Friday, November 17, 2023

Friday Ramble - Winter

This week's word hails from the Old English winter (plural wintru) meaning "the wet season". At first glance, it seems odd, but winter is usually the wettest season of the year. There are a few contenders for the word's Proto-Indo-European origins, the most popular being the PIE root forms *wend- and *wed- meaning "wet". Other possibilities include the PIE roots *wind- meaning "white", and *gheim-. The latter also means "winter" and forms part of chimera, hibernate, and the mightiest mountain range of them all, Himalaya.

Whether or not the season involves snow and icy temperatures or just a hatful of rain, most cultures on island earth have a word for it, and it has a singular place in our thoughts, dancing in a stronger light than its other, more moderate kin. Those of us who live in the north tend to predicate our agricultural and culinary activities in spring, summer and autumn on making ready for the long white season.

For the Celts, winter began at Samhain (October 31) and ended on Imbolc (February 1) when springtime arrived. The Winter Solstice on or about December 21 marked the shortest day and longest night of the year, and it was a rowdy celebration of the highest order. From that day onward, the light of the sun would return, a little more every day until the Summer Solstice in June. The legendary King Arthur was believed to have been born on the Winter Solstice, and Druids sometimes refer to the Winter Solstice as Alban Arthuan ("The Light of Arthur").

Rugged northerners that they were, the Norse knew all about winter. They counted their years in winters and thought the world would end after the mightiest winter (the fimbulvetr) of them all. Their beliefs, compiled in the 13th century Icelandic Edda, contain a wealth of oral material from much earlier sources, and the collection is the main source of everything we know about Norse literature, beliefs, customs, deities and creation mythologies. One of these days, I will work my way through the Edda again, and the idea of doing it in winter seems appropriate.

It all comes down to cosmic balance. We owe the lineaments of our existence in the Great Round to a tilt in the earth's axis as it spins merrily in space. When winter reigns here in the north, the happy lands south of the equator are cavorting in summer, and I cling tenaciously to that thought in the depths of frozen January. Somewhere in the world, it is warm and sunny, and sentient creatures are kicking up their heels in the light.

Winter gifts us with the most brilliantly blue skies of the calendar year by day, and the most spectacular stellar expanses by night. There is nothing to compare with the sun shining through frosted trees on a cold morning, with the sound of falling snow in the woods, with darknesses when the stars seem so close one can almost reach up and touch them. Winter star gazing is a chilly business, but one I would not miss for anything in the great wide world.

When winter beckons, I think about moving further south, but it isn't going to happen. Instead, I pile up books and music for the long nights and accumulate tea. I stir curries, make bread and stews, ponder the ranks of jams and pickles in the household larder. I make skis, snowshoes and boots ready for treks in the woods. Rambles will be brief again this winter, but I will be taking them, and Beau will be with me every step of the way.

There is clarity and a measure of comfort in knowing that long after I am gone, the winter fields and forests of the eastern Ontario highlands will remain, their snows unmarred by the clumsy foorprints of this old hen. To know the north woods, one has to wander through them in winter, spend hours tracing the shapes of sleeping trees with eyes and lens, listen to snow falling among them, perhaps become a tree herself.