I savor the subtleties of an often stark season
I love summer. Who doesn't? But certain small, rather secretive things about the winter months are so wonderful in their quiet, unhurried way, that sometimes in the middle of this season I decide that it may really be the best time of year after all.
Where I live today, in southwest Scotland, it almost seems as if snow and endless frosts are a thing of the past. Most winters are soft and mild - for winter. We do have our share of gloom and rain and mordant winds, and I sometimes wish for snow - just for the light it reflects. One indication of our mollycoddled hibernal state these days is that the ski industry, though modestly established in the mountains well north of here, is once again in the doldrums through a dearth of the requisite white stuff. One slope, threatened with closure this winter, is only open on weekends, given the right conditions. White is not generally the color of Scottish winters.
I have, at other times, lived in places where the diametrical opposite is true - where snow buries the ground deeply, extensively, and with such a thoroughness that it looks like permanence. That's how I remember Vermont winters.
Taking the Greyhound bus on weekends from Boston and later New York up to Vermont - and later still, driving or flying the distance - was made an unpredictable exploit in winter by the intransigent determination of snowfall and storm. But more often than not the snow packed down and let us through, and the sun on the white world made the journey, and the subsequent weekend, bracing, zestful, and visually elating.
One thing that increases in value and vitality in both universally white and universally gray-brown winters, is color. Through flamboyant overstatement, color in spring and summer is in danger of canceling itself out by its sheer excess and variety - think of the masses of crocuses in the grass, yellow, orange, white, and purple, like a kind of optically challenging brass band in its brash enthusiasm.
Think of the gorgeous massing of fruit-salad colors in summer's herbaceous borders brimming with flowers. Think of autumn: utterly marvelous, of course - particularly when the sun lights all those crimsons and oranges and yellows translucently, like colored glass, from behind. But it's nevertheless noisy and attention-seeking in the most flamboyant, shameless manner.
Winter colors are quite different. Sometimes they are unexpected revelations. The narrow stems of shrubs and the trunks of trees are scarcely noticeable at other times of year. But in winter they come into their own. Out of our windows I see the deep red stems of a certain kind of dogwood that we have planted deliberately for its winter color. Next to it, a willow's thin stems mass into a striking orange-yellow. In the front garden, among all the dire chaos of black stalks, another shrubby dogwood has lovely greenish-yellow stems that are alive with clear color. Such color is irresistible in contrast to the Scottish winter's dullness. (The Scots have a perfect onomatopoeic word for this dreariness. They say it is "dreich," pronounced "dreekh.")
Various sorts of winter berries draw intrepid attention to themselves, too, as if they were valuable jewels. Who notices holly berries in summer, when they start to form? Who is aware of the unassuming white flowers on a holly tree that precede the green berries? They are there to be observed if you know to look for them. But in December and January, holly berries shout at you with redness. And, due to the law of color opposites, their bright red makes us keenly relish the strong green of the holly leaves - a green that in summer is so commonplace and uninteresting that you ignore it.
In the white New England winter, what I chiefly recall now with a zesty pleasure was the way in which the light bouncing off the snow intensifies everything everywhere and makes such taken-for-granted colors as the crude yellow of road signage, or the serviceable rust-red paint of wooden barns, take on a rich intensity that amounts to a kind of glory. Colors brandished on roadside billboards also seemed brilliant in their vivid abstraction, where at any other time of year I might well have thought them a vulgar, artificial intrusion, disrupting my view of the magnificent landscapes through which my bus or car surged.
I tried to capture in paintings this snow dazzlement that vivified commercial colors to the point of a pure, sparkling magic. I may have pulled it off a couple of times, I am not sure. But some of the notable "color field" American painters did seem to me to successfully convert such winter color into highly stimulating art. They allowed their incisive brilliance of color to simply exist, flatly and plainly, on a white surface.
There is a tree - one that never attains much height or girth but seems happy to enjoy existence in shady undergrowth - that I encountered for the first time in a New England winter. It is witch hazel, or Hamamelis mollis. On leafless dark wood, it sports small spidery flowers composed of raggedy petals like tiny unkempt ribbons. These flowers seem much more like insects than what one normally thinks of as a flower. But they are unmistakable, and they are yellow. In the deadness of a hard winter, they are a sheer and tingling delight.
Very slow growing, witch hazels do rather valuably find their way into British gardens. We have one under an apple and plum tree down in the dark corner by the compost heap. It generously comes to life with its weird, determined little flowers winter after winter. And I always quietly thank it for coming into flower at the very best time of year.