The wind blows, and night temperatures plummet. Daylight makes a late appearance in late November - blown snowflakes and frost crystals whirl in the pale morning sunlight like stars. On our daily toings and froings, we wander about hunched and swaddled with heads down against the wind. What else could this stuff be but winter?
The word comes to us from the Old English expression used to describe the fourth season of the year, thence the Proto-Germanic word wentruz meaning "wet season", both probably originating in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) wed, wod or ud meaning "wet" or "wind". There are possible ties to the Old Celtic vindo meaning "white", although that word sounds more like the modern English "wind" to me. The spoken Old Norse form sounds just like the modern word "weather" and may indeed be its root form. Cognates include the Gothic wintru, the Icelandic vetur, the Swedish vinte, the Danish vinter and the Norwegian vetter.
Wherever it hails from, our word for the coldest (and wettest) season of the year has been around for a long time, and most other cultures on this island earth have a word for it too. The season occupies a particular place in our thoughts, dancing in a stronger light than its three more temperate kin - we tend to predicate our activities during the rest of the year on what we must do to make ready for winter: turning the earth, planting, harvesting, putting things by for the short days and long nights, piling firewood to burn on our hearths when the snow flies.
Ancient Anglo-Saxons measured their calendar years from one winter to the next. In Old Norse, the word vetrardag was used to designate the first day of the long cold season, the Saturday that fell between Oct. 10 and 16. For the ancient Celts, winter began at Samhain (October 31) or All Hallows (November 1) and ended on Imbolc or Candlemas (February 1 or 2) when springtime arrived. In the Chinese lunisolar calendar, a year is measured from one Winter Solstice to the next, and winter begins around November 7, with the jie qi (or solar term) called the "opening of winter". Astronomically, the season is said to begin at the Winter Solstice in late December and ends at the Vernal Equinox in late March - not so this far north where winter usually arrives some time in late October and lingers until late April or even May.
It all comes down to cosmic balance. We owe the four seasons and the contours of our existence in the Great Round of time to a tilt in the earth's axis as it spins merrily in space like a top. When winter is beginning here, the happy lands south of the equator are cavorting toward summer. I cling tenaciously to that thought in the depths of frozen January - that there is high summer and sunlight and greening somewhere in the world.
Around this time of the year, I briefly consider living somewhere where winter is a more temperate beastie, but it isn't going to happen. Rather than migrating, I pile up books and music and accumulate a good store of tea, stack firewood, make bread and cookies, count the jars of jam in my larder. I take out my parka and heavy gloves, wax my skies and oil my snowshoes for long winter rambles. This year, there has been little snow so far, and my traveling apparatus will probably not see much use until next month so I am feeling cheated. We have been having some fine frosts though, and I head outside as soon as there is enough light to photograph them.
To truly know the north woods, one has to journey through them in winter, spend hours drinking in the shapes of trees with eyes and lens, breathing in and out with them on snow drowned hillsides, listening to the snow falling among their perfect bare and beckoning branches.