Wild Ideas: Winter solstice brings ambivalence   

Tomorrow (Dec. 21) is the winter solstice, which marks the longest night of the year and the official start of winter, and as usual, I’m ambivalent about it.

The winter solstice marks the longest night of the year and the beginning of increasing daylight. By Pam Owen

Winter has long been seen as a time of death, followed by rebirth in the spring, in many parts of the world. As author Gary Zukav wrote a few years ago in a Huffpost blog, “The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.”

While I tend to share this view, I also have had moments in winter, particularly when living in Montana and Wyoming, where I’ve seen the season’s grandeur on full display. “He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter,” wrote naturalist, nature essayist, and conservationist John Burroughs in his 1875 book “Winter Sunshine.” “In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.”

Although exploring nature is tricky where I live, even when snow and ice are not on the ground, I do get out when I can during the day, and often admire the winter skies at night, particularly during meteor showers. But winter is also a great time to catch up on my reading.

Every year I revisit my favorite book about the season, “Winter World,” by biology professor and awarding-winning nature writer Bernd Heinrich. He explores many of the evolutionary adaptations that enable animals to survive harsh winter conditions. “Each species experiences the world differently, and many species have capacities that are far different from ours,” he writes, adding that “they can show us the unimaginable.” The book is written as a series of essays rich in science as well as in Heinrich’s personal experiences, making it easy to dive into any chapter.

Nature writer Marcia Bonta offers a more casual, day-to-day journal of the season in “Appalachian Winter,” which I also like to revisit this time of year. It’s the final book in a series in which Bonta tracks nature throughout the year on her and her husband’s 648-acre property in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, which they’ve turned into a nature preserve. (See more at marciabonta.wordpress.com.)

Although I’ve never met Bonta, we do have a few things in common. A passionate observer of nature rather than a scientist, she wrote a nature column for years before turning to lecturing and writing books. She was 65, a couple of years younger than I am now, when she wrote “Appalachian Winter.” And I appreciate her thoughts on exploring nature this time of year: “Winter presents the most challenges. Freezing rain, wind chill, deep snow, and cold temperatures, the danger that I might slip and fall on ice, mean that I dress more warmly, carry a cell phone and use a walking stick.”

While deep snows are not as common in Rappahannock County, even at 1,000 feet up on the mountain where I live, I do take a cell phone and a hiking pole when rambling on the property or public and private preserves nearby. Although the phone is worthless for calling in most of these places, it does carry a bunch of apps and a camera that I use for my work. Over years of hiking alone, in various places in the U.S. and Canada, I’ve learned to be extra observant and careful, especially in remote locations, and never go off without a hiking pole.

For new winter-reading choices, I’ve been checking out Smithsonian.com’s list of “10 best science books of 2018,” which explores a wide range of discoveries and experiments on the frontiers of science. See the Smithsonian.com for a blurb on each book.

As winter creeps along, seeming to stretch out forever on my horizon, I try to keep in mind nature writer Hal Borland’s off-quoted statement about the season, from his book “Sundial of the Seasons”: “No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.”

Happy Solstice!

© 2018 Pam Owen

Smithsonian.com’s ‘10 best science books of 2018’

Find more about each book at Smithsonian.com.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”