Requiem for Winter

Complaining about the weather is as much a Vermont tradition as maple sugaring and independent politics. Where we live, after mud season comes bug season. Admittedly there are some lovely days in summer, but more often than not it’s muggy. There’s a brief grace period in the fall, especially in early October when the nights are crisp and the hillsides explode in brilliant color, when everyone can rest securely in the knowledge that we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Then comes winter.

Those pretty leaves are brutally stripped from their branches, and the wind hurries them along the hardening ground like refugees. The length of the days falls off precipitously, until darkness becomes more familiar than light. The cold commences. Then there is the snow, often followed by a soaking rain, which either transforms the snow into an unappetizing gray slush or freezes the top layer of it into a brittle, shin-biting crust. Many of my friends go into hibernation during this time, but I think they are making a mistake. To me, winter is by far the best season. Allow me to call a few witnesses for the defense:

Pale morning light so fine and liquid you could pour it into a champagne glass.

The silent mystery of a heavy snowfall.

Long slanting shadows, and billions of sun-reflecting crystals on rolling fields of white.

A barred owl staring silently and imperturbably down from a tall hemlock; a pileated woodpecker flitting through leaf-bare hardwoods at dusk.

I say that in order to fully appreciate winter you must embrace it. Not retreat from it, curled up by the wood stove with hot cocoa and a good book; I mean embrace it. You can snowshoe or go tubing or build an igloo, but in my view the most elegant way to embrace the season is to go Nordic skiing. It’s a good workout, but more importantly it’s a great way to get out into the winter air. For more than ten years I’ve maintained an almost religious daily habit of gliding fast through quiet hardwood forests and emerging like a flushed deer to make telemark turns down wide open snow fields. Why can’t this state of nature exist all year round, I often wonder: the cleanness, the grace, the soft edges of snow-covered meadows and trees?

But the day inevitably comes when the snow begins to melt. Now there are freshets and puddles, and the fossilized tracks from previous days are exposed in the evaporating snow. In the fields the packed trails are only causeways over yellow-brown grass,while in the woods there may still be good coverage but the snow is topped with a scrim of black dirt, twigs and hemlock needles. Finally it just gets too ridiculous — I’m herring-boning over leaf litter, and taking off my skis to wade through rocky stream beds, and I’m forced to admit defeat. The season is over.

The idea that global warming may be about to rob us of those crisp January days, and of our sugar maples, and of the three or four months a year when the forest reliably sleeps — well, it makes me want to cry. It makes me want to punch a hole in the wall, or kick a tree. It makes me feel like I do when I slip sideways into a deep mud-season rut, or when I’m driven from a favorite fishing hole by a swarm of hungry black flies.

In winter everyone always talks about how much they look forward to spring. I guess I do too — once I’ve stopped mourning the passing of winter. But on some level I find spring to be a melancholy season. With its profusion of mud, greenery, and biting insects, spring represents an end of innocence, a soiling of purity. In this negative sense it is a metaphor for global warming, just as global warming is a metaphor for spring. Only unless we succeed in changing our behaviors it looks to be a different kind of spring, followed by a long, hot, unpredictable summer.

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This essay appeared in Winter, a Write Action anthology