As a kid growing up on New York City’s Upper West Side, I rejoiced at the earliest sign of snow. Not just for the possibility of a school day off—remember those?—but because a snowy day was a day filled with laughter, delight, friends, snow-in-the-boots, and hot chocolate. I couldn’t wait to get outside. Central Park was soft and quiet, everyone smiling, the dogs frolicking.
Many of us have enjoyed renewed connections to the natural world as our lives have shrunk and slowed during the pandemic. As deep winter sets in across the northern hemisphere, it’s worth recalling the kid version of winter in which the snow-covered trees look magical and fresh, the landscape playful, and the air different. Even when we are not traveling far, the change of seasons means a literal change of scene.
Some cultures turn inward during winter, and that can be a regenerative time for reflection and rest. But as Bernd Brunner describes in Winterlust: Finding Beauty in the Fiercest Season, there is still much to see and celebrate outside. It’s a good time to remember that the ancient Romans chose the winter solstice to commemorate the goddess Angerona, who stood by mortals in times of trial and hardship. Winter reminds us that we are strong, adaptive, and built for endurance.
Florence Williams: In your book you describe the modern phenomenon of “Mediterranization,” in which we all expect to spend time in controlled indoor climates around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter has become a romantic abstraction at best, but often we consider it to be uncomfortable and inconvenient. What are we missing by disconnecting from real, outdoor winter?
Bernd Brunner: Although I'm also a summer person, I would not like to live in a perpetual summer. The feeling of time and of years passing would certainly change. Albert Camus once wrote: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” I think that's a very nice motto of sorts.
What are some of the most magical elements of winter in your mind?
The moment when you can literally hear snowflakes falling, the touch of snowflakes on your skin, to exhale and see your breath when it's really cold. I used to do a lot of cross-country skiing, just this gliding over the firm snow.
Is it true you can smell snow?
There is no easy answer to this question. Snow seems to bring out certain smells that are already in the air like pine resin, damp bark, or smoke. What many people perceive as "fresh" could be related to the higher degree of ionization of the air when it snows. Other people connect snow with a certain color—[an example of] synesthesia, or when a sensation stimulates another sensory reaction in a different part of the body. As you know, even a cologne not only smells differently depending on the person who uses it; it also carries different connotations and evokes different reactions.
Why is the world quieter when it snows?
Snow swallows sound just like the soft cork lining of a recording studio. Acoustic waves get trapped in the air pockets and are then endlessly refracted by the branching patterns of the crystals until they all but trail off. When you live in a city with traffic around you, you'll notice immediately when lots of snow has fallen overnight how quiet the world is when you wake up.
Is “winter” too simple a concept? In many cultures across time, it was divided up into sub-seasons.
Well, where winters are short, it doesn't make much sense to differentiate further. The Sámi of Lapland think in terms of at least eight seasons, because the different phases of winter determine their actions and are intertwined with their lives. Breaking up the year like this makes more sense for the many practical actions intertwined with their lives. For example, "early winter" is a time of migration, not only for the retreating sun but for the reindeer, which gradually move to winter pastures.
In Central Park and throughout New York City, you can watch squirrels, ducks, and other animals embracing the cold. What are some of your favorite ways that animals adapt to extreme winter conditions?
Although very well known, it still amazes me how bears and some other mammals hibernate or are dormant during the winter. And look at the wood frog. Even though ice crystals form in up to two-thirds of its body, and its heartbeat, blood circulation, and breathing stop completely when temperatures plunge, the frog doesn’t die. When the cold arrives, it combines glucose and urea to create an antifreeze that saves it from freezing to death if it can find a thin layer of foliage to crawl under. Its blood sugar skyrockets to 250 times the normal level, but as soon as temperatures climb above freezing, its heart and lungs begin to function once more—as if nothing had happened.
Is it okay or even healthy for humans to experience extremes of temperature?
When you spend 10 or 15 minutes in the heat and then go outside into the cold or even dive into a pool with ice-cold water, it really makes you feel alive. But you have to be fit, otherwise this could pose severe risks to your health. There are people who jog shirtless in winter or deny themselves a blanket at night to supposedly stimulate their bodies and metabolism.
How has the pandemic changed the way you're relating to nature in winter?
During this time, I have made swift power walks of 60 to 90 minutes in the parks a daily routine, no matter what the weather is like. And as you know, taking a walk with friends and family outside as opposed to spending time inside can also be an effective way to curb the risk of infection.
What are some simple ways we can find pleasure outside this winter? What should we look for and do out there?
You could think about the ways in which winter changes your immediate surroundings. Try to figure out where the animals hide, how this or that tree appears during the cold season, and how it's still beautiful without leaves. Consider how small differences in temperature and how the light—or lack of light—affects you. Take photos sometimes. Four years ago, I spent a long winter in upstate New York near Rensselaerville and was amazed how different the ice on nearby Lake Myosotis looked every day.
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