Each year when winter passes and the long awaited spring arrives I quickly forget how beautiful winter was. I have noticed that the only things I remember about the longest season are the things I dislike and, apparently, I am not alone in this sentiment. Writers of every kind often look down on winter in order to reflect upon hope and eternal spring! Let’s face it, this time of year brings up a slew of unpleasant memories one would sooner like to forget. The first big shocker for me each year occurs when I discover the car windshield covered in a thick layer of ice and I realize that I have five more months of this. Or the many times the driveway is covered in a sheet of black ice and it takes everything in my muscular skeletal system to remain upright. These unpleasant things are definitely part of the season, but they are not the whole story and some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and experienced are only possible during winter’s cold encasement.
There is nothing subtle about the other three seasons; they seem to scream out “look at me, look at me,” like a five-year-old proud of his/her accomplishment. But winter, a minimalist, requires a little more from us; the visual palette is stripped to its core, and with the white backdrop of the season the once insignificant details now come to the forefront. We have to shake out of our cozy interiors and force ourselves outside where the bitter wind is slicing down the valley. If we can find the courage to go outside we will see what was lying underneath all that summer lushness.
The many details of plants, such as the colored bark, seed heads, textured stems, and branching habits, are all now exposed, and although they can be encapsulated in layer upon layer of ice or snow, their beauty is not only undeniable it is enhanced. The dried peony seed is more magical when magnified through this icy cold lens. I hardly noticed the seed head in late summer or fall: it is just an unfortunate brown mark on an otherwise perfect green world. But in winter the deep mahogany star steps to the front of nature’s stage. Likewise, the coral bark of the willow, whose neon color is obscured the rest of the year, now glows in the winter light.
By December the tiny seeds of the climbing hydrangea (H. anomala petiolaris) have turned a wine color and a few creamy flowers formed in June now cling to the vine, the consistency of tissue paper. Frozen in an ice storm, the glassy seed clusters hang like Russian jewels all over the vine. The honeysuckle vine, which held on to its green leaves through wind, snow and icy rain, now cascade their translucent emerald pride decorating the entire vine.
What strikes me about the season is how even the minutest details are brought into focus. A tree full of birds against the flat grey winter sky makes the most beautiful silhouette. It reminds me of the Japanese and Chinese paintings on screens or ceramics. Winter is like a drawing where the other seasons are like paintings. I love drawing because the forms are reduced to the simplicity of line.
If I can make it into the woods there is much to see. I am reminded of the quote from William Sharp, professor of English: “There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance. “
Plants are not the only things that become a canvas for winter. The old stone walls reveal a beautiful pattern of snow. My dogs love winter and I am amazed at the way snow and icicles form on their coats. Ruby, our female dog, is often annoyed by Otto, the larger alpha male of the “pack.” The tougher of the two and a hunter, she will stay outside for hours in a snowstorm watching squirrels without moving a hair. Her snow-covered coat is a perfect camouflage, better than any hunter’s fatigues and, as a bonus, she gets away from her nemesis.
My most favorite quote about winter is by garden author Ruth Stout: “There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you….In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.”