The Terms of Winter

by Todd Burritt

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A little over a year ago I took a walk around town. It felt good to get out of the house, but as far as walks go, this one wasn’t especially enjoyable. The cold weather shocked me. So much so that, later, I checked the numbers online: the temperature at midday was -10°F, and with steady, 30-mph winds, exposed skin was liable to frostbite in five minutes. Since I was gone for around an hour, it’s a good thing I covered my face with my mittened hands, even though it felt silly and caused my glasses to frost up. Meanwhile, the wind whipped tears from my eyeballs until I couldn’t see—not around the sides of my frosted glasses, and not through them. Now you have the full picture. I was stumbling along the side of a gravel road, ‘embracing winter,’ if you could really call flinching and weeping and blocking the wind with my arms an embrace. As in a zombie movie, no car dared pull over to check on me. Cold is pain, and at its worst, cold is fear. It carries some threat of the contagion.

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The real struggle of the walk was the reason I walked at all. I was blowing off steam after spending all morning in the kitchen preparing rations for a long ski trip. In just a couple days, two friends would be dropping my wife and me at a remote trailhead in Grand Teton National Park. Then they’d drive home without us, and Jen and I would start skiing across the Teton Wilderness toward the Upper Yellowstone River. We hoped to pass through the most remote place in the lower 48, then spend days traversing the shores of Yellowstone and Shoshone Lakes, before pointing down the Madison River for West Yellowstone. We planned to be out for at least two weeks. 

Our safety strategy was to keep things loose. Jen and I agreed on this point many times in the months preceding: we would go only if it made sense. But after we picked a tentative start date, life, predictably enough, started to gel into place. By the time we had our ride lined up, and Jen’s work schedule dove-tailed into either end, we felt fairly committed. We even decided: so what if the weather is bad starting out? We’ll be out so long, we’ll have to see it all, eventually. With that attitude, I’d actually avoided checking the weather, and I hadn’t heard about any polar vortex.

That’s why it fell to Jay, on the ride down, to clue us in. It seems that right around Valentines Day, 2018, the polar vortex split in two. One mini vortex spun toward central Europe, while the other settled over Montana—where temperatures reached thirty below average, and Livingston broke its record lows the day of and the day after my adventurous town walk. While Jay explained, Jen and I sat in the backseat, looking out the windows at blowing spindrift, and looking forward to two weeks of camping out. These were deeply disturbing concepts to apprehend. At the trailhead, he and Kathy heartily congratulated us on our bravery, and drove away.

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Some people say they love winter. I’d never go that far. When I’m cold, I feel like the subtropical primate that I genetically am—my life force feels profoundly, even alarmingly, under siege. Yet I’ve lived my entire life in northern states, and a distinct winter season is an important dimension to my existence. More to the point, I love the process to which winter belongs. 

Cultures that are closely acquainted with the natural world tend to understand things in terms of cycles. Dawn, day, dusk, and night; childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age. Insofar as we divide these cycles into (arbitrary) delineations of four, the parallels between them firmly associate winter with twilight, decline, death. As an emotional climate, winter monopolizes all of the most negative connotations, and this has patterned our language, and inserted biases into our culture.

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Today, the cyclical sense of time has fallen out of fashion. Power-holders like to think we’re constantly breaking new ground—going where no one has gone before—and that makes every implication of the “perpetual return” repugnant. I see disturbing parallels between Mike Pence’s anti-abortion declaration that “Life is winning again in America,” the mission of tech billionaires to make life “fair” by granting humans immortality, and the endangered status of glaciers in the face of global warming. All of these signs-of-the-times are logical extensions of a proud self-image—unlimited progress, indefinite advancement, cancerous growth—and to many, they thereby represent stepping stones toward some ultimate victory. A victory over death itself.

It should go without saying that the death of winter would spell the death of much more than winter. We are talking about a different, much more definitive kind of death: the death that is unleashed by Ursula K. LeGuin’s narcissistic dark wizard, Cob, or implied by Mary Shelley’s undead monster. The hubris of seeking to maximize life by dismantling the cycle to which it belongs is an ancient warning to which techno-capitalism systematically blinds us.

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It would be an exaggeration to say that these thoughts brought me comfort in the last hours of artificial heat before our long winter tour. I also knew better than to ask for comfort. Fear of winter is a healthy fear, because winter is a fantastic adversary. By pitting ourselves against it in slow motion, like Jen and I intended to do, there would be no conquest. We knew going in that we could not destroy our opponent without destroying ourselves. But if we escaped with our lives—winning them back from the silent maw of entropy, if only for another season—we could greet spring as for the first time, and know the greatest beauty of all.

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Todd Burritt is the author of Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone. His second book, Cold on the Land, will explore the themes of winter and mortality in the landscapes surrounding his home of Livingston, Montana. He has a creative writing degree from UM.