuteye.