If you’re one of those people who thinks winter is just awful and you’re immovable on the point, I’ve got news for you: you’re boring. Somehow, you became one of those head-down, rushing-around, easily inconvenienced bags of aches and complaints that Mary Poppins warned about. A living, breathing, cautionary tale of soul death.
Okay, that’s harsh. But remember how you once felt waking up to a world transformed by a pristine blanket of sound-dampening snow (and perhaps a snow day!)? Remember trekking through the imagination-piquing alien terrain, looking for the perfect place to lay down and leave an angelic imprint, tongue poked out to catch snowflakes falling from the ether? I recall a huge grin and peaceful abandon.
Then you grew up and became consumed with accidentally rolling in buried dog droppings.
It’s not like I can’t at all relate to folks who lament the season. I too notice a marked improvement in my mood when the sun peeks through the endless weeks of overcast skies.
But don’t you find yourself occasionally lost in the mesmerizing dance of snow coming down outside your window? Or smiling as you drink in the prettiness of a fresh coat of powder on everything, before it gets stirred into dirty slush?
I do, and I’m not alone. I owe my enduring love of winter in part to certain writers and artists who opened my eyes to the loveliness of the season, and the unique ways it awakes in us a sense of tranquility and goodness.
In “Through the Looking Glass,” Lewis Carroll describes a sense of wonder through the eyes of his everlastingly curious heroine, Alice (who always anthropomorphizes everything):
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’”
Rarely the subject of praise, winter is overly used in literature as a device to signify danger or disaster. But occasionally it makes an appearance as a simple backdrop to human activity.
Take, for example, the thoughts of one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, a deep thinker whose science and philosophy-blending work is rife with the sense of wonder that too many of us forget to nurture. In her 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of essays, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” the piece “Footfalls in a Blue Ridge Winter” includes a mundane yet relatable exploration of the way shared images of winter moments unite us and breed nostalgia:
“The winter pictures that come in over the wire from every spot on the continent are getting to be as familiar as my own hearth. I wait for the annual aerial photograph of an enterprising fellow who has stamped in the snow a giant valentine for his girl. Here’s the annual chickadee-trying-to-drink-from-a-frozen-birdbath picture, captioned, ‘Sorry, Wait Till Spring,’ and the shot of an utterly bundled child crying piteously on a sled at the top of a snowy hill, labeled, ‘Needs a Push.’ How can an old world be so innocent?”
Then there’s that Robert Frost poem. No, not that one. While it would make sense to mention “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in a story about winter literature and art, that simply-rhymed, sing-song piece doesn’t quite paint the world of winter the way Frost does in one of my favorite works of his: “Birches.”
“Birches” isn’t about winter per se — it actually rambles through the seasons, and decades, in its reverie-filled, rich descriptions of a set of weathered trees that captivated the poet and set him on a tear that touches on a meditation of mortality.
The part that bears mentioning in our blustery context here, is an image to which Rochesterians who recall the Ice Storm of ‘91 can relate. Of the trees, he writes:
“Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust —
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.”
That vision — of a world transformed into a crystalline environment, then sun throwing rainbows through prismatic branches onto the white canvas of the world, and the slow, strange clicking of ice-coated branches swaying in the cold air — has stuck with me since middle school.
As much as the sensual experience of spring and summer are praised, one thing you can’t get from those seasons is coziness: the urge to envelope yourself in warmth and softness and pierce the darkness with small pools of flickering lights instead of flooding it with fluorescents.
Charles Baudelaire understood this well, and wrote of it in his poem, “Landscape”:
“The springs, the summers, and the autumns slowly pass;
And when old Winter puts his blank face to the glass,
I shall close all my shutters, pull the curtains tight,
And build me stately palaces by candlelight.”
It’s tempting to hide indoors as much as possible, but that’s no way to capture the essence of winter on a canvas. Jessica Marten, Curator of American art at the Memorial Art Gallery, tells CITY of one of her favorite winter works in the MAG’s collection: Harold Weston’s 1922 painting, “Three Trees, Winter.”
Weston lived in a one room studio cabin in the Adirondacks, and having suffered from polio, walked with a cane. That didn’t stop him, Marten says, from trekking out into the snowy woods for inspiration for his art.
“Weston is trying to understand the natural world and the forces within the natural world,” she says. “And, and so you kind of see this glow around the trees, there’s this movement in the trees with a very simple landscape that he’s able to capture this sort of rhythm and sense of a power, something that he really could respect.”
The painting is incredibly colorful for a depiction of a white landscape at night. Shadows crisscross the snow drifts and there’s an unexpected sense of life. Reverence is there, too, which was evident in Weston’s writing the same year he made this painting:
“I stopped beside a big hemlock tree and reached around the great trunk to feel its vigor, its reality, its life existing essence. My ear, laid against the wet bark, seemed to hear the pulse, the flow of life-creating sap….[R]oots plunged into the soil, made it one with the earth and gave it life. As a primitive pagan I bowed before the mystery of that world spirit that giveth life to nature and to man.”
Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s life editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.