Friday, 18 December 2009


Having just read Em the luddite's post about snow in the South, I want to be clear about something.

Notwithstanding how much I gripe about the cold and how little anyone in the 'South' (ie. south of me, ie. most of populated Canada and the rest of the world) will be able to understand just how cold it is, I do find it quite pretty here. "Quite pretty" fails semantically. Whenever I see the hills from work, I pause--only for a moment, but I do pause--with a sense of blessedness that I get to live amid these hills. This was true in the summer, but in the winter it is more striking because it is newer. I've never seen these bluffs cloaked in white before. They look wilder like this, and I just want to get into them, tromp through forest drifts. I probably will do so this week.

There is a view in Fort McMurray which does, upon first seeing it, take your breath away. Whether you fly in or drive north on Highway 63, you will enter Fort McMurray at its southernmost point, which is the Gregoire-MacKenzie Industrial Park-Beaconhill trifecta. Driving north along 63 from there, you will come down "the hill"* into the Lower Townsite-Waterways area. As you come down, the hills still climb to your left but, as you ease around something of a bend and as Gregoire peters out, the trees and rocks and bush to your right will drop away and you'll see meadows roll down to a cluster of pines and spruce that give in to the Clearwater River, behind which the long, bare cliffs of the further hills can be seen. In the summer, when you first see it, the meadows are the light rich green of grass and the forest is the dusty dark of pines and the Clearwater is quicksilver and the cliffs behind are a pale earth forested with more pines and spruces that show, again, just how wide a palette "green" can be. I have not yet seen this during the daylight in the winter; I have seen it at dusk and by moonlight. Tomorrow I will go with my folks to pick my brother up at the airport, though, and this will be during the daylight. I wait with bated breath, because what little I have seen through the gloaming has hinted that it will be wonderful.

I love the winter light. It is white. Summer's warm radiance, signified best to me by a patch of gold on the rug, is nice in its place. But nothing says 'bookisness' to me like the white of an overcast day, and nothing says 'holidays and happiness' to me like bookishness. For those who haven't experienced it, when the ground is carpeted in snow and the sky is overcast, what sunlight comes through is reflected between the snow and the clouds back and forth, as though trapped between mirrors. Unlike a day with snow on the ground and a clear sky, it's usually not painfully bright (though it can be). The light, since filtered by clouds and reflected by snow, is white. Next to an incandescent bulb it looks blue, but next to a fluorescent bulb you can see what real white light it is. And since it's muffled from above and deflected from below, it's diffuse. There are no shadows. Nothing glows; there is no clear light source. There is just light.

I dislike the cold, I get claustraphobic and frustrated if I'm overdressed, my hands and legs hurt if I'm underdressed (in -35 to -45 Celsius, at any rate), I don't like getting footprints in snow, I don't like the time it takes to get dressed or the snow and water that spreads through the house no matter what you do or the mud that spreads through stores no matter what you do. You cannot kayak in the winter and there are no dragonflies or moths. Walking the dog becomes a much bigger chore than in the summer and shoveling snow emerges as grave and mature as Athena but as needy and tiring as a baby. Winter is not my favourite season--it ties for last with summer--but I must say that despite the recurrent frustrations--frustration so blinding that it's like panic only not rooted in fear--it can like no other season give a sense of underlying peace, joy, and maybe even rapture.

The hymns I associate with spring are ones of hope and renewal. I associate no hymns with summer, actually, but as a season I would characterize it as having a sense of possibility and maybe freedom. Autumn must always be new to me, gemini to spring, because that's when I start school (except this year); were it not for that it would be reaping the fruits of industriousness, winding down, impending rest. The hymns I associate with winter, though, are not properly hymns but rather carols. "Jingle Bells," yes, and, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but more often the slow ones, so full of circumstance: "We Three Kings," "Silent Night," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "O Come O Come Emmanuel." These songs are full of majesty. Not bursting with majesty, but full like filled wineskins or a well-packed lunchbox. They are soft, quiet, paced. And they are minor key, many of them. I don't know much about music theory, but minor key always strikes me as more monumental, as somehow out of our realm--fey, ominous, portentious, netherworldly, tragic, wild, or ecstatic. These carols are thus majestic, reserved, gentle, wild, full, rapturous, and otherworldy. They are that which is good about winter.

Winter is also dangerous. As a recently-initiated local historian, I am learning about fronteir Alberta in the early 1900s and am discovering just how dangerous winter could be. To us it means broken hips and sliding tires and poor visibility. To others it meant--and means--starvation and hypothermia and crashing planes and isolation and cabin fever and windigo and madness and darkness and other versions of death. If during winter the earth sleeps, than the earth has violent parasomnia. Winter is dark and dangerous and deathly, and that's how it functions as a metaphor in Frye's seasonal genres and in C. S. Lewis' fiction. This cannot be ignored, and as I pause before those hoary hills whenever I glimpse them at work, I also feel as well as I can how the early settlers of Fort McMurray must have felt about those hills--promise and freedom, hardship and death, mundanity and superreality cheek-by-cheek.

Winter is not my favourite season, no. But it is to me by far the most evocative, and I hope I always feel it.


*Sorry to confuse you, but there are at least three "the hill"s in Fort McMurray, four if you live in or know someone who lives in Abasand Heights.
**Once I have an appropriate one, I will post a photo of Fort McMurray in the winter on here.


Em the luddite said...

I once lived in Chicago, and we used to feel the sting of cold despite our bundles and suddenly reflect "Hey, there's a whole STATE above us!" which would slowly morph into "...and there's a whole COUNTRY above them!" Snow in the north is a whole different species. I'm glad to hear it can still be magical!

yolanda said...

thanks for the evocative post. i haven't been missing winter too much, but it is strange experiencing the holidays in an entirely different way. i miss the "bookishness" but whenever it drops below 20 in the evenings, mostly on travels up into the hills, i feel something that might be an echo of it. at least for someone living in buj.

Em the luddite said...

Incidentally, I don't know if this is weird coming from someone who's never met you, but I was thinking about you last night. We actually started to get real snow ("real," here being defined as "snow that really sticks to the ground"), and I went outside to enjoy it around midnight. There I was in my pajamas, slippers, and bathrobe, alternating which bare hand was being kept warm by my pocket and which by my pipe as the snow stuck to my hair and bathrobe and crunched under my slippers, and I thought, "Hmm... that Christian H character out there has to enjoy snow without being able to do it quite this way." I am ever impressed by Canadians.

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