Monday, December 31, 2012

Ode to Winter

Winter is so often maligned. People say it’s ugly: they talk about the sadness of the leaves being gone and the obvious superior beauty of spring, summer, and fall. Of course, they might say, snow is beautiful but that’s about it.

I love winter in a purely aesthetic way. As a child I can remember riding in the backseat of our car, looking out the window at a bare tree silhouetted against a winter dusk sky of pink and orange and deepest midnight blue and being moved by the beauty. That is still today one of the most beautiful things I know. 

Just down the road from my house is a field that climbs a hill, ending in a row of trees along the top of a ridge. Looking at those trees silhouetted against the deepening night of a winter sky is one of the pleasures of my year here. I rarely notice those trees any other time of year—all the foliage blocks the clean geometric lines of the branches.

Since moving to the North Carolina mountains I have found new aspects of winter’s grace. On a warm sunny winter’s day the sunlight shining off the rhododendron leaves on hillsides sends off a sheen that thrills my heart. There is always a day in November while driving that I notice an unusual light striking my eye and I realize I am seeing it again: the beautiful rhododendron-green light filling the forest. Six months of the year the sunlight never strikes the rhododendron leaves fully because it is filtered through thousands of leaves on the trees above.

I much prefer hiking in the winter to any other season. Someone who also loves this season said I shouldn’t mention how great it is to the general public—part of the wonder of it is that nobody else is around. There are obvious reasons for enjoying winter hikes: no snakes and spiders and biting insects. But mainly I love the wide-openness of the forest. When I hike in the summer I feel almost claustrophobic—all that foliage makes me feel like I am closed-in.

I like being able to see mountain vistas stretching out at every point of a mountain climb, not just from the top. It is so interesting to learn the lay of this land that I live in and it is only possible in the winter.  Hidden things are revealed: mountain folds and cliff-faces. On a mountain-side near my home is a large cave that can only be seen in winter. I love to sit and look at the cave-mouth imagining the sleeping bear inside.

I like what the locals call "mountain lace"—my childhood tree-silhouette writ large. In summer a mountaintop is one relatively smooth green surface, with little to differentiate the individual trees. Autumn lets their individuality loose in the variation of fall colors, but mountain lace shows another kind of individuality: not just the tree’s species but its unique life history in the shape of its branches. Also uncovered are the wind-sculpted pines along the ridgelines that in other seasons blend in with all that green so you can’t see their exquisite shapes.

Winter is a time of rest. In most of the animal, plant, and insect world winter is a time of hibernation. Sitting on my favorite rock on my mountainside last week I could feel the peace of the season. The trees are all dormant, as are the insects. The snakes are in their burrows, as are most of the mammals.

There is nothing more peaceful than a snowfall. The whole world is wrapped in a soft blanket. There is no other time so quiet and calm. I love to sit for hours at a time watching snow fall outside my window while sitting warm by the fire (I who have trouble sitting still any other time). I would imagine that through most of the time humans have lived in cold climates we hibernated too, spending much of our time by the fire. People living before electricity probably slept a lot every winter.

Perhaps the roots of our winter holiday traditions—from Thanksgiving running through New Year’s—are relics of the burrowing into the nest for a long winter’s rest. We gather with friends and family for large feasts with colored lights to warm the cold nights. We wish each other the peace of the season.

Winter is a beautiful time of year.

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