‘Winterlust’ renders the ‘meanest season’ in benign and poetic terms

Bernd Brunner shapes a cultural history of the season, showing that even at its bleakest, winter can be redemptive.  

Courtesy of Greystone Books
“Winterlust: Finding Beauty in the Fiercest Season” by Bernd Brunner, Greystone Books, 262 pp.

For many of us, winter is the seasonal equivalent of flyover country – something to grudgingly go through on the way to where we actually want to be. Poets, painters, and novelists tend to underline that assumption, portraying winter as a time to be endured rather than enjoyed.

But in “Winterlust: Finding Beauty in the Fiercest Season,” Bernd Brunner’s cultural history of winter, he argues that what’s been called the meanest season of the year can also be the most redemptive one – an annual test of sorts that challenges humanity to reach its real promise.

In a charming introduction, Mark Kurlansky, best known for his surprisingly absorbing books about salt and codfish, considers why winter gets such a bad rap. Basically, he concludes, it’s all a matter of temperature.

“It does not require an intense study of history, science, and the development of civilization,” Kurlansky tells readers, “to see that humans have a clear preference for heat over cold. Consider, for example, that people learned to make ice millennia after they first made fire. Moreover, despite the fact that heating has been available far longer than air conditioning, they have always been more drawn to hot countries than to cold.”

True, although indoor heating took a great while for humans to perfect, Brunner points out. To the degree that people aren’t too crazy about winter, he suggests, it’s perhaps because only recently in historical terms have they had the chance to get uniformly toasty when the temperature drops.

To stay warm in homes of antiquity, he notes, “people in farming households brought their animals into their homes, stabling them in a ground-floor area built for this purpose. And whenever possible, people moved upstairs to rooms facing the sun. The rooms above the kitchen were especially popular, because a small flame was often kept burning in the stove overnight.”

“Winterlust” is full of tidbits like that – so much so that the book often feels, bracingly, like a stroll through a curiosity shop. We learn that the Japanese have a word for the first snowfall of winter, hatsuyuki. In the Norwegian town of Rjukan, people placed three large mirrors above the city to redirect scarce winter sunlight into the valley and cheer up the residents. In Montreal, residents have evaded the winter gloom by building a brightly lit network of tunnels “where half a million people can move about without ever having to come into contact with the cold air outside.”

Brunner renders his research with a light, lyrical touch, evoking the tone of conversation rather than classroom instruction.

His prevailing argument – that winter is beautiful in spite of, or perhaps even because of, its stark clarity – often requires him to make his case with word pictures. “Where snow lingers for four to five months,” he writes, “trees sag under its weight. From a distance, snow-clad conifers look like huge, irregularly formed candles dripping with wax.”

“Winterlust” was translated from its original German by Mary Catherine Lawler. A general reader can’t know how to divide credit between author and translator for the poetic language of the text, although in his previous books under different translators, Brunner has also sounded like a deeply visual writer.

In “Winterlust,” as in his other projects, Brunner relies on actual illustrations to tell his story, too. The book brims with eclectic images, including a circa 1940 travel poster of Canadian ski slopes, a Victorian yuletide print, and a 19th-century snow scene by Claude Monet. The long-ago origins of the pictures in “Winterlust” convey a not-so-subtle sense of elegy, leaving us to wonder if Brunner has come not only to praise winter, but to bury it. The open question, given the realities of climate change, involves whether the familiar patterns of winter will become a thing of the past.

“Winter, it seems, is changing its character,” he observes. “Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, glaciers have been melting at record speed; for experts, this is the most visible indication of climate change.”

What Brunner hints, without quite saying so, is that we might not fully miss winter until winter as we know it is extinct.

Should that sad prospect come to pass, “Winterlust” would be a fitting memorial to a season that, whatever its hardships, has always offered a useful pause in the turning of the year.

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