Favorite Nature Books: Winter
But a taste for winter, a love for winter vistas – a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human soul as any summer scene – is part of the modern condition. -Adam Gopnik, Winter
I usually entitle this series “Favorite Garden Books,” but Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five Windows on the Season (Anansi, 2011) is really not a garden book – although it does help me to understand the way I think about my garden in winter. I would classify this book as one that examines the meanings we attach to our experiences of the natural world.
Winter is a collection of five interrelated essays written and presented as lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual Massey Lecture Series. I had not heard of this book until I saw it on display at my local independent bookstore while doing Christmas shopping. But I had read and loved Gopnik’s earlier memoirs about his children, Paris to the Moon (Random House, 2000) and Through the Children’s Gate (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), and I thought this book would be a great gift for a friend of mine. Happily, the same friend saw the same book in the same bookstore and bought it as a gift for me!
Adam Gopnik begins his examination of winter with the image of himself as a young boy newly arrived in Montreal, gazing out the window in wonder at his first Canadian snowfall. The literal window becomes a metaphorical window in the five chapters that follow. Each of Gopnik’s essays/lectures takes a different perspective on winter – or, more accurately, on the way we see and understand winter. The essays weave together philosophy, history, art, music and literature into a complex and compelling pattern. In the first essay, “Romantic Winter: The Season in Sight,” Gopnik explores the origins of our modern perception of winter as beautiful, even sublime. He argues that this view of winter only became possible with the invention of central heating, making winter something one could look out at from the comfort of a warm home. “Radical Winter: The Season in Space” focuses primarily on the polar explorations of the 19th and early 20th centuries, examining how and why winter came to be a destination during this period and how extreme winter conditions became the stuff of epic and heroism. In telling the tale, Gopnik manages to connect the famous and infamous polar expeditions with bits of popular culture as diverse as Santa Claus’s workshop and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the third essay, “Recuperative Winter: The Season in Spirit,” Gopnik turns his attention to how Christmas became the special holiday of winter and how, through this holiday, winter came to be a season of renewal. He uses the emblematic Christmas story of renewal and moral recuperation, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as the touchstone for these reflections. “Recreational Winter: The Season at Speed” moves from Christmas to another joyful element of the season, winter recreation, especially ice skating and that most Canadian form of winter sport, ice hockey. The final essay, “Remembering Winter: The Season in Silence,” considers the ways we use memories of winter’s privations to sweeten our experiences of spring and summer and the nostalgia that so often colors our winter memories. Gopnik examines the ways that modern technology has enabled us to “conquer” winter but has also, through the processes of climate change, threatened us with the loss of winter.
Each one of Adam Gopnik’s essays resonated for me; I recognized the elements of my own responses to the winter season in his reflections. When I gaze out the window at the beauty of snow on trees or rush out to photograph newly fallen snow in the garden, I am experiencing the romance of winter. But, like many people who live in cold climates, I combine winter romance with winter heroism. I can’t resist bragging about deep snow or cold temperatures; and when I go outside to shovel snow or haul in firewood on a frigid morning, I feel a bit like a pioneer. I most definitely respond to winter as a time of renewal. I have written about the renewing slowness of time in winter and about the benefits of snow in the ecology of my garden. Once, when a reader from a tropical climate commiserated about how difficult it must be to see my garden die each winter, I rushed to correct her, explaining that the winter dormancy of plants was not death, but a chance for them to gather their strength for a new season of growth. Moreover, like all true winter lovers, I don’t consider winter something just to look at from the comfort of a warm house, but a season of outdoor activity. As a child, I loved to grab my ice skates as soon as I got home from school on winter afternoons and head over to the skating pond at a local park. As an adult, I fell in love with cross-country skiing as a way to revel in the beauties of winter. Even as I enjoy winter, though, I look forward to the warmer seasons. A popular tee-shirt and bumper-sticker slogan in Maine reads, “If you can’t stand the winter, you don’t deserve the summer.” This speaks not only to the hardy heroism of those who can “stand the winter,” but also emphasizes the extra sweetness that long winters give to Maine’s glorious summers.
Reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter has not changed my feelings about winter, but it has deepened my understanding of why I feel the way I do. In helping me to understand my responses to winter, these essays have further deepened my appreciation of a season that I already loved.