Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In Praise of Winter

Winter has arrived, in all its gray dampness and icy chill. Not only is it winter, but it's Kentucky winter, which gives it that je nais se quoi I-only-went-to-the-store-how-did-I-end-up-in-Lapland flavor. It's been pretty mild, with just a little snow and no extreme temperatures. In fact, I went out for a walk last week on a day of unexpected sun and met several joggers in T-shirts and shorts.

It's common around here to see people in summer attire at the first hint of warmth. Right after a really cold spell, I've seen college students dressed for Key West when the thermometer was still in the 30s. In general, I don't think Kentuckians are a winter-loving crowd, but they do tend toward optimism in their forecasting and will celebrate their faith in summer's return at the barest sign of a singing bird or a patch of blue between clouds. It probably has a playful whiff of sympathetic magic about it: If I put on my shorts, the sun is bound to come out.

I just finished reading a book about an Appalachian winter with very unusual weather, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior. At the heart of the novel lies a natural phenomenon that, while breathtakingly beautiful, turns out to be a harbinger of environmental crisis. The scientists in the book are well aware of this and unable to see what's happening in a positive light, but the inhabitants of the area respond more to the beauty and poetry of what seems to them a miracle. The main character encompasses both views, and I liked her for holding on to an appreciation of the radiance in nature in the midst of a very discouraging crisis.

That inspires me to think of all the things that are beautiful about winter, which, though not as easy to like as summer, has its moments. For one thing, a bright color stands out at this time of year with unearthly clarity -- take those red winterberries against a bare branch, for example. When you visit the Arboretum in winter, that red pop in the middle of so much drabness is enough to make your jaw drop. The leafless trees have their own kind of beauty, especially standing up against a blue sky. You see their structure and shape and really understand that they only reveal their whole selves without their leaves.

Snow is beautiful, especially when it falls slowly in huge feathery flakes, covers everything to the depth of several inches, and transforms the old world into a new country. Sadly, it's really hard to enjoy this if you have to worry about getting to work, as cars and snow do not mix well. But if you have the luxury of watching from a cozy room, or of walking through a snowfall, with no urgent errand, it can be wonderful. Best of all are the days when the sun comes out over a snowy landscape, finding the diamond dust and making it sparkle.

An ice storm can be stunning, transforming trees, bushes, fences, and wire into sculptures of glass. Even in the middle of the worst ice storm, with power out and branches falling dangerously all around, it's hard not to see how a simple coating of ice changes an ordinary street into something fabulously unfamiliar, as if you've stepped through the looking glass into an alien world. There's also such a thing as a frozen fog, which once seen is never forgotten. Imagine a cloud in stop-motion, hanging in the air as if painted there, the very ice crystals glued into place all around you. Sleeping Beauty's castle could not be more still.

And, of course, there are the winter stars, which seem to shine fiercely on clear winter nights. I have a memory of being outdoors in my hometown one night when I was probably 12 years old, not an especially happy time, but one that stands out for the beauty of a particular night sky. It was January or February, and my siblings and I were out in the neighborhood for some errand. I remember looking up at the sky over the rooftops and trees of our town, seeing how full of stars it was and how brilliantly they were shining, somehow wondrous and intimate at the same time, like an illustration for a fairy tale.

That night, I couldn't have picked out Orion, my favorite constellation, but now I often look for it on clear nights. It caught me by surprise years ago when I was taking an early morning flight; once airborne, I happened to look out the window and see it striding boldly across the December sky. It instantly became an emblem of courage for me (I'm afraid Orion doesn't always come across well in myth, but it's the image I'm talking about, not the stories). It still inspires me.

So, yes, winter does have its advantages. When you factor in a fireside, hot chocolate, Christmas lights, and the smell of woodsmoke, you find that the beauties of winter may be subtle but are not non-existent. Like the quietly melodic Winter Solstice CD I sometimes listen to, winter's beauties are conducive to introspection, reflection, and meditation on small things.

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