January 29, 2024

TEBBUTT | Why Winter is a Time for Wonder

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It could be the month I just spent in 93˚ F (34˚ C) Amazonia, or the welcome transformation of the Gothics into a tropical furnace, but I have to say it: I love winter in Ithaca – and I know you can too.

Set up your workstation by the Mann Library windows and just try not to be distracted by the naked boughs spreading their geometric silhouettes on a sky of midnight blue. Be the first boot to hover over a pristine blanket of snow on the Slope and anticipate the satisfying contact with your sole. Or, if gingerbread prose isn’t your thing, take a moment to consider the gifts of quiet and stillness that winter imparts within the annual march of birth, growth and death.

For me, winter’s value within the succession of the seasons is akin to that of बालासन / Bālāsana, or Child’s pose, in a yoga sequence. This restorative posture, which invites practitioners to relax the body and forehead in the manner of a sleeping child, is easily overlooked by those in search of more vigorous and active poses. But a wise yoga teacher once invited me to consider the potential etymological connection between the posture’s title of बाल / Bālā (child) and another Sanskrit term: बल / bāla (strength). Recasting this brief moment of repose not as the fragility and helplessness of youth, but as the latent power that is waiting to be released upon maturity, transforms its meaning within a yoga flow. Bālāsana, as a period of rest and inaction, is key to sustaining vitality and activity in the long term.

I argue that winter plays a similar role in the annual cycles of nature. Nature’s first green may be gold, and the buds of May darling, but they exist in equilibrium with the sparser trappings of winter and fall. Indeed, while the mighty gymnosperms (pines, hemlocks, redwoods, spruces etc.) offer reassuring glimpses of green amid the snow, they do not celebrate the growing season with anything like the exuberance of their deciduous cousins. Here in the North, at least, a winter of bare branches appears to be the price we pay for the gorgeous pinks, whites and reds that bedeck our forests during the warmer months. The trees may jettison their leaves as they feel the days growing shorter, but this makes them all the more ready to meet spring’s arrival with blossoms and renewed vigor. Rest and recess is a necessary condition of the growth and exertion that follow.

Our ancestors understood this, as can be seen in the proliferation of ancient feasts and festivals on and around the winter solstice. As a child, the structure of the calendar year deceived me into associating Christmas with the end of winter, leading to inevitable disappointment as the cold only increased through February. Norse Yule and Roman Saturnalia (which likely inspired the timing of Christmas and a host of other holidays) were instead markers of the harvest, as well as the sacrifice and consumption of animals that would have been costly and difficult to maintain throughout the winter. Not an anticipation of the approaching spring, then, but a celebration of abundance before the leaner times. The first Roman calendar exemplified this attitude by neglecting even to name the winter months, which simply formed a large and amorphous gap between December and March.

This time of limited activity, when cured meats, pickles and preserves replace the fresh produce of the rest of the year, has been similarly treated as a “chilla”, or reflective period, by Indigenous peoples in Central Asia. Rather than fighting the elements to little avail, it makes sense to dedicate this time away from sowing and reaping to the equally important work of the soul, to religious, spiritual or philosophical exploration.

The ambiguous forces of technology and globalization have tempered both the struggles and the stillness of winter here in upstate New York. Our forebears’ minds would reel at the relative ease with which Ithacans can access Peruvian blueberries, Costa Rican bananas and myriad other out-of-season foods in the middle of February. At the same time, the advances in heating, transport and communication that shield us from the worst of winter simultaneously melt away the lulls and inactivity that used to accompany this ‘gap’ in the calendar (the week between Christmas and New Year when time seems to stop feels like a last vestige of this historically liminal period). Universities, roads and Wi-Fi remain active and open for business, ‘liberating’ us from seasonal constraints on productivity and work.

Of course, there is much privilege encoded in the ability to remain warm, eat exotic fruits and earn an income during the coldest time of the year – benefits which are certainly not available to everyone. Still, it is worthwhile to examine the costs of this year-round maximization of efficiency: from the carbon emissions that continue to pay for such luxuries, to the further decoupling of our lifestyles and cultures from the rhythms of the world around us.

So, will I be spending the next few months hunkered down by the fire, ruminating on existence between snacks of jam and smoked venison that I diligently prepared during the fall? Even if my teaching duties allowed it, I can’t boast much faith in my abilities to survive, let alone thrive by my own means in the New York cold. But in the silent moments, between lectures and the library, when I have no choice but to feel the chill in the air and the frost underfoot, I’ll think on the lessons that attend the trials of winter: the quiet strength of the dormant trees, the fickle transience of the lake-ice and gratitude for the bounties we have stored up over the year.

Charlie Tebbutt is a third year PhD candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His fortnightly column Rêveries is a collection of musings that wander from the hill, over the Atlantic and out to the beautiful planet that we all share. He can be reached at [email protected].