I’ve lived my entire life in the Northern Hemisphere, and nearly all of that time I’ve been in the higher latitudes. A fairly consistent complaint I hear from my fellow humans is that they dislike winter. I get it: Not much daylight, and in maritime climates the sky seems grey all winter. The weather isn’t conducive to being outside, and it can make traveling – even just to work – challenging.
I don’t think I’ve ever been a winter-hater. I grew up in Seattle – one of those places where the skies are gunmetal grey from November to April, but where snow was also an infrequent treat. (And we almost never got enough snow to cancel school. Drat!) While I never teased out this thought in my head, I think I recognized the short winter days were a bookend to summer’s late sunsets. Or maybe I just figured there wasn’t much to be gained by complaining.
Although I was one of those kids who was always outside in good weather, and I remember camping, fishing, and hiking as a kid, I didn’t really take up outdoor sports until I was well in my thirties. I started snowshoeing and Nordic skiing at 30, and then alpine skiing at 33. I skiied a lot while I was in college, and because it took me six years to earn a bachelors degree that was a lot of skiing for half a dozen years. (I don’t miss the poverty. I do miss the cheap season passes.) I became one of those people who becomes giddy when the crispness in the air comes and then when it starts to snow in the mountains, who tells their boss they’re taking a sick day when there’s a winter storm warning. Hard to hate winter when you’re giddy about it.
Post-law school, I alpine skied a lot less. I allowed myself to get really out of shape while in law school. Then I got married, and I got even more out of shape. But mostly, no longer having access to those cheap season passes did me in. (A few years ago, I twisted my knee while training for my first ultramarathon. I didn’t realize I’d damaged the cartilage so I kept training, attempted the ultra (my first DNF), and didn’t finally admit I was injured until a few months after the race. I now live in terror of twisting it again & doing more damage. Hard to enjoy that $80 lift ticket if you spend your entire time protecting your damaged, middle-aged knees.)
A few years after buying a house, I renewed my love of the outdoors. Even with the extra forty pounds of fuel I was carrying I loved tramping through the woods on snowshoes, gliding along unplowed forest roads. Training for triathlon, and then trail running, I shed a fair amount of that extra fuel. As that happened, my adventuring became longer and more, well, adventurous.
Winter is more than a fun play time. When we bought the house, we started gardening. Our home is on a fairly small lot – 0.17 acre, and much of that has the house sitting on it – so our garden is quite small. Having our own garden gave me a greater appreciation for the value in each season.
The world comes back alive in the spring. Animals come out of hibernation; even those that didn’t hibernate seek to take advantage of the sudden bounty of spring. Just a few generations ago, a large percentage of the population of the United States relied on their own land or what they could glean from the land around them to feed themselves. That meant surviving winter required eating whatever was preserved during the previous seasons. (It’s hard for me to imagine eating canned spinach, but if that’s what’s available that’s what you eat. *ick*)
Summer’s bounty is even greater. Some of what sprouted in spring is now ripe. The days are long, and winter seems both far in the past and far in the future. Summer is playful. Summer is the time to frolic and fatten up.
Then the days begin to shorten. Fall is still warm. For the homesteader – past or present – fall is the busiest time of the year. Even with my tiny garden, it sometimes felt like EVERYTHING ripened in a short burst of time. There’ve been days when dinner was all the nectarines I could eat, or some sort of hash made of zucchini, onions, tomatoes. I’ve purchased huge cabbages at the farmers market and made what felt like vats of sauerkraut. I’ve canned years’ worth of pickles in a weekend. Fall can feel exhausting.
Nature knows, too. On my hikes, I’ve felt the difference. Spring is a re-awakening, summer is a frolic, fall is a frenzy. The insects that can winter over seem to know, as I see bees out much later into the twilight in fall than I do in summer. Plants that winter over shed their leaves as they wrench the last bit of summer’s nutrition out of them to fill their branches and roots with sustenance to sustain them through winter. (One can almost hear the evergreens’ smug superiority as they’ve mastered year-round photosynthesis.) Some birds follow the sun and migrate to warmer climes. Mammals fatten themselves up, whether it’s to survive a winter’s sleep or to keep starvation at bay as they forage all winter. Some fill their larders with the fall’s bounty, just as their human cousins do.
In nature, fall’s energy is as frenetic as spring’s, but without spring’s celebratory feel. Spring’s energy is a joyful “we survived!”; fall’s is a determined “we will survive.” The energy tapers as fewer creatures venture out. And then one day, winter is here.
As a gardener, and a hiker, I’ve come to respect winter as a season of rest. The land rests, whether it’s a cultivated garden or a subalpine forest. This rest is restorative. First the rain stores moisture to the soil, then the snow blankets the land and slowly seeps into the ground. The plants on which insect, animal, and human rely restore themselves with this sleep.
I think we modern humans in industrialized societies say we hate winter because we’ve lost our connection to the rhythms of the seasons. Throughout human history, winter was the time for stories. Long nights, cold days, and the need to stretch the family’s food stores meant we stayed in our homes. Our elders shared their stories. We learned who we were, what we believed, how we should be from listening to those stories. We learned about how we were connected with the animals we relied upon for food, clothing, and labor. We learned about the plants around us, how they could feed us, how they could heal us, how we should treat them in life and preserve them in death. We learned about the spirits who guided us and guarded us, and about the ones who would trick us and harm us. We learned what mattered. We slept more. We sang. We learned. We prayed.
Winter scared us because it is dark and it is a time of deprivation. But winter renewed us, just as it renewed the land around us. Winter restored us. Winter’s deprivation taught us to find joy in the first green shoots of spring. Winter taught us about life.
It’s not my intent to romanticize “olden times.” They were hard. I love sauerkraut, but I also love being able to buy fresh lettuce in February and I’m very glad I do not have to eat canned spinach or parts of animals that now generally end up in pet food. I love that I can press a few buttons to get my oven going or turn on a faucet to get fresh, clean water. I’m very grateful I do not have bundle up to go out into the cold to relieve myself, and that I don’t have to tolerate a chamber pot in a corner of my living space. But I also want us to learn to live in harmony with winter. Let winter restore you. Spend time with your elders and learn their stories. Sleep more. Practice the rituals that help define you.
In many cultures, we created celebrations to brighten winter’s dark. We saw the nights get longer, and then one day they started getting shorter again. We recognized this as a sign of hope, that winter’s grip would not last forever, that soon spring would arrive. I’m hopeful we can meld the comforts and conveniences of the Twenty-first Century with the awe of the ancients’ wisdom about the patterns of the seasons.
Don’t hate winter. We all need it.