Now is the winter

Picture perfect snow in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Old houses on a hill covered by and surrounded by deep snow. Sunshine and blue sky.

Some people would just as soon escape winter all together. Move to a place where it’s 70 and sunny all the time. Because who wants to shovel snow and ice?

After all, if you want to go ice skating or play ice hockey, you can do that indoors. They build facilities for that. And if you want to go skiing, you can travel to where the snow lives. In the mountains. Where the snow is happy and life is good. They call them ski resorts.

There is a certain logic in that: Live where it’s comfortable (summer-ish) all the time and then to do winter things, go where there’s winter weather. 

It’s just not logic that works for me. Because, I like winter.

“I remember three- and four-week-long snow days, and drifts so deep a small child, namely me, could get lost in them. No such winter exists in the record, but that’s how Ohio winters seemed to me when I was little – silent, silver, endless, and dreamy.”

Susan Orlean
Snow covered farm fields with farms on the horizon on a sunny winter day in southern Sweden
The snow covered fields next to our house in Sweden. The road that got blocked by snowdrifts in on the right. A glistening vista of winter wonderland.

An early winter memory

I sat upstairs in our house, looking out the window onto farm fields and a road that stretched off to the horizon. This day, everything was covered in snow. The road went in a cut and snowdrifts had effectively shut it. But people needed to get through. So farmers left the car at home and drove their tractors. Where the road was blocked, they detoured over a plowed field, where the snow wasn’t very deep.

That was the winter we had a huge snowdrift in our driveway. As tall as the hedge that created it and over my dad’s head. Which meant it was awesome for digging tunnels into. Until dad cleared it off. I was about 4 then.

School kid winters

Winter meant sledding on a hill in the next block over. The sledding area was a street that went straight down a rather steep hill. At the bottom, another street crossed to form a T-intersection. If you didn’t stop in time, you went through the intersection, bounced up on the sidewalk and landed in a hedge in someone’s yard. Or you steered a bit to the right and made it into a driveway that happened to be there. 

Did anybody worry about crossing traffic? Not really. It was a quiet neighborhood. Not that many cars. And we were kids. Who’ll live forever. 

Downhill skiing took place on another hill, that ended at a cut with a road below. But you didn’t get going so fast that it mattered, because the hill was all plowed farmland. Meaning that dirt stuck up out of the snow here and there. Definite braking effect on wanna-be Ingemar Stenmarks.

Ice hockey and skating happened on ice formed when farm fields along the creek flooded. Frost turned the standing water into ice rinks good for hours and hours of fun.

If it got really cold, the creek itself froze and we could skate on its winding course through the village.

All in all, winter wasn’t bad if you were a kid.

Horizontal snow

When I moved to Iowa, I learned that the Midwest also has horizontal snow fall. Movies and cards treat us to images of gently falling, even lazily dancing, beautiful snowflakes. All is so precious and so white.

That’s more a rarity when you talk snow falling in the Midwest (and Southern Sweden). There, snow comes on the wind, horizontal-like. With force. Every fence, every cut, every building, is an obstacle to the wind and invites drifts to form behind it. Which is why we may see roads effectively blocked with drifts that are packed in place when nearby fields still have stubble showing through a rather thin layer of snow.

Of course it doesn’t snow all the time in winter. Even in the north.

Downtown Iowa City during the cold and big snow of ’79 on a decidedly not sunny day. My first winter in Iowa.

First winter in Iowa

Winter in southern Sweden is a lot like winter in the Midwest. Except not quite as cold. Because of the closeness to the sea.

The first winter I was in Iowa, I noticed 2 things: 

The days never got quite as short as in Sweden. Which made sense, because Iowa is a lot farther south. 

That winter, we had a solid month of below-freezing temperatures. Record snow piled up everywhere. But I didn’t mind. Because the days were mostly sunny. I actually loved it. The air was cold, but fresh. The snow sparkled. Life felt pretty good.

I don’t recall classes ever being cancelled for snow or cold while I was at the University of Iowa. And in 10 years working at Iowa State, that university closed once, after a very heavy snowfall. Except I had an urgent video production deadline, so still went to the office, walking around all the snowdrifts. 

I talked with a friend in the Midwest right before all the really cold air came in recently. Snow had already arrived there. I asked how they were managing. My friend’s excited response: “We finally got winter.”

My sentiment exactly. I actually miss real winters, living in Arkansas for many years now. We get winter-lite here. A snow and an ice storm maybe. Shuts everything down for a day or two. Then it’s melted and life is back on.

“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.”

John Burroughs

Winter is extreme

Yes and no. It’s easy to declare winter extreme. Especially when we hit a new record low and the weather people warn of immediate frostbite if you go outside.

Winter is the extremest of the 4 seasons. Or at least that’s the reputation it has. And it does stick out:

Spring is fresh growth. Plants springing up. Blossoms. Fragrances filling the air. Fresh, warm winds.

Summer is deepening green. An abundance of flowers. Warmth. Play and fun.

Autumn is an explosion of color. Harvesting an abundance of produce and fruit. Welcoming smells.

But to be totally honest, those other seasons have their extremes as well: Tornado season, hurricane season, spring and fall storms, thunderstorms, and of course dangerous heat indexes in summer.

Yet we’re more likely to think of winter as being the odd one out.

It’s the looks. It’s bare. Dead plants. Brown grass. Trees without leaves, looking like giant claws. The only green is on evergreens. Because, well, ever green. And winter gets dirty. Thanks to the constant cycle of freezing and melting, plus sand and salt spread on the roads.

Which raises a question: What is winter really good for? Why not just skip it all together. Go straight from autumn to spring. Or not have seasons at all? There are a few places on earth where the weather is pretty much the same all year long. Wouldn’t that be much better? A nice average of 70°. Not too hot. Not too cold.

Except, would we appreciate any of the other seasons to their fullest without winter providing a stark contrast?

Winter is however not just a contrast to the other seasons. It also carries extremes within itself. Winter can be so many things. Bare trees, fog, lots of crows crying. Snowstorms when you can’t safely venture outside. Arctic temperatures. And the next day melting and sunshine. And of course, there’s fewer hours of daylight.

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

Aristotle

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”

John Steinbeck

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

Albert Camus
Winter day in Iowa without all the snow. Gray, foggy, bare trees, crows just hanging out. The world appears dead (but isn’t really — not even mostly).

Winter and the growing season

Winter is nature’s break and recharge time. The growing/harvest cycle ended in autumn. Except for a few winter crops (like winter wheat and winter rye that are planted in fall and overwinter as young plants to grow and mature in spring and summer), the soil is resting. Plants are resting.

Freezing weather and ground in northern climates help control bugs and disease that would otherwise overwinter and spread come next growing season. Likewise, frost slows down decomposition of organic matter in the soil, so that the nutrients will still be there when things thaw in spring and new plants are ready to grow.

It’s no coincidence that the most fertile farmland in the world is in Southern Sweden, the Ukraine, and the Midwest. All areas with a pronounced winter season.

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.” 

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Winter also changes the rhythm of life. In Sweden, if I invited somebody to come for a visit on the weekend in winter, the answer would often be: “I’d like to. But let’s see what the weather is like. It might snow.” 

With less daylight and colder weather, we stay more at home. Bundle up inside, where it’s warm and comfy. Light extra candles to chase away the dark.

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is time for home.”

Edith Sitwell

Winter and the pace of the year

We may even engage in different activities than during the rest of the year. So it’s a change of pace that we as humans need. If it were always summer, we’d always keep going at full speed. It’s good to slow down and get a little more introspective at times. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people in northern climates have a reputation for being industrious. You have to work harder when you know that you must store food for yourself and your animals to survive through a long winter. You have to be innovative.

It’s like when you have a task to do, but no deadline, so other things pop up and interrupt. Task doesn’t get done.

Yet when there’s a deadline, you do get the task done on time. Because deadline. 

Winter works like that in our lives. In fall, we get serious about what must be done before winter comes. Toward the end of winter, we line up projects to start on as soon as winter is over and spring is really here.

Winter by virtue of being a different season helps create a better pace for the entire year. It gives us a break — the world out there a rest. And forces us to work a bit harder (or differently) to make it through. But also provides lots of enjoyment. The ability to do things we can only do when it’s winter. Because sometimes it’s really nice to not have to travel a long distance to do snow things. Just ask any kid.

A TV station here in Arkansas had a contest this winter where you could win a home snow making device. Ski areas have serious snow making equipment. But there are limitations on when they can use it. Conditions must be right. Not too warm, not too cold. Same thing with that home snow maker. Temperature has to be below 27°. This is Little Rock, Arkansas, so there will only be a handful or two of days like that in the entire winter. Me thinks, some kid is going to be disappointed.

One thing that’s true about winter is that things change. From day to day. Sometimes hour to hour. We can’t quite take everything for granted. So it forces us to be more engaged. And rely on each other a bit more. 

Winter brings us together. Having faced some challenges, we build stronger relationships. That’s a good thing.

“While I relish our warm months, winter forms our character and brings out our best.”

Tom Allen

“My old grandmother always used to say, Summer friends will melt away like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever.”

George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

All in all, I like winter and am glad for it every year. A year without it just would not be the same.

Reflection:

How do you feel about winter (the season)? What do you like about it? What about it would you prefer to do without?

In a figurative sense, are there winter seasons in our lives? What does such time look like for you?

Heavily snow laden trees. 3 cars covered in snow. House covered in snow. Sunny day. Arkansas winter.
The day after a particularly large and spectacular snowfall in Arkansas that knocked out our power for 5 days, right at Christmas.


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