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Favorite Nature Books: Winter

February 4, 2012

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

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.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2012 11:35 pm

    Sounds like a really good book, I never really thought about winter as having it’s own seasons. We don’t usually see a whole lot of snow in the winter, so sometimes it just feels like an endlessly gray, wet season that starts in October and ends in March. What a nice coincidence that your friend bought the same book you had bought for them.

    • February 11, 2012 5:37 pm

      Catherine, In New England, winter is very much it’s own season; and in northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont), it is the longest season of the year. So it helps if those who live there actually enjoy winter! Take your winter, move it ahead in time about a month (November-April), substitute snow for rain, and lots of blue skies for gray, and you’ve got winter in Maine. (Oh yeah, and subtract a few degrees from the temperatures!) 🙂

  2. February 5, 2012 6:09 am

    What good friends you must be, to share interests, to chose the right gifts for each other. Wonderful.

    Romantic winter, central heating? Have been looking at pictures of the homeless, somewhere in East Europe, sheltering near underground heating ducts, during this winter which is taking an unromantic toll. Not just of the homeless, but in unheated houses in isolated villages. Global village shows us what has always happened in winter, but we didn’t SEE it before. The US seems to have sent its winter weather across to Europe this year?

    • February 11, 2012 5:41 pm

      Diana, This isn’t the first time my friend Joyce and I exchanged Christmas gifts to find that we had each bought the other the same book.

      I think the images from Eastern Europe brought home Gopnik’s point that winter can only be romantically beautiful and sublime if you have protection from the cold. We are expecting a little arctic air tonight and tomorrow, but it’s not expected to last; it does seem as though the arctic cold this winter has slid off center down across Europe, leaving North American unusually warm.

  3. February 5, 2012 10:03 am

    How incredible that 2 friends thought of giving the same gift… Your wonderful description of this book had me shaking my head in affirmation and understanding why I live where we have these cold, snowy wonderful seasons…of course if we didn’t have heat and other ways to cope I would not be here…

    • February 11, 2012 7:52 pm

      Donna, I thought Gopnik’s observation that we can enjoy winter only when we have protection from it was particularly insightful. I remember how quickly I got tired of winter during the aftermath of the 1998 ice storm in Maine, when I was without electricity for 10 days. I did have heat from my woodstove, which I could also cook on; but I had no running water, and having to spend hours outside each day trying to gather enough snow and ice to melt for drinking, cooking, and household quickly became a major pain.

  4. February 5, 2012 7:23 pm

    Thank you for your spin on winter. You have me thinking I may be too harsh on the season. I’ll keep your words with me.

    • February 11, 2012 7:54 pm

      Kevin, I don’t think winter is for everyone. My internal thermostat is set high, and it doesn’t take much for me to get uncomfortably hot. My younger brother, on the other hand, loves the heat. Now he lives in Florida (where he doesn’t miss winter at all) and I live in Maine, and we are both happy 🙂

  5. February 6, 2012 12:28 pm

    Jean, I must stop reading your book reviews because I’m way behind on my book reading as it is. But it’s too late for that now. This book is on my wish list now.

    I tend to romanticize winter more now that I’m not living in a climate that typically sees day time highs in the upper 40s and 50s (if not 60s and 70s) throughout the “winter.” I do remember some of the burdens that winter created for me when I was living up north, but when I reflect on winter now, it is not the scary moments of driving on black ice or the terrible feeling of wet socks that I remember most. It’s the quiet moments spent by a window watching the snow fall. It’s sledding down the hill through the trees with my friends. It’s the satisfying feeling of working up a sweat while chopping wood for the fireplace . . . Based on your review, it sounds like Gopnik has a firm grasp on what makes winter worthwhile in its own way. I can’t wait to read it.

    • February 11, 2012 8:01 pm

      Chad, LOL, I’m very familiar with the book wishlist problem. When other bloggers review books I’d like to read, I tag the post in my Google reader. I think I have more than a hundred so tagged at this point — and that doesn’t count the books I’ve actually bought (or gotten from the library) and haven’t read yet, or the ones I’ve read before but would like to read again. So many books, so little time….

      • February 12, 2012 1:47 am

        I took the plunge. I downloaded a free sample from iBooks and when I finished the sample I had to keep reading. It’s a very thought-provoking book so far and I’m enjoying the writing as well as the new concepts introduced in the book.

  6. February 7, 2012 6:49 pm

    Thank you Jean. Winter is a mystery to me and I know I would love to read this and open new vistas.

    All joys,


  7. February 9, 2012 11:19 pm

    This is a wonderful, review, Jean: thoughtful, comprehensive and well-written. My responses to winter are only a shadow of the ones you describe. Winter here is too mild to elicit strong emotion. Snow is rare and only lays on the ground for minutes or at most hours before melting; many plants remain green and growing right through the season; winter sports don’t exist; and I don’t even own a long coat. This book might provoke winter envy!

    • February 11, 2012 8:43 pm

      Sharon, If you read this book, let me know how you respond. I’m curious abut how it will read for those who are not already winter people.

      Lyn, I sometimes experience winter envy of my friends in Maine when I’m in southern Pennsylvania for the winter. Of course, when I’m living in Maine full time, I’m going to miss the spring that can be enjoyed further south.

  8. February 10, 2012 10:32 am

    I’m reading Gopnik’s book about food – First Comes the TAble. I didn’t know about this one – which looks so good. He is always so good.

    • February 11, 2012 8:44 pm

      Pat, I agree; Adam Gopnik’s writing is always so good. I haven’t read First Comes the Table; I’ll have to look for that one.

  9. February 11, 2012 4:15 pm

    Beautifully written Jean. As you explained the idea of each essay I recognized many of my own responses to winter. With the last couple years being very hectic in my garden I’m finding winter primarily as a time for recuperation and getting to enjoy indoor pursuits and the comforts of home.

    • February 11, 2012 8:54 pm

      Thanks, Marguerite. I had the same reaction of recognizing my own reactions to winter and understanding them more.

  10. February 11, 2012 8:14 pm

    Thank you, Jean. I really enjoyed this blog. It gave me a lot to think on, the romance of winter and heroism in particular. Similarly here, only it’s the heat! People complain about the heat, bu I love it, thing sgrow like mad, and he heat makes me appreciate the winter (such as i is! we beieve its cold when its below 9 degrees….haha!)

    And renewal..Yes! I have just planted a Frangipani (the deciduous type) Forest for that reason, and many other resaons…one being that my Grandmother had some. She loved gardening and I still remember going into the garden wih her and helping her, lisening to her.

    • February 11, 2012 8:57 pm

      Lilith, You would probably laugh at what we consider hot here. When it gets over 90F (32 C), it’s a news event.

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