BY HANNES THUM
Winter is terrifying. I try to remember that, even though it takes some effort to do so.
It’s not easy to strip away the warmth of this house, the artificial insulation in the clothes I wear, or the imported calories that sustain me (I ate a banana from Ecuador this morning!). It’s not easy to separate out the joys of winter, such as a ski on a beautiful morning, that my human existence allows me.
It’s not easy to imagine the true meaning of being a local creature and surviving the full force of winter. I’m far too removed from it.
To truly understand winter is to understand the inevitable darkness as it overtakes the light, and to understand that death is an inextricable part of life. But, we don’t often have cause to see it that way (let us be grateful that we don’t).
Fair enough. We’ve created systems and societies that can exist in winter while being largely impacted by it. That is part of our history as a species. Yet, it’s important to remember that this is mostly a very recent part of our history.
Sometimes, I try to stretch my perspective back in time a bit, beyond my own lifetime — I try to think about Homo sapiens more generally and to include a greater chunk of the story of our species than this current age. In other words, I am asking myself, “What has winter been like for humans throughout our story?”
My hunch is that we wouldn’t have to go far back into our past to see winter as an enormously significant and frightening experience. To see it as something laced with danger and hardship, infused with harrowing mysteries and with fear of the unknown.
Without much imagination, I can begin to feel a tightening in my chest at the thought of darkness descending upon the landscape and of the cold moving into my core.
What kind of patience does it take to survive winter in its true experience? To be the elk hunkered down in their meager beds, catching a few photons of the sun’s warmth and a few dried-up strands of grass a day, exposed to every wind? To be a small mouse dashing across the surface of the snow in the face of the fathomless dark maw of the night sky before descending once more into a sparse subnivean tunnel to shiver once more? To be any creature trying to survive the ruthless economy of winter: can you scrape together enough to get by until spring?
Of course, more thoughtful and philosophical minds than my own can explore how lightness and darkness can coexist, and how the polarity of life and death can lead to a greater understanding of the nature of things.
But that understanding yet eludes me. It eludes me as much as the true nature of winter does. To what extreme would one have to go to experience it as our local animals do?