Toward the end of October, as I was scraping the dew that for the first time in five months had frozen on the windshield of my car, I muttered the same thing I’ve muttered at the onset of every winter: Here we go again.
Flurries and freezing temperatures had been predicted. I’d winterized the Scamp, hoisted the kayaks up into the rafters of the garage, hung up and chained up the bicycles, mulched the leaves that had fallen — my red maple stubbornly holds onto its leaves until all the other trees, and the lawn, are bare — and laid in enough firewood to fuel morning and evening fires until March.
Yet out of the habit formed during five unfrozen months, I’d left my car in the driveway. The fallen dew had frozen into an opaque white glaze on its windows and windshield, and I’d had to rummage in the trunk to find the scraper under a pair of forgotten swim fins. By the time I restored some semblance of forward visibility to the windshield, the defroster had begun to clear the side windows and to cause bits of unscraped frost to slide down the windshield.
Familiar everyday details, forgotten in the course of a summer that seemed endless; déjà vu all over again, as the immortal Yogi Berra once said.
We who live in this part of the world have to adjust to a new normal twice a year. The 45th parallel of latitude, halfway between the equator and the North Pole, runs through the Twin Cities, and so we have four months of tropical weather, four months of polar weather and four months of adjusting from one to the other, two on either side of either season. Nature seems to make this adjustment easily, as if out of long habit; human nature may rejoice in the springtime, but most of us are troubled by the onset of winter.
We humans tend to see the end of the growing season as a kind of death, the abduction of Persephone, the untimely deaths of Adonis and Osiris, the 4,000 years of darkness that preceded the birth of the Savior. And though we know that Persephone will return for a time, and that this seasonal death is followed by resurrection and new life, the time of darkness is so long and so cold that it seems it may never end; how long, O Lord?
In the spring, we look for signs of hope — crocuses pushing through the melting snow, open water at the north end of the lake — and we look forward to the great blooming and budding of May. At the onset of winter, we look for comfort: wood fires, hearty soups, after the solstice the slow movement of sunsets from the southwest toward the due west. We put on several layers and take long walks on less-windy winter days. We deck our halls and houses with lights during the holidays, some generous homeowners keeping their lights shining through the dark months.
We take breaks in Arizona and Florida and Yucatán, shocking the snowbirds and the locals with tales of ice and snow and 30 below. We remind ourselves that summers in snowbird-land are more confining than winters at home, since an Upper Midwesterner can always put on more layers and be comfortably outside in all but the coldest weather, while in 115 degree heat an Arizonan can legally peel down to only a single layer, and then must suffer outside or be imprisoned in his little bubble of conditioned air.
Such thoughts are cold comfort at the end of January, the longest, darkest, coldest month of the year. By the end of February, a four-week extension of January, the days are noticeably longer, the light is stronger, below-zero cold spells are less likely, but there are still six weeks of winter ahead of us until spring begins its uncertain return in mid-April. Like many Upper Midwesterners, I wouldn’t mind winter so much if it didn’t go on so long.
So why do people live in this country that’s an arctic wasteland for a third of the year? Why do I live here? It’s partly inertia, the force of habit; I’ve lived in the Upper Midwest all my life except for two years in St. Louis, with its January warm spells in the 60s and its 4-inch snowfalls that paralyze the city (wimps!).
But there’s more to it than that: good public schools and colleges for my children and me; a strong union that negotiated better-than-Canadian health care for my family and a comfortable retirement for me; social services that attract immigrants and enable them to enter the American mainstream, to the enrichment of all of us, and that ease the plight of the poor, especially of poor children; world-class orchestras at either end of the Green Line, world-class theater and museums and sports and music.
So what does winter have to do with our region’s position at or near the top of every quality-of-life list? The assertion that 30-below winters build character has a sour-grapes, whistling-in-the-dark quality; who really thinks character is any compensation for the dark dreariness of February? But if for “character” we substitute “an awareness of mortality,” we might come closer to an unspoken truth that those of us who live in these latitudes know.
Do not the encroaching darkness, the cold, the draining of color from the landscape, the death/dormancy of the natural world remind us, perhaps subconsciously, of the dark, cold dormancy that awaits us all at the end of our lives? And might this awareness of our mortality lead us to maintain and improve the life that we have now, and to leave a better world to our children? Might these yearly reminders of the passing of all things cause us to live more fully the lives that are given to us for this while, to strengthen our ties with family and friends who will not be with us forever, to make us more generous with the means that we can’t take with us? Ebenezer Scrooge freed himself from his self-imposed miserly exile and rejoined the human race when he read his own name on the tombstone before him. Might we also be reading our names in the bleak, bare darkness of winter, and causing our lights to shine all the brighter?
And late autumn and early winter have beauties of their own, less spectacular than the beauties of the warm seasons: simplicity, austerity, peace and quiet, and rest. They don’t call to us from every window of the house; we have to turn from the busyness of our lives and go out to find them.
After my windshield was clear, after I’d taken the kid to school, and tried to write, and run my errands, I went for a walk in the middle of the afternoon, when the shadows were already lengthening. The big cottonwood at the far end of the park that had shaded a playground against the summer sun, its leaves whispering in the wind, was bare now, the playground quiet. In the woods on the lake’s north shore, trees were bare except for a few stubborn maples and the red oaks that would keep their leaves through the winter. I saw two deer standing in the woods beside the path, their bodies almost invisible in the grey-brown brush, and they saw me. The bare branches of the trees rose like smoke into the cloudy sky.
Soon the snow would come, simplifying the landscape, adding its white to the somber palette of winter, showing signs of continuing life in its crisscross of animal tracks; anyone who walks these woods on a sunny winter day knows how full of life they are.
By the time I turned toward home on the Gateway Trail, the sun was going down in what a few weeks ago would have been the late afternoon. The daylong gray lid of stratus clouds was lit from below, red and gold. Soon the bright stars of winter would rise in the east, Aldebaran and the Pleiades, Orion with his glittering belt and Sirius, brightest star in the sky, and then the Hunter’s Moon, which follows the path of the summer sun, high in the sky, shining brightly all through the night.
Austerity and simplicity, thought I, can be beautiful, can even, after the teeming life and oppressive heat of high summer, be refreshing, clarifying. And when in February I’ve gotten tired of austerity and simplicity (as I’ve never gotten tired of summer, even at its hottest), there is the hope of spring in the stronger sunlight, the lengthening days, the first melting of the snow and ice. The spring that almost all of us will see will most certainly come.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.