Those who live in temperate or tropical climates probably never experience the hidden joys of winter in a climate like Canada's. Canadians love to complain about the weather, like long-married spouses who still cherish each other but can't resist getting in a few verbal jabs. Yes, winter is cold, snowy, and sometimes uncomfortable. Yes, the days are short, and sometimes dark. In fact, in a poem about winter, I once imagined it as "a crystal fist" holding the land tightly.
Yet winter offers pleasures too. It's hard to imagine a more visually arresting sight than a sunny day in the country after a snowfall. Lights sparkles off crystals everywhere, and the air has a clarity that gives tiny, far-off details great impact. The breeze is fresher than a hundred toothpaste commercials, and dark pines sail their curves of new snow like three-masted schooners. Every step produces a satisfying crunch, unless you are lucky enough to be on cross-country skis, in which case the crunch becomes a rhythmic sshh-sshh. Few birds stay around for the cold season -- chickadees, sparrows, blue jays, juncos linger -- so each one you see or hear is a gift.
The evenings bring other delights. Winter nights, beyond city boundaries, are a limitless black set with more stars than you've seen in a long time. Sometimes, when you look to the north, the aurora borealis performs a phantasmagorical dance, leaping around the heavens and unfurling banners of electric green. In the silence, every breath you exhale hangs in the air. Your existence, the point of perception that takes all this in, feels both tiny and very precious.
But perhaps the greatest bounty that comes from winter is how it makes the surrounding seasons so poignant. The beautiful shades of autumn maple leaves, cooling air and shorter days make fall very special, because it is still pleasant enough to walk and play outside, maybe with one more layer of clothing.
When winter comes, southerners may well laugh at the image of someone in down-filled coat, bulky boots, hat, mittens and scarf, trudging through Arctic wastes to plug in the block heater for the car's motor. But, as one of those overclad alien beings, I know the pay-off of the long dark months. Sometime in late March, the ascending sun will regain some strength, icicles and drifts will begin to melt, making small erotic gurgles, the robins and all their feathered cousins will return. Arrows of Canada geese will speed north overhead, sounding for all the world like a taxi-drivers' protest. We can put the snow shovels away, start to find our gardens again. Working overtime, Nature's clock pushes eager crocuses and bloodroots through the soil, sometimes even before all the snow is gone. I will get my big black motorcycle out of storage and start to dance on the roads again (keeping an eye out for left-over ice and sand on the corners). We will shed our biggest coats, remembering once again that we have bodies. It makes one want to engage in pagan rituals at the earliest opportunity.
What do the occupants of better climates have to look forward to? Another day of the same, occasionally interrupted by hurricanes, a few weeks of rain, or tornados? I enjoy visiting places with such predictable weather, but somehow I feel like I'm cheating on my true bride, the goddess of short days and long nights. Winter Kept Us Warm, by the way, is the title of an anthology of Canadian love poetry edited by one of my poetic mentors, Irving Layton. It started me writing poetry in high school. If Leonard Cohen and others can make winter sexy, why not me?
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace