I feel like I’ve spent every winter since elementary school (when the possibility of snow days were almost as exciting as Christmas morning) waiting for spring to come. My state of winter-induced “restless melancholia” usually starts around mid-November, when the trees settle into their leafless winter state, and lasts through late March, right when the first flowers start coming up. To me, winter has always been an unpleasant season: A faded landscape enclosed within a sad collection of months that one must endure until spring comes and all is right in the world again. I think I just have this feeling that the winter landscape lacks complexity and vitality.
A little bit about the winters I’ve had to “endure” in Virginia: Snow is uncommon. Not unheard of – we usually get a decent snowfall or two during winter – but it doesn’t characterize the season the way it does in the Northeast or in the high mountains of the west. It’s cold – cold enough that you need to wear a heavy coat, gloves, a hat and a scarf most of the time – but usually not bone chilling, frozen earth cold. We actually have relatively mild winters here. But it’s not so much the cold that gets to me — it’s the short days and lack of vegetation that bothers me. A life without green disorients disconcerts me; I feel ill at ease until I know that spring is right around the corner.
But snow makes all the difference. A few weekends ago, my husband and I traveled to upstate New York to visit family and there were a few inches of snow on the ground. We visited a local state park, nothing particularly special in its own right, but very beautiful and inviting under a light layer of snow. This was my first experience being in the wilderness with snow on the ground, and this snowy walk in the woods transformed winter from a one dimensional season of bleakness to a multidimensional landscape of depth and complexity. It was, to be cliché, peaceful. It was silent and cozy and ancient and felt like a page out of 19th century New England novel, whose writers often drew on local geography as inspiration and tended to find God not in church, but in the changing of the seasons (or, in the case of Thoreau, in the vicinity of a small suburban pond). In other words, it felt kind of like a college literature class.
My snowy walk was the first time I’ve really enjoyed winter in its own right – not as a time with springtime potential, but as its own beautiful thing with its own magical, self-contained quiet vitality, not inferior or secondary to that of any other season. We crossed a wooden bridge across an unfrozen stream, saw several hawks perched silently on the whitened branches of birch trees, and saw deer tracks, ski tracks and human footprints illuminating the more well-travelled paths in the park.
It wasn’t just the woods that brought winter to life for me. One of my husband’s relatives lives in an old farmhouse on several acres of open land with a dozen or so oaks separating the yard from the main road. There’s a sap-gathering bucket attached to one of the oaks, and that definitely adds a little winter romanticism. Tall pine trees, more common in upstate New York than in Virginia, add permanent green to the landscape, which I think contributes a little bit of cheerfulness to an otherwise leafless season. A small town park with two half-frozen ponds was a sanctuary for several species of ducks, most snoozing in the snow, and so accustomed to humans that they barely opened an eye when I approached. And I have to say, my afternoon cappuccino at one of the local cafes was a lot cozier knowing there was snow outside. I think this is why I have trouble staying happy: My ideal (fantasy) life is an unrealistic series of cliché prescription pill commercial stills that has no room for tediousness or boredom or obligations. I want all vacations and frolicking in meadows, not the rest of it!
But anyway. I like summers hot, humid and sultry – so hot and uncomfortable that you are sweating as soon as you step outside, even in the early morning. In spring, I love the delicate, almost translucent green of young leaves, a state which lasts only a few weeks, until warmer temperature harden and mature the green into something sturdier and more permanent. Most of all, I love watching color return to the yellowed, muted landscape of a Virginia winter. In fall, I always hope for a long, long season of slow, dazzling transformation, and I hope the leaves will hold on to dear life and slow winter’s inevitable encroachment. So maybe it makes sense that my problem with winter is that it isn’t wintery enough. Maybe if we actually got snow and frozen lakes and waterfalls — and if I could put on a pair of snowshoes and head to the nearby community park for a snowy nature walk — I’d actually like winter. Or maybe I’d be sick of the slush, cold and salt by January and spend my winters fantasizing about south Florida. Who knows. But I do want to visit upstate New York and try cross country skiing and snowshoeing for real next year — West Virginia didn’t work out all that well.