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A Winter Aficionado Finds Inspiration in Literature


Published November 13, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.


I'm going to be blunt about it: People who favor summer, the sunny warmth and smiley ease, are shallow and lame. Sorry, folks, but you are. On the other hand, those of us who feel a deep kinship with winter, who enjoy nothing more than a sideways storm and a subzero night — oh, we are such rich, sophisticated, mystical beings, our souls in perfect alignment with the elemental truth of this great place, Vermont.

Am I full of baloney? Perhaps. What I know for certain is that I am full of snow and wind and cold. And ermines in clean white coats. And sparkles. And whiskey sipped by the fire. I was born on Christmas and left the hospital in Burlington wearing a soft red stocking. It was fated. Winter flows in my blood and forms the very marrow of my bones.

But what, exactly, does that blood-and-bone talk mean? What does it mean to have a "favorite" season, to feel as if a particular time of year is "my" time of year? And how is it that a certain point on the compass (north) and a certain color palette (grays fading to dark greens) and a certain variety of weather (frigid plunging toward miserable) can speak to me, can resonate with me?

Over the past decade, I've compiled quotes about winter, snow, cold, north and the like — not so much as a way of answering anything, but as a means of investigating, celebrating and unsystematically articulating this season I cherish. My rich, sophisticated, mystical soul enjoys the openness of the perplexity, an openness reminiscent of that exciting moment when you click into Nordic skis at the edge of a vast Addison County field, adjust the balaclava, grip the poles and accept a nor'easter's invitation.

If you're one of summer's wussy devotees, perhaps you don't do that? No matter. Regardless of what's flowing through your blood and forming the very marrow of your bones, I hope that these quotes — gleaned from novels, poems and essays; from naturalists, adventurers and religious pilgrims — can hint at the inexhaustible wonder of a season that you really must learn to love. Really, folks, you must!

The earth, at its core, is winter; the universe is winter. Life is only something taken for a moment, rubbed warm and held back from the chill ... Winter waits and finds all life. In the end, each of us stares through the dark eyes of winter. We all have winter in our veins.

Richard Nelson, The Island Within

There is a cleanliness, a breadth and sweep and strength in the north, a purifying realization that one is living close to the fundamental elements of life. Yes, the north has a spell.

 Eric Sevareid, Canoeing With the Cree

White is not the absence of color. It is the fullness of light.

John Luther Adams, Winter Music: Composing the North

Current global warming aside, the earth has been in a long-term cooling phase with temperatures creeping downward for about sixty million years — likely due to a period of extensive mountain building, which naturally reduced atmospheric CO2, removing insulation from the skies. Global warming may be the issue for the moment, but the bigger, multimillion-year trend is toward a cooler planet. Antarctica iced over about thirty-five million years ago, and ever since then extended ice ages have become almost commonplace, growing into a discreet rhythm of rise and fall over the last five million years. In that time, even during interglacials, ice has always remained. There has been a cold heart waiting to start up again.

Craig Childs, Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of the Earth

There I saw myself with someone, who was not identifiable, going into an endless snow plain. It was not the size of the landscape, nor the whiteness, which terrified me. Rather it was the inner emptiness, the forlornness, the hopelessness of there being no path. Never before had I experienced futility so vehemently.

Reinhold Messner, Antarctica: Both Heaven and Hell

I have often been short of food and drink and have worn threadbare clothing in winter. And yet I have laughed while carrying water and sung while hauling firewood.

T'ao Yuan-ming, quoted in Bill Porter's Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China

The deeper into the snowy mountains I go, the happier I am. The Japanese word oku means not only "north" but also "deep," "inner," "the heart of the mountain," "to penetrate to the depth of something or someone," "the bottom of one's heart" and "the end of one's mind."

Gretel Ehrlich, The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold

Rasmussen drew from the Inuit intimate details that would never have been shared with strangers. When he mentioned that the Inuits' "gums were always dry with smiling," one elder from the northwestern rim of Hudson Bay commented: "Oh! You strangers only see us happy and free of care. But if you knew the horrors we often have to live through, you would understand, too, why we are so fond of laughing, why we love food and song and dance. There is not one amongst us but has experienced a winter of bad hunting, when many starved to death in front of our eye."

Stephen Bown, White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey Into the Heart of the Arctic

To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake, it is necessary to stand out in the cold.

Aristotle, quoted in Sally Coulthard's The Little Book Of Snow

How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn,One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

The mountains to the south stood blackly against a violet sky. The snow on the north slopes so pale. Like spaces left for messages.

Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

Deep as the snow is,
Let me go as far as I can
Till I stumble and fall,
Viewing the white landscape

Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

To prosper above the Arctic Circle, a person needed to adopt a bit of the grizzly bear's metabolism, regulating sleep and wakefulness by the sun, rather than the clock.

Jim Nollman, The Beluga Café: My Strange Adventures With Art, Music, and Whales in the Far North

In Teddy Blue's book We Pointed Them North there is an ignorant young cowboy who thought that north was a place, as Dodge City was a place. The other cowboys didn't disabuse him of this (to them) hilarious error. The ignorant cowboy believed that if one just kept going up the rivers, someday one would arrive at the place called North.

Larry McMurtry, Roads: Driving America's Great Highways

What does a person do in a place like this, so far away and alone? For one thing, he watches the weather — the stars, the snow, and the fire. These are the books he reads most of all. And everything that he does, from bringing in firewood and buckets of snow, to carrying the waste water back outdoors, requires that he stand in the open, away from his walls, out of his man-written books and his dreaming head for a while. As I stand here, refreshed by the stillness and closeness of the night, I think it is a good way to live.

John Haines, The Stars, The Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness

As the plane descended to Kotzebue, I could not believe how little was there; all the words of man seemed as if they could be erased into the surrounding whiteness with one sweep of a hand. I asked Roy Toruk, "Does it ever get depressing, living here?" With a big smile, as if bragging of a remarkable local resource, he said, "It — sure — does!"

Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia

Apparently, just before entering the winter den, bears may eat a large quantity of moss, which so binds up their digestive system that it blocks defecation through the long winter sleep.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

We are partly tuber, partly bear. Inside our warmth we fold ourselves in the dark and its cold — around us, outside us, safely away from us; we tuck ourselves up in the long sleep and comfort of cold's opposite, warming ourselves by thought of cold, lighting ourselves by darkness's idea.

Donald Hall, Eagle Pond

There's the slightly intoxicating feeling that accompanies the largest blizzards — the realization that there's a chance, increasing by every second, that you are about to be trapped by beauty.

Rick Bass, Winter: Notes From Montana

How timelythe delight ofthis snowfall,obliterating the mountain trailjust when I wanted to be alone!

Saigyo, quoted in Jack Turner's Travels in the Greater Yellowstone

This must be what mesmerism is, every particle of existence streaming to you and dreamily past. A white blanket for your mind.

Ivan Doig, Dancing at the Rascal Fair

In January, the new snow has changed the woods so that he does not know them; has built sudden cathedrals in a night. In the familiar forest, he finds Norway and Russia in the masses of overloading snow which break all that they cannot bend.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1971, Vol. 2

They did not travel in any kind of formation, or with any particular plan, but they all knew how to decipher winter sign — how, as Russian hunters say, to "read the White Book."

John Vaillant, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

The emptiness and silence of snow mountains quickly bring about those states of consciousness that occur in the mind-emptying of meditation.

Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

The cold months settle into our state as a gradual clarification. Winter holds up objects in high relief — boulders sealed in globes of ice, strawberry-colored blades of grass twisted through the frozen lacework at a pond's edge — for our most careful regard. It invites us to be still and cool, to let one curve, one color truly enter the mind.

John Elder, Reading the Mountains of Home

This land is a place of all seasons, for even in winter there is the promise of spring, and in spring, the foretaste of summer. The white of snow becomes the white of summer clouds; the resonant green of spruce becomes the green head of drake mallard; the gray of rock and lichen endures in the gray of lowering winter skies; the same orange-red of Indian paintbrush bars the blackbird's wing and stains the western tanager's head. Here part of each season is contained in every other.

Ann Zwinger, Beyond the Aspen Grove

Yukimaroge is not an ordinary snowball, which is yukidama in Japanese; it is, rather, a great ball of snow, made by rolling and pushing. Japanese people are very fond of making such giant snowballs, and there are several haiku on the subject in Japanese literature.

Robert Aitken, A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen

In the dark winter night a story well told may hasten the coming of spring. (Thus, a Koyukon teller may conclude a story with a phrase such as "I thought that winter had just begun, but now I have chewed off part of it.")

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

The original print version of this article was headlined "Quoting Winter | An aficionado of the cold months finds inspiration in literature"