How to Savor Winter: A Century-Old Poetic Recipe for Bliss in the Bleakest Season
In praise of “the poetry of silence and darkness,” from which life emerges “fresher, fairer, sweeter for its long winter rest.”
By Maria Popova
Bleak and barren, winter is the season when nature is silently preparing to burst forth in spring — the grand incubator of life. Rilke saw a human equivalence when he celebrated winter as the time for tending to your inner garden. His contemporary Dallas Lore Sharp (December 13, 1870–November 29, 1929) — a former clergyman, whom the great John Burroughs lauded as America’s greatest nature writer — captured this delicate dialogue between nature and human nature in his 1912 book Winter (public library | public domain) — a lyrical effort “to catch the spirit of the season… the large, free, strong, fierce, wild soul of Winter,” to channel “the bitter boreal might… that is wild and fierce and strong and free and large within us.”
Sharp serenades the season within and the season without:
Winter within us means vitality and purpose and throbbing life; and without us in our fields and woods it means widened prospect, the storm of battle, the holiness of peace, the poetry of silence and darkness and emptiness and death.
And yet this deadness is illusory, concealing the profound resilience of wintering nature. Sharp counters the surface impression:
The winter world is not dead… The cold is powerless to destroy… Life flees and hides and sleeps, only to waken again, forever stronger than death — fresher, fairer, sweeter for its long winter rest.
In what can best be described as a prose poem, he exults in the life-force behind the stillness:
I love the winter, and so do all children — its bare fields, empty woods, flattened meadows, its ranging landscapes, its stirless silences, its tumult of storms, its crystal nights with stars new cut in the glittering sky, its challenge, defiance, and mighty wrath. I love its wild life — its birds and animals; the shifts they make to conquer death. And then, out of this winter watching, I love the gentleness that comes, the sympathy, the understanding! One gets very close to the heart of Nature through such understanding.
With an eye to an empty robin’s nest, he adds:
Laughter and tears are companions. Life begins, but death sometimes ends the trail. Yet the sum of life, outdoors and in, is peace, gladness, and fulfillment.
Winter, Sharp argues, is training ground for attention and the art of noticing. Decades before the great nature writer Henry Beston reverenced the sacredness of smallness and a century before the bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer composed her love letter to the splendors of the small scale, he writes:
Winter, when the leaves are off, the ground bare, the birds and flowers gone, and all is reduced to singleness and simplicity — winter is the time to observe the shapes, colors, varieties, and growth of the lichens.
But no small wonder of winter is worthier of attentive reverence than snowflakes — a generation after Wilson Bentley first photographed them under his microscope, Sharp beckons us to find a microscope of our own and marvel at their fractal beauty, each snowflake seemingly “shaped by an infinitely accurate hand according to a pattern that seems the perfection, the very poetry, of mechanical drawing.”
Above all, winter is the season for looking twice — for seeing the second layer of nature, the beauty beyond the bleakness. In a sentiment crowned with a quote from the unsurpassable John Burroughs, Sharp writes:
See the winter bleak and cheerless as at times you will, and as at times you ought; still if you will look twice, and think as you look, you will see… the bare empty woodland fresh budded to the tip of each tiny twig — life all over the trees thrust forward to catch the touch of spring! You will see the wide flinty fields thick sown with seeds — life, more life than the sun and the soil can feed, sleeping there under “the tender, sculpturesque, immaculate, warming, fertilizing snow”!
From winter’s harshest guise, Sharp wrests a tempest of soul-slaking beauty:
The sorrows of winter are its storms. They are its greatest glories also. One should no more miss the sight of the winter storms than he should miss the sight of the winter birds and stars, the winter suns and moons! A storm in summer is only an incident; in winter it is an event, a part of the main design. Nature gives herself over by the month to the planning and bringing off of the winter storms — vast arctic shows, the dreams of her wildest moods, the work of her mightiest minions. Do not miss the soft feathery fall that plumes the trees and that roofs the sheds with Carrara marble; the howling blizzard with its fine cutting blast that whirls into smoking crests; the ice-storm that comes as slow, soft rain to freeze as it falls, turning all the world to crystal: these are some of the miracles of winter that you must not fail to see.
Couple with Adam Gopnik’s modern love letter to winter, then take a winter walk with Thoreau.
Published December 16, 2022