The older I get the more I find myself at peace with winter. I don’t mean to suggest that I ever disliked winter; being from Wisconsin I am just as comfortable within the graphite atmosphere of February as I am within the leafy arms of July.
But feeling at home does not contentment make. I’ve always tended toward the melancholy and that, along with the season’s somber palette and farm work’s cyclical nature, which plops me at my desk by the beginning of December and leaves me there until March, can lead to a true dreariness of the soul. In past years I found myself listless, a limp tangle of ennui, desire, and aimless energy. I longed for the kinetic green of April, the rushing thaws of March. All my discontentment bucked against the seamless monotony that my indoor life was steeped in.
Another friend showed me how to learn the names of trees and plants by discovering their buds, the decaying leaves at their feet, and the forked frames of their branches. I began keeping records of the living things around me. Their titles were delicious in my mouth and on the page—hop-hornbeam, Quercus macrocarpa, Pinus strobus, hemlock and hazel—and so were their forms. The luminescence of river birch, shining in the swamps, never failed to make my heart skip a beat, nor did the magically soft, mossy trunks of white Atlantic cedar, the Tree of Life. I introduced myself to sugar maple by finding its decaying leaves with lobes lightly toothed like the new incisors of kittens, and white oak by the gently curved segments of its weather bleached leaves.
As that winter wore on I urged my sleepy self to rouse to the realities discovered during those rambles. Finally brought out of the static warmth of my house and into the clean white air, I awakened like a frost flower. I remembered the presence of green beneath all of the protective bark that held tightly to the life within and saw that I was walking in a world filled with the slow breaths of hibernation, quiet and wise enough to know that a yearly rest was needed in order to burst forth with flamboyance in the spring, turning the conservative landscape, so cautious with its color, so discreet in its hope, into a cacophonous tapestry of hormones and music and leaves.
My grandfather, an avid gardener who spent the growing season in constant devotion to the voraciously graceful lives within his beds and borders, once told me that he loved trees most in winter. He was enamored of what their nakedness revealed: voluptuous curving limbs sloping toward the sky; the inky tips of branches; deep patterns engraved upon brown bark. My grandfather loved watching these street trees—the statuesque ginkgoes and ash, the cherries and honey locusts raising their thin arms toward the sky—as he drove the old station wagon to church and the hardware store.
Whenever I reflect on the winter landscape I return to my grandfather, who smelled of coffee and sawdust and, in winter, like the freshness of snow, and his love of what he found in these months bereft of the lush and light. It has taken me years to find a similar love of the spare streets and woods and to see the February landscape for what it is: a scene of sleep and survival, where the earth has shaken off its old skin like a snake and waits for the time when its soul is so sated that it can begin breaking into a new body. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s reminder that “what is essential is invisible to the eye” is easiest to understand in these dark months, but when we learn to read what is written in the bark of birch and to hear the songs of chickadees we find that jewels of truth are everywhere once we have learned how to find them.