Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor
There exists a little page-turner from 1947 called A Book of New England. My mother’s copy – gifted to her a few Christmases ago by a son grateful for his roots – is worn and somewhat tattered, though the drawing of a New England farmhouse that graces the jacket cover remains fetching.
Written by the delightfully named Zephine Humphrey and illustrated by the more stately Thomas P. Robinson, each of its 27 chapters celebrates a different aspect of that quintessential region, be it town meetings, meeting houses, maple sugar, lighthouses, the Connecticut River, graveyards (most definitely not cemeteries), Nantucket or the mountains. It is a gem of a book.
Our subject today is not one of those topics mentioned, but rather weather, which makes for the final chapter of Miss Zephine’s great work. More specifically, I would like to discuss the chilly season – winter. The oft-lamented winter, that is, for as you know, while spring, summer and fall have their many adherents in all corners of the globe, winter comes in every year for far more than its share of complaint and abuse.
I simply cannot understand this. Human life has never been easier or more comfortable in all of history than it is in the West in the 21st century, yet folks complain of the privations of winter as though central heating and artificial light weren’t invented and widely available.
It seems that few Americans have acquired the wisdom that my barber, Elio, an Italian immigrant, shared with me a few years ago. I had asked him if he ever considered wintering in Florida to escape the snow and cold of Connecticut. No, he answered. “I go from my heated house to my heated car to my heated barbershop, and then back again. What’s the problem?”
Elio’s sagacity escapes most people, unfortunately. For them, winter is mainly a time of peril and inconvenience: of dangerous black ice and snow-caused delays, of gray skies, early sunsets and bitter chills. The complainers have a point, of course. Winter can be tough, especially on women (who claim to be cold on perfect 68-degree May days), on the elderly and infirm (whose bones ache badly when the temperatures drop), and on the lonely, who no longer have even the sun for company. But there is another side to winter.
“Concerning the beauty there is no doubt,” Miss Zephine writes. “The mountains look lovelier in their silver garments of frost than in their robes of green. Immaculate and ineffable, they withdraw a little from the valley and hold a gently austere state. When the low sun touches them at dawn and sunset, they glow and shimmer in all the colors of the spectrum splashed with translucent shadows. To watch them take the sunrise thus is an hour’s occupation of intense delight.”
For those of us from flatter, coastal terrain, our joy lies less in admiring the silver garments of the mountains than in looking out of our bedroom windows upon freshly fallen snow. The scene – even on an allegedly prosaic suburban street – is celestial, all virginal white. Truly, as the song says, the tree-tops glisten, and I think of the bare branches as sugar-coated.
Is there anything in nature as beautiful as this? You can probably guess my answer. Even heavenly May and June, and brilliant October – months with no sane detractors – suit me less. For none can warm the cockles of my heart as January or February can, as outside the cold wind beats against the windows and snow lightly falls, but inside the hearth glows and the oven radiates most pleasant heat, wafting about the most delicious smells.
Peter Hitchens, that arch-conservative Englishman, speaks my language: “I am a northern person, of cold winters and misty skies, who has not the slightest desire for endless sunshine and boring blue sky. Give me a frosty morning, or a lashing storm, or a crisp, bright spring day, over anything Southern California can produce. Any country where you can’t come home to the lighted doorway of a warm kitchen on a frosty night, with your breath steaming in the cold, is not for me.”
I know that not everyone will, or perhaps even can, love the cold, snow and moods of winter; I know that few describe walks in freezing temperatures as “invigorating,” as I do. So thankfully Miss Zephine, the wise New England lady of old, has given us the perfect compromise:
“Whether one welcomes or dreads the winter season depends of course on one’s temperament – also on one’s age. Those who dislike winter admit that it is the most beautiful time of the year; those who glory in it confess that to drive over icy roads and to shovel and re-shovel deep paths through the snow and to thaw out frozen pipes is not quite amusing. Therefore they pool their agreements and differences, stirring them into a wholesome philosopher’s mixture.”
I’ll take that “wholesome philosopher’s mixture.” As a graduating senior, I say with joy and relief that Texas has denied me winter for the very last time!