Understanding Winter

The following edited excerpt from the essay “Understanding Winter” in Tom Springer’s book “Looking For Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest” (2008, University of Michigan Press) is printed by permission of publisher and author.
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From the backdoor of my farmhouse, the morning sun creeps above the frosted beige carpet of a soybean field. For a moment, it oozes like a globe of orange jelly between the oaks that stand in silhouette against the field’s eastern boundary. Then, freed from the horizon’s grasp, it illumes a ribbon of high clouds in regal shades of gold and tangerine.

It’s a fleeting and glorious picture, but you’d never know by listening to the local radio station. The meteorologist, from his sound-proofed studio in a city 25 miles away, can only warn of the minus-one-degree windchill.

“It’s a ter-r-r-r-ibly cold morning,” he says. But cold compared to what? This is Michigan, and it’s January.

It makes me wonder what the pre-settlement Great Lakes Indians would have thought of us. They had good reason to be afraid of the cold. They slept in bark-walled lodges atop mats of woven reeds and deerskin. Their stores of dried berries, wild rice and venison had to last until the spring maple-sugaring season.

By comparison, there’s no rational reason why healthy, modern Americans should fear winter’s hardships.

In the past 50 years, we have nearly engineered cold weather discomfort out of existence. We live in centrally heated houses with attached, semi-heated garages. Our cars and sport-utility vehicles, which can be started from indoors by remote control, come with heated steering wheels, heated seats and heated side mirrors. For personal insulation, we can buy — at bargain prices — coats, boots, hats and gloves that are wonderfully warm, lightweight and waterproof.

Winter Illustration by Gary W. Odmark
        Illustration Courtesy of Gary W. Odmark

By all accounts, our technology has pounded a Teflon stake into winter’s icy heart.

Living as we do, it’s hard to appreciate winter’s age-old function: a time of rest and reflection woven into the cycle of seasons.

In the 1970s, the weather report came last on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscast. My favorite weatherman was a portly, bald-headed fellow from South Bend, Indiana. He wore a mustard yellow sport coat and slapped magnetic suns and snow clouds on a U.S. map as he delivered his forecasts. He warned viewers if a big storm was coming, but he never got hysterical about it.

The tone and scope of weather coverage changed after the Weather Channel was introduced in 1982. Its success proved that weather news was an untapped source of high drama and ratings. Following the Weather Channel’s lead, TV stations began to cover the weather as a fast-breaking news story.

These days, even when a mundane snowstorm drops two inches, a weather advisory will lead the local newscast. Meteorologists gleefully announce windchill indexes and proclaim “weather advisories.” From an early age, we’re now taught to fear winter weather the way we’re supposed to fear strangers and bad cholesterol.

On the flip side, instead of making us fear winter, the marketers want us to buy it — the L.L. Bean fantasies of polar fleece-clad families skiing and spending their way through clapboard villages in the azure New England dusk. They evoke in us a vague sense of longing that we can’t quite identify or satisfy.

That’s why it’s good to remember that winter’s true fruits are free for the taking.

Despite the inevitable distractions of a 24-7 culture, I suspect that many of us would like our winters to be more rewarding, would welcome winter pursuits that enrich mind, body and soul. But in the heart of winter, it’s dark when we leave for work and dark when we return.

So during the week, one has to improvise.

I’m lucky in that my 45-minute commute takes me along a two-lane highway through farm country. And it’s here that I’ve found winter solace in a most unnatural way: while sitting on my rear end, contemplating creation through a dirty windshield.

The desired mental state I’m after is similar to an ancient practice of inspired scriptural reading. With lectio divina, the idea is to read slowly and stop and reflect when you feel drawn to a certain passage. What I try to achieve on the road is a mobile meditation, a lectio divina of the landscape.

The all-important first step is to turn off the radio. Then, as much as safe driving allows, open your mind to the passing countryside.Winter Illustration by Gary W. Odmark Michigan Blue Magazine

 

Perhaps the crimson sunrise will summon up a memory from childhood. Or maybe shadows in the snow will appear indigo blue, the color my grandma loved to use in her winter landscape oil paintings. On foggy mornings, when hoarfrost brings a furry roundness to each branch and twig, a single tree in a cornfield may shine like a burning bush, backlit by the low-angled sun.

Ten seconds later, the conditions that produced these scenes are gone forever, and the miraculous fades into the ordinary.

On weekends, though, it’s possible to encounter winter on more intimate terms. There’s wood to split and haul for the fireplace, and we have two kids and a tireless dog that always need outdoor exercise. For longer outings, there’s a nature preserve where it’s quiet enough to hear the oak leaves rattle like castanets in the north wind.

In southern Michigan, early winter also provides some of the best weather for outdoor labor. The weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before frost tightens the soil, are usually a good time to transplant trees.

A few years ago in early December, I recall a Saturday afternoon warm enough to dig in a flannel shirt. Suddenly, as I packed topsoil around the dormant roots of a hackberry tree, it was as if I felt the seasons turn.

It was a windless, monochrome day. The only signs of life were the delicate buds that swelled from the springy tips of shiny branches. The sap may have fled to the roots, but the buds had their own story to tell. On close inspection, you could see the promise of next year’s growth, the leaves and flowers condensed into tiny, spheroid bundles.

Winter Illustration by Gary W. Odmark - Michigan Blue Magazine

At the appointed time, these buds will open. Until then, they’ll use the respite of winter to their full advantage.

Winter is meant for hearty fare. It’s a time to savor not only my wife’s homemade chicken and spaghetti squash soup but to read those serious tomes that have languished at the bedside since the fish started biting last spring.

There’s also time, after kids’ baths and stories, for the fireside talks that help two adults remember why they live together.

Essayist, journalist and environmentalist Tom Springer resides near Three Rivers.

Written by,  Tom Springer, Michigan BLUE Magazine

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