Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Measure and Cause of Our Vitality

Mark Helprin eloquently explains why winter matters in a piece from yesterday's WSJ called The Fire We Tend Against Winter:

Dense winter air makes the roar of an overhead jet more exciting than the desultory sound one hears in summer. And what could be more lovely than the sound, just above the threshold of hearing, of falling snow? Or more striking than a landscape or a cityscape that this snow has effortlessly purified in white? What in the summer sky can approximate the windblown, glassy, whitened auroras blasted off mountain ridges or rising from the plains?

At the onset of the extraordinary winters of the mid-to-late '70s, I was studying in England. I missed the absoluteness and severity of North American winter so much that I put an early end to my nascent academic career. Anxious about my decision, I stepped out of the terminal at Kennedy and all doubts vanished. Even over Queens were stars such as I had never seen in England, and the air itself was a challenge such as I had never felt there. I was truly happy because I was truly home.

Emptied by the cold, the streets were tranquil and quiet. In Boston the Charles Basin froze over, in New York parts of the Hudson. At times you could ski all around Manhattan. The world changes as snow and cold test one's fiber and ingenuity, something that brings far more satisfaction than just living easily. You become both more contemplative and more alert. The fire you make and tend against winter is one of the great things in life if only because it stands for life itself opposing the forces that someday will end it.

And this may be the heart of it, that winter even as we fight it is both a measure and cause of our vitality. That though it may exist as an enemy, it is something of extraordinary beauty. And that though in representing the last season of our lives it symbolizes our death, year after year experience teaches us that, miraculously and invariably, after winter's inescapable conquests the new life of spring comes nonetheless.

As much as we who live in colder climes complain and at times despair of winter's harsh realities, I believe most of us could not imagine going through the seasons of life without experiencing it.