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Understanding Winter by Thomas M. SpringerLooking out the back door of my Michigan farmhouse, I see the morning sun creep above the frosted beige carpet of a soybean field. For a moment, it oozes like a globe of orange jelly between the oaks that stand in silhouette against the field's eastern boundary. Then, freed from the horizon's grasp, it illuminates a ribbon of high clouds in regal shades of gold and tangerine.

It's a fleeting and glorious picture, but you'd never know it by listening to the local radio station. The meteorologist, from his soundproofed cell in an urban office building 25 miles away, can only warn of the --1 degree wind chill. "It's a terribly cold morning," he says, a sentiment echoed by his fellow disc jockey. Both sound petrified by the thought of a normal winter's day in Michigan.

As if cold weren't something to expect in January. As if the outdoor world is a distraction to be endured as we move between the real realms of modern humanity -- the airtight automobile, the florescent-lit office, mall or classroom. As if for centuries, people have not adapted nobly to this cold and to much greater cold. As if the Potawotomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa did not, for centuries, sleep soundly in their bark-walled wigwams, atop woven grass mats and robes of bear and deerskin.

So what are we afraid of? Why do we fear and even demonize normal winter weather? We live in heated houses with semi-heated garages. We drive heated sports utility vehicles with heated steering wheels, heated seats and even heated side mirrors. We can purchase -- at K-Mart prices -- warm and waterproof coats, boots, gloves and garments of all description. After 50,000 years, the human race has come in from the cold in a big way. Why, then, should peace of mind be so elusive?

If we fear winter, perhaps it's because we no longer understand it. We no longer realize its physical, psychological and spiritual values. We no longer appreciate its age-old function as a time of rest and reflection, woven between the cycle of seasons. There's no winter solstice in cyberspace, so it's easy to forget that all living things need time for regeneration.

We do, of course, understand winter from the literal standpoint of slippery roads, Christmas shopping and holiday ski trips. We appreciate the greeting-card ambience that snowy winter weather lends to holiday gatherings. And we're comfortable with winter as a marketing prop, much in the same way we expect animated images of $1 and $5 bills to sing and dance during appliance store commercials for President's Day sales. But beyond the Disney-like images of winter -- snowmen, red ribbons, stylized manger scenes -- we've lost our ability to experience winter as a time of contemplation and inner growth.

Before World War II, at least in rural America, winter had a definite physical and social significance. There were few electric lights to lengthen the shortened days and snowy roads curtailed human mobility, enforcing a season of inactivity for all creatures. There was time for handiwork, reading and household chores that prepared people, animals and their surroundings for the annual flurry of spring and summer growth. It's this slower pace that Jean Ritchie describes in Winter Grace, one of my favorite Christmas hymns. She sings of the cold, quiet months on her Kentucky farm as "a time for man and beast to stand and watch the seasons turn; to watch the stars for secret signs and God's true lessons learned."

Winter anxiety -- as seen on TV
For Ritchie, and the 2 percent of Americans who still live on farms, winter may still provide moments of revelation and reverie. For the rest of us, the orange glow of streetlights and the din of four-lane highways usually crowd out the silence. Yet our urbanized environment isn't all to blame. The news media -- particularly local TV stations -- take great pains to heighten our anxiety of winter's perceived dangers.

In the 1970s, when my family's TV set received only three VHF channels, the weather report always came last on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscast. My favorite weatherman was a portly, bald-headed fellow from South Bend, Ind. He wore a mustard-yellow sport coat and slapped magnetic suns and snow clouds on a U.S. map as he delivered his forecasts. He warned viewers if a big storm was coming, but he never got hysterical about it. A winter snowstorm, much like dead alewives on the beach in springtime, was something to expect when you lived near the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Then in the early 1980s, the TV business discovered that weather was an untapped source of high drama and Neilsen rating points. Following the advice of big time media consultants, TV stations began to cover weather as if it were a fast-breaking news story (which admittedly, it often is). This approach spread rapidly, and nowadays, if a snowstorm drops 2 inches a weather story will often lead the newscast. Run-of-the-mill storms are packaged and marketed with all the hype of a racy miniseries, as meteorologists gleefully announce wind-chill indexes and proclaim "weather advisories" for every imaginable variety of ice, rain, wind, fog or snow. From an early age, we are now taught to fear winter weather the way we're supposed to fear strangers and high cholesterol.

To regain a healthier perspective toward winter, we must resist the Chicken Little tactics of the TV weather industry. Yet the larger question is this: How do we find growth and meaning amid the long, gray season?

Making a separate peace
I would like to say, as a 40-year-old adult who loves nature and outdoor solitude, that I have struck a balance with winter. I would like to think I know better than those hysterical disc jockeys who panic at the sight of a dangling icicle. I would like to report that my winters are devoted to peaceful pursuits that enrich the mind, body and soul. The truth is, my desk-bound public relations job requires no contact with the natural world beyond a short walk between the parking garage and my office building, which are connected by a glass tube that my coworker describes as the Hamster Tunnel. And like most northern commuters, I leave home in darkness and return in darkness.

My encounters with winter quietude are grabbed in furtive snatches. During weekend chores, cross-country ski trips or treks to the barn to retrieve fire wood in my rusty wheelbarrow. Or on walks with my wife and dog through our small woods, where oak leaves rattle like castanets in the north wind. During the week, however, it's a different story. The driver's seat is my primary refuge of contemplation, occupied during a 45-minute journey along a two-lane highway that leads through farm country. In tie, starched shirt and shined shoes -- which I priggishly avoid getting slushy at the gas station -- I seek nature's solace the modern way: sitting on my rear end behind a dirty windshield.

But surprisingly enough, understanding does come, although not readily or easily. I liken it to lectio divinia, the monastic practice of inspired scriptural reading. The idea is to read slowly and thoughtfully and to stop whenever you're compelled to reflect on a particular passage. What I strive for is a mobile meditation, a lectio divinia of the landscape. As much as safe driving allows, I clear my mind and reflect on the passing countryside until a particular scene evokes a heightened feeling of peace and beauty. Sometimes it works wonderfully, and the crimson sunrise summons up a forgotten hymn from my childhood. At other times my jabbering mind can't let go of office politics or my latest home remodeling project. Either way, inspiration comes only with the radio turned off. National Public Radio may inform, but rarely does it enlighten.

Benedictine monks also regard manual labor as an active form of prayer. While I've never been pious with a shovel in my hand, I do know that planting trees in early winter can also become an occasion of hope and grace.

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before frost tightens the soil, I transplant young trees from fields and forests to build new hedgerows. One Saturday last year, I dug in a white oak and a hackberry, both 7-foot saplings, both long-lived hardwood trees that could easily thrive until the 23rd century. It was enjoyable work, and with temperatures in the low 40s, I was comfortable in a flannel shirt and Army fatigue pants. Then suddenly, as I packed sandy loam topsoil around the trees' dormant roots, it was as if I felt the seasons turn.

It was a windless and monochrome day, with no shadows to measure the passing hours. The only signs of life were the delicate buds that swelled from the springy tips of shiny branches. The promise of next year's growth -- the leaves, seedlings and acorns -- was condensed into tiny, spheroid bundles. They, in their inscrutable fashion, were perfectly attuned to winter's true pace and measure. On the appointed day, these buds will open. But only after they've used this season of rest to their full advantage. Lessons from the old masters

It is, of course, a rare person who can fully synchronize his life to the sluggish metabolism of winter, immersed as we are in the rattle and hum of a hard-wired world. And I, for one, enjoy my indoor career and have no desire to trade my comfort and security for a grass mat and wigwam. But I am trying to learn from the masters in my midst, people who still understand and appreciate winter's timeless virtues. As you might expect, they aren't the kind who carry Palm Pilots or listen to motivational tapes in the car. As a point of fact, they neither commute nor compute.

My wife's Uncle Dayton owns a 700-acre fruit and vegetable farm in southwest Michigan. During the growing season, his work days may stretch from sunrise to 10 p.m. and his weeks know no weekends. In winter, Dayton keeps fairly busy with pruning and equipment maintenance. Yet the shorter days give him time to labor in other vineyards as well. So in his bib overalls, with size 15 feet propped near an old wood stove, Dayton commits himself to literary self-improvement. Not just nursery catalogs or the Wall Street Journal, but the classics. A few years back, he read the collected works of Shakespeare during his winter sabbatical.

Although Dayton's never said so, I suspect that winter reading renews his mind and spirit for the hard, hot months ahead. I can picture him out there in the February solitude of an apple orchard, his hands busy, his mind pleasantly preoccupied with a play or sonnet he read the night before. The tending of vines and fruit trees -- tasks as old as civilization -- must give him a useful perspective for contemplating the timeless themes of Shakespeare.

I envy Dayton's intellectual discipline, and by means of imitation, have vowed to read at least two books by Thomas Merton before the ice breaks up on the St. Joseph River. Or at least I'm trying, even if it means falling asleep most nights with a book in my hand. But again, my intent is to learn from the masters and refit their wisdom to my own circumstance.

And for that, an Amish farm in winter is as good a classroom as any. One evening last February, my brother Jeff and I visited the home of David Miller, in eastern St. Joseph County, Michigan. We wanted to hire David to repair the old windmill that Jeff uses to irrigate his family-size vegetable garden. It was near dusk, and the Miller family was milking cows by hand in the basement of their whitewashed barn. As she worked, a teenage girl in a black bonnet sang a German hymn, sweet and clear in the crisp air. Mom, Grandpa and several kids were there, too, talking and laughing in the yellow glow of a kerosene lantern.

In summer, milking might have fallen to one or more of the children. Yet in winter, with less to do around the farm, it became a family chore. They milked steadily, but not hastily -- there was time for good work and good company. The slower pace of winter had drawn them together, and in a convivial way, helped reinforce the Amish tenet of social and economic interdependence. In the close quarters of the barn, each was reminded of how their shared duties enriched the family and community.

Heading home, we passed a black-shuttered ranch house edged by yew bushes. Through a big picture window I could see a family inside this home, too. They sat on couches and easy chairs, but did not face each other. The object of their attention cast a ghostly glow which flickered across faces that appeared vacant.

In the fleeting instant that we drove past, I wished more for them. I wished for them a winter of good work, good books and good conversation. I wished for them a winter's night spent making family memories that would never fade. I wished for them the benediction of a young girl, singing to her God and family in the stillness of a winter's evening.

Thomas M. Springer works as staff writer and editor at the Kellogg Foundation. His stories and essays about environmental topics have appeared in publications such as the Kalamazoo Gazette, Michigan Out-of-Doors, Backpacker, and in spoken form, on Great Lakes Radio Consortium broadcasts. He is currently working on a collection of essays that's tentatively titled "Looking for Hickories: Discovery and Renewal in a Prairie Township."

Copyright 2001 Manitou Publishing Co. & Thomas M. Springer • All Rights Reserved.

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