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Complexity of the winter season

12/05/02 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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Winter isn't just one season. Especially in Vermont, it's many. Winter evenings, for example, make me feel old. I walk the darkening streets, the snow lightly sifting into the crepuscular gloom. My arthritic hip is stiff, and I believe that I have begun to walk with the same limp my father had - rolling off the bad hip, determined, sturdy, but impaired.

Winter's role as a climatological metaphor for death troubles me as I get older. And I'm not alone in these dark thoughts. Writer Barry Lopez tells us that the oral literature of the Eskimos is full of nightmare images linked to the winter months: included are "grotesque deaths, savage beasts, mutilation and pain."

Yet winter - real winter, cold and sharp - is also a time of beauty and exhilaration, as I discovered once again last weekend when winter came early - at least to the mountains around Stowe, and the skiing was completely magical. My yard in Montpelier sported only an inch or so of early December snow, but there was three feet of the stuff beneath my skis as I first glided, then climbed up into the rocky stronghold of Smuggler's Notch. By the time I reached the top of the Notch, I was sweating. I wound my way among snow-crusted boulders and stunted maples and arched my neck to look straight upward at the cliffs towering above me, indulging in the wild, Gothic beauty of the place. A moment at the top and then I turned around and bombed back down the twisting unplowed road, carving turn after turn in the fresh, new, amazingly deep snow, then gliding and skating the mile or so back to the world of plowed roads, shops, heated homes, and cars.

Despite the gray sky and howling wind, winter was an ally, a hearty, buffeting friend. And I knew that in this perception also, I was not alone. The literature of winter offers many examples of winter as a time of hearty good cheer, spiritual armor to keep out the cold. And it is no accident that the merriest of our festivals - the annual pagan revel we now call Christmas - comes at the darkest and near the coldest time of the year. That's when we need it the most.

I am aided in my winter thoughts by the new book, "Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season," just published by Skylight Paths Publishing of Woodstock. It's a collection of winter essays, poems, book excerpts and the like, edited and chosen with wisdom and erudition by Gary Schmidt and Susan Feldt, and organized to remind us that winter has many different faces - most of which Vermonters will find familiar.

New Hampshire poet Donald Hall's contribution to this lovely book, his classic essay on Winter, declares that he belongs to the company of darkness lovers, who cherish winter as an excuse to hibernate and draw close to the fire with a good book. "We are partly tuber, partly bear," Hall writes, "warming ourselves by the thought of the cold, lighting ourselves by darkness's idea." Good, complex thoughts for a good, complex season.

This is Tom Slayton and I'm going out for a load of firewood!

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.
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