A few years ago, once the Holidays had past, I began looking for a way to beat back the dreariness of winter. And so I joined a fitness center, thinking that the physical activity would do me good–that it would lift the mood and re-energize. Somewhat surprisingly, there was still the sense that these routine workouts on the elliptical machine weren’t quite doing the trick. It didn’t take long to discover that what was needed was regular time in the outdoors. The following winter, therefore, the fitness club membership was ditched in favor of a pair of cross-country skis. And it made all the difference: the winter cross-country skiing excursions and hikes proved to be a way to encounter the pristine beauty of the outdoors in a wholly new way. What I discovered is that nature, in the winter months, is not active but passive. To enter the outdoors in the winter is to encounter her in silent contemplation. And it fills you with a sense of wonder. I can’t help but think that part of what drew men and women in medieval Europe into the monastic life was precisely this: the sense of wonder and awe that comes from contemplation, from silence and solitude–where, interestingly enough, one feels not alone but connected. This post considers ways of enjoying–really enjoying–the winter season once the Holidays have come and gone. And this is the first way: encounter the outdoors in the winter months. So few do.
There’s also a way of drinking deeply of the season through the music which draws its inspiration from it. You’ll find much of this stuff on Christmas albums (it’s all the music that doesn’t specifically reference the Holidays). What immediately comes to mind, for example, is Gordon Lightfoot’s hauntingly beautiful ballad “Song for a Winter’s Night”, found on Sarah McLachlan’s album Winter Song. There’s a recent performance of the piece by Garrison Keillor, Andra Suchy, and The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band on the Prairie Home Companion which aired 21 January 2012 (click here to listen). Or, watch the performance (below) of the ballad by The Good Lovelies, performed in a coffee shop in Burnstown, Ontario, Canada. The music of Icelandic bands Sigur Ros and Olafur Arnalds, while not properly winter music, is music which cannot help but be shaped by a land so close in proximity to the Arctic Circle (I buy into Alvah Simon’s in his book North into Night that the climate and terrior of a land have an effect on the personality, values, and culture of the people making their home there). A recent discovery of mine is the music of Loreena McKennitt, a Canadian musician. Any of her music fits the bill (she even has an album To Drive the Cold Winter Away).
Then there’s the film: the film in which the cold and snow of the winter months become a character in the story, ever-present and shaping the drama that unfolds. Shackleton (2002), starring Kenneth Branagh, is based on the true story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose expedition to the South Pole became one of survival as his ship, The Endurance, becomes locked and then crushed in the ice–how, under his leadership, not one crew member is lost. Amazing!
When it comes to books, North into Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic (referenced, above) is the real-life account of a man whose last great adventure sends him to the Arctic north to spend the winter aboard his sailboat, frozen in an icy bay. It is a story keenly aware of the winter climate and its lessons. The reader has the privileged experience of spending more than a few months with the author in a land of perpetual night and a threatening, bitter cold with polar bears and the Northern Lights. I’ve just picked up George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, now an HBO Series, a work of modern fantasy, involving a setting in which–the seasons having been thrown out of balance–winters can span decades. This, too, an excellent accompaniment for the Season.
Of all the ways to pay homage to a Northern winter of blustery snow and biting temperatures, though, one of my favorites is to come indoors around the fondue pot with friends (especially after skiing or skating). Bottles of wine and beer accompany this hearty appetizer made of Gruyère cheese, wine, and brandy (please see Cheese Fondue). Music plays in the background as friends–in sweaters and with forks in hand–dip crusty bread, Gherkin pickles, and cubes of juicy steak into the bubbling cheese. The point of it all is mirth, of getting lost in good food and good company.
Readers are also invited to share the music, film, and reading that would make excellent complements to the winter months.