It might have started with Dylan Thomas, or probably before, in that little town lost between fence posts and farm creeks of the Saugeen River Valley – Paisley. It is a question I can’t answer. Each season has its charm, utility, and – lets face it – period of grace (before you say “ok, enough with this, let’s change things up!”) Winter has something else: a sort of magical quality that other seasons lack. (It’s funny what we consider a “magical quality.” Because what do we really have to judge it against except the rest of our life, which is equally bizarre?)
I have known winter just as long as summer, yet I find it somehow more surreal. Perhaps it’s the way when you watch it snow nothing seems to happen, but as soon as you look away there’s a half-foot of it, enough to cover footprints and tire tracks – enough to erase history. As if it had just “shawled out of the ground” as it does in Thomas’ Wales of yore . Or maybe it’s that silence, safety, even warmth of the snow or the wood fire. Of course snow does have an insulating quality (hence the warmth of igloos, quinces etc.) and it dampens sound waves for the same reason. But there is much more to winter’s allure than science. There is a spiritual quality to that silence that anyone who listens long enough will feel. It is the sound of the earth resting, waiting for breath.
Growing up spending Christmases in Paisley I believed there were untouchable places on this earth, ones that would not change, ones where in mid December, there would always be a meter of snow into which you could fling yourself with a satisfying plump and laugh as the sun caught crystals for yellow half seconds against the clear sky. Places where families would spend evenings playing German card games by candle light and laughing into the warm cinnamon air and the smell of clementines and endless treats. And where outside it always snowed at night. Where tomorrow was not weighed by the previous day’s words, where you couldn’t even see your toboggan tracks down “dead man’s hill” because the snow had wiped you off the map along with your voices; where you could start each day anew, breathing into the crisp padding of last night’s blizzard. So I guess it was winter’s cleansing quality that allowed me to believe this place immortal, that it would continue to reset itself day after day, or at least year after year.
Ah, the youthful mind. I’ve since seen that winter is a lonely and isolating time. Many people are cloistered, sad, filthy. People die at Christmas. Even down on the expanse of farmland and little red brick hamlets that I thought was immune – there are, sometimes, green Christmases.
But winter still retains, for me, some magic. Up here in the north on snowshoes or skis, I leave behind the town and its yelping sled dogs – whose barks sometimes creak and crack like the snow beneath my feet – and after the sun has finished scraping along the frigid white lip of the mountain rimmed bay, finally resting out of purple sight somewhere in the great George River – I stand in the lightly falling snow. I feel my breath, watching the painted and momentary ghosts it expels into the night. I imagine there must be a world out there. All the sounds, all the words, the barking dogs and screaming ski-doo engines; the violence or the ecstasy that I will not hear because it has been consumed by the resting and almost immobile earth. All I can hear is the amnesia of snow that once again erases the trace of lives that dwell upon it so they may start again tomorrow.