Respect for the season

You must understand that I really do love winter. I know that's heresy in some circles - that there are thousands whose choice of residence has been largely shaped by their distaste for all things hibernal. Those folks are not to be lightly dismissed: and I shall not, like some proponents of frost-belt living , argue my case by deriding their views. I too know the allure of sun, warmth, and the outdoor life. I too have basked on Florida's beaches in December and lunched on avocados in San Diego's March sun - and wondered, for the moment, how I could ever return to New England.

But the moment passes, and I still find within myself a great fondness for winter - for crisp air biting tartly behind the nose on a deep breath, for the eye's delight in icicles and frosted windowpanes and the stark abstractions of bare maples against a gray sky, and most of all for snow. It started, I think, at an early age, perhaps as a reflection of my mother's hearty acceptance of winter. Not that she was a skier or snowshoer or skater, nor that she spent hours building snowmen or shoveling sidewalks. But it never occurred to her to curse at or brood over the onset of winter. She simply got out the cold-weather clothes, bundled us into mothball-smelling woolens, and sent us outside. She would have been astonished, in fact, if we had whimpered and stayed in. Winter was something you had, like darkness at night or milk for dinner. It would have done no good at all to argue with its presence.

Living in Massachusetts, we found its presence plentiful. There was always time, it seemed, to spend whole days rolling snowballs into boulders and pushing them together into snow forts. There was time to take the rusty-runnered sleds to the top of Whitney Street just after the plow had clanked past, time to spend charting courses down the packed snow between the bare spots of pavement and the soft fluff along the edges. And there was time, on sunny days, to walk home from school for lunch, coming out of the full glare of new-fallen snow and having to stand for a full minute inside until the eyes adjusted to the darkness.

And there was the season's private mythology. You were lost, abandoned in a waste howling wilderness of the Arctic - which, in other seasons, was merely the bird sanctuary at the end of our street. But you had your faithful dog, and a rope, and of course your sled. So, fingers numbed, you fashioned a crude harness , plucked a sapling whip, and drove forward through ditches and across glades, pressing on where even Mounties feared to tread.

Or, older and wiser, with the rudiments of mechanical know-how in your head and a paper route on your schedule, you found your bicycle an unreliable servant on icy sidewalks. So you bought some lengths of light chain and a lot of baling wire and made bicycle-tire chains. As you worked, you foresaw yourself scrambling up the steepest slopes, gripping the slickest pathways with tractorlike assurance, slamming on the brake and stopping in a swirl of ice chips. You imagined mailmen staring in awe, and policemen begging for your help. But you wisely brought your pliers with you that first morning - and came home an hour late with grease on your mittens and the chains in your pockets.

Well, one lives one's childhood without analysis, and only in reflection sees its values. That kind of reflection came upon me recently - oddly enough, on a sunny September day. I was flying from London to Boston when the captain came on the loudspeaker and said, ''On your right, ladies and gentlemen, is Greenland.''

I was awestruck. Several miles below us lay a land at once wholly forbidding and utterly beautiful. Well away from the shore, the open ocean gave way to solid ice. The fjords, the sharply pointed mountains, the glaciers like great hands clawing down the river-valleys, the vast smoothness of unmarked snowfields - there it lay, frozen into its own mystery in a light that smote it sharply into harsh glares and deep shadows.

For it really was mysterious, an enigma folded in contradictions. Wholly bizarre, it also seemed entirely familiar. For superficially, at least, it looked like all those pictures of Antartica and Alaska in coffeetable books and documentary films. Yet, paradoxically, it lost all familiarity by its feeling of nearness - by the sense it gave of an unfathomed presence, a weight in the scales of the world's geography barely comprehended, a land bypassed by the history of the seasons. Even so, there it sat, refuting its own impenetrability by opening itself naturally, effortlessly, to our gaze. It was as though the last of the world's undiscovered countries had suddenly yielded up its secrets to the most casual passers-by.

I stared at Greenland for what must have been a half-hour, until it was but a faint shimmer on the horizon. I knew as I looked that something within me listened to it speaking in more than ordinary ways. But what was it trying to say?

I've puzzled over that since. For it was not simply its purity that impressed me - a land unsullied by man and pristine in crystal whiteness. Nor was it simply its isolation, nor its grandeur, nor its appearance of being, like the proverbial iceberg's tip, only the visible manifestation of a vast hidden world capping the world's poles.

No, what it spoke of was the capacity of winter to change, effortlessly, the commonplace parameters of existence. Underneath that ice, I knew, was rock, gravel, maybe even soil: in another climate, a land of bluejays and pointed firs. To explore it, however, one would pay little heed to the rock: paths and landmarks would have to be defined in ice, and the feel of ice beneath the foot would be the only feel of the land itself.

And that is what winter does - even our pale New England version. It composes , upon the underlying rock, entirely new experiences. Fields we walked idly through in July are impassable with drifts. But the swamp across which no one could pass is suddenly aswirl with skaters. Our accustomed patterns bow to its weight: we drive in different ways, seek comfort in different corners of the house, forgo this visit and instead read that book.

And with winter's change comes a sense of the newness and variety of the world - and a sense that, however much man's vanity accommodates itself to the elements, it has not conquered them. It reminds us, in the end, how much there is to learn - how shifting are the landmarks we thought were fixed, how readily the obstacles of one season melt into the open paths of the next. And it tells us again that the real love of life is at bottom a willingness to experience variety - where, before, everything seemed merely frozen.

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