Winter: a time for contemplation

As the winter solstice looms in the northern hemisphere, five academics reflect on the light and dark of the dead season

December 20, 2018
Field

Old December’s bareness

In his essay, “The passing wisdom of birds”, the nature writer Barry Lopez advocates that every university establish the post of in-house naturalist, to be held in rotation by a student in his or her final year. The university naturalist would record the flora and nonhuman fauna of the campus and advise about how best to look after them. He or she would be like a university archivist, but of the outdoors.

Although I’m not a student, I should like to apply for this position. As a university naturalist I am, in CV-speak, a dynamic self-starter with a strong skill set. I’m also good at looking out of windows and spotting the seasonal shifts: like the arrival of winter on campus, with the first frost on the path and the squirrels hoarding beechmast and berries.

I teach in a building that backs on to a garden full of London plane trees. Outside one of my classrooms, there is a tree so close that you can reach out the window and almost touch its branches. The London plane is the perfect urban tree for our urban university: its knobbly bark and leathery leaves hoover up polluted air. It also sends out an early signal of autumn, shedding leaves even before Michaelmas. Yet the sheltering wall of our building – and, presumably, global warming – has, for this particular tree, held back the full force of the fall. Even now, in December, a few shrivelled, yellowish leaves cling on.

I ask my first-year students to guess how many leaves that tree had when they started their course in September. Puzzled as to why their literature class has turned into nature study, they humour me and guess a thousand. Times that by at least a hundred, I say. Look. It’s been shedding leaves since induction week, and still has some left.

We are meant to be discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare never set eyes on a London plane, which is a late 17th-century hybrid. But he knew his trees, and lived in a world where they were vital – for making ships, houses, furniture, books. And while teaching the sonnets this year, something obvious has dawned on me. Shakespeare doesn’t really think in seasons, which are a human construct anyway. He thinks in micro-seasons, subtly blurring into each other.

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold,” Sonnet 73 begins, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang”. I used to think that second line was just lazily fixing up the metre, but now I love its self-cancelling order and the way it catches a precise stage of late autumn moving into early winter. Leaves in the sonnets have many states, depending on the micro-season. They are “lusty”, “fair”, “vacant”, “barren”, or “look pale, dreading the winter’s near”. And then they are gone, replaced by “old December’s bareness everywhere”.

 

Branch with one leaf

 

This year, I have noticed the micro-seasons myself, perhaps because I have suddenly felt part of what the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie calls “that rough tribe of the mortal”. And it’s not just other people who seem fragile and vulnerable. Nature feels vulnerable too, and every moment of autumn has felt like an exquisite death, a bereavement.

I’ve noted it all as the light in this afternoon seminar has slowly dimmed: the first swallows gathering on the telephone wires before their journey south; the first heavy dewfall; the first air from the Arctic; the first buzz of the gardeners’ leaf blowers in November. Meanwhile, the demands of term-time have felt more than ever like a perpetual juggernaut that acknowledges neither the seasons nor the particularity of individual lives.

Trees, our longest-living organisms, fool us into thinking that things are permanent. Alone among plants, they raise a wooden scaffolding above the ground – building, in annual increments, a frame on which to hang their leaves, while their heartwood grows hard in death and serves as a backbone. In winter, when so many other things are absent or dead, their leafless skeletons stand proud and, seemingly, immortal.

But people aren’t as sturdy as trees. As Shakespeare reminds us in the sonnets, they are more like leaves, waiting on winter. Each human life burns itself out, is “consum’d with that which it was nourished by”.

For the students – I hope – autumn is what it used to be for me: a new start, a second spring, what the French call la rentrée . Long may they feel cocooned in this illusion of continuity, that there will always be another semester, that life will go on as before.

You have to be ready to notice things – in literature as in life. When you do, they are right there in front of you, hidden in plain sight. And now life just seems too short and precious not to notice every falling leaf.

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University.


Windows in the tunnel 

It’s late January. There’s still no sunshine. You’ve run out of Lemsip and tissues in the office. Angry emails bounce in about those overdue peer review reports. The committee you couldn’t avoid has a 90-page compliance form. Deadlines loom for six letters of recommendation, and a heavy stack of student essays has just thudded on to your desk.

In other words, the landscape is dark, outside and in. We are at the furthest point from two of our most gleaming desiderata: permission to relax because it’s warm, and permission to relax because we’ve actually finished enough work. Some of us never properly feel like we’ve earned these things, which makes the cold months of the new year feel like the most impossible of times. Now is the winter of our academic discontent.

But since murdering our rivals won’t solve anything, and generally isn’t a recommended career move within the university, here are three suggestions of safer ways to rescue our post-solstice sanity.

Make deadlines a social event: There’s that thing that you owe. We all have one – the book review, the grant report, comments on that presentation. You’ve been putting it off, but, like the groundhog, it casts a long shadow. You feel plenty busy, but you also feel sick at heart over this ever-unticked item in your list. The trouble is that since it isn’t actually due today, or on any given day, it might never get done.

One solution: make a two-hour work date with a colleague who shares your insecurities and who has an equally crushing must-do-at-some-point-soon list. Promise each other music, wine, bad TV or a handful of leftover holiday chocolates as soon as you’ve both ticked one item off your lists. Do this weekly if it’s something big. This technique works especially well in the humanities, where the disciplines don’t rely on collaboration as heavily as the sciences do. You’ll have accountability without micromanagement, and sociability without guilt.

Read a damn book: Perhaps you aren’t putting anything off at all. Perhaps you’re getting all your work done. But perhaps you also haven’t thought about anything except work and that relentless to-do list since you guiltily agreed to take a 48-hour break from working over the holidays, at your family’s insistence. In fact, perhaps you haven’t thought seriously about anything but work for months. Or for longer than anyone hoping to be considered human would be willing to admit. It’s probably making you feel miserable and claustrophobic, and perhaps you suddenly hate everything.

 

Books in a window

 

One sure remedy is to read a book outside your field. Waaaaay outside your field. If you work on Chaucer, read popular economics. If you’re in geophysics, read a popular history. If you’re in anthropology, read up on popular astronomy. You may have received a book like this in your Christmas stocking from an aunt who still can’t quite work out what you actually study. You could even try less popular, more academic works. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll feel smugly confirmed in your life choices.

But a better result is that you might remember why you loved learning in the first place. An even better result is that you’ll remember that other disciplines have wholly different approaches, and you’ll find yourself a little bit less locked into your own mental habits. And if your aunt hasn’t come up trumps and you don’t know how or what to read outside your field? Call that one person in the French/management/education/maths department you once met at an icebreaker, and ask their advice. You’ll earn a fan for life.

Mentor: Faced with that 90-page compliance form, it is easy to feel as though we academics are the most put-upon people in the planet. And we do, legitimately, have plenty to complain about. Nor can we vent to non-academic friends, because they might only tell us to hang on until June because we get the summer “off”. Yet when you hit peak self-pity, it’s a good time to remember that plenty of your colleagues may legitimately have more worries than you – especially those who are more junior and whose position or representation in the university is more precarious.

Giving disadvantaged colleagues some extra attention will get you out of your pigeonhole and also help your department. Those of us who have reached mid-career have developed plenty of useful professional skills. Grant-writing? PhD supervision? A classroom technique? Structuring a 20-minute talk? These might now be so instinctive that we could easily offer a workshop to pass on our tips, with little preparation. A workshop is also another stellar destination for that still-festive chocolate. Barring that, you could offer to review the CV, job talk, cover letter or conference paper of someone who needs a leg up. It sounds counter-intuitive to commit to yet one more thing, but it will do you both a world of good.

There’s a good reason why so many winter festivals emphasise bright lights, goodwill and sociability; these things are necessary all winter long. And with a little effort, even the grumpiest academics can sustain some of that spirit all the way until the daffodils appear and the spring break is in sight.

Emily Michelson is a senior lecturer in history at the University of St Andrews.

Snow joke

The annual joke about Toronto that the rest of Canada likes to tell relates to the time when, in 1999, the city’s mayor called in the army to help with snow clearing. It’s Canada’s version of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen sketch, when other cities retell their tales of real snowmaggedons and how their local cub scouts licked the roads clean before school.

Aside from the balmy west coast cities of Vancouver and Victoria, Toronto has fairly mild winters compared with the rest of Canada. And, by a quirk of the large body of water called Lake Ontario, it manages to dodge most of its rightful snowfall, to the direct detriment of Buffalo, New York.

Even so, it can get chilly here (as I write this in late November, it is already −8ºC) and there are days when any exposed flesh lets you know about its imperilled existence in about 50 microseconds. Don’t worry, they say, it’s a dry cold. It doesn’t feel as though your ears will drop off. This is true because loss of sensation precedes the loss of actual bits of skin.

For these reasons, the rest of the world might question Canada’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. Every year a bit more of the country thaws out. Ever wonder why we’re still trying to build oil pipelines?

Canadian winters are measurably shorter and warmer than they were just a couple of decades ago, when my family was confronted by a major storm just a few days after arriving in Toronto from London Heathrow. We had been warned, and dutifully decked out our kids in snow suits modelled on the Michelin Man. The four feet of white stuff that dropped overnight (I can hear the Winnipeggers sneering) was quite something: beautiful, twinkling snow. I spent a few hours clearing the drive with a woefully inadequate plastic shovel, wondering why the neighbours hadn’t yet done theirs. That is until the municipal plough drove down the street and forged a wall of compacted snow across the driveway. Lesson learned.

 

Snow plough

 

But the missteps of new Canadians lighten the mood of those that have been here for longer, who just keep calm and carry on, staying inside when possible. Most universities close for two weeks over Christmas and New Year and turn down the heating to save a few million dollars. Some professors bring in their own electric heaters, mainly to guilt trip students when classes restart. But I work in a hospital research institute, so we get to stay warm over the holiday period, along with all the amateur Santas nursing twisted ankles. Being Toronto wimps, our downtown hospitals have tunnels between buildings so we can pretend we are somewhere more temperate.

Some aspects of academic life do have to be winterised. The first is the external speaker schedule. Airport departure times are a very imprecise art when de-icing is required, so forget about inviting people from anywhere else – at least for a second visit. Instead, winter is a good time to catch up with Canadian academic friends.

The second is that construction stops. Since every campus normally has an array of buildings going up at any given time, this cessation results in a noticeable drop in ambient noise and vibration. Third, building entrances are decked out in absorbent mats that need changing out daily as they saturate with salt, grit and “snowmelt”. This mandates waterproof footwear, including inside buildings. Even the psychology profs have to forgo their Birkenstocks for the season. The squeaky rubber footwear precludes anyone sneaking in late to the back of class.

It also means that effective lecture theatre capacity is halved owing to the need to put coats, scarves, earmuffs, mittens, hats and snowshoes somewhere. Actual teaching time is also compressed by the need to robe and disrobe, although by February some students remain partially wrapped, having mastered the art of typing through mittens.

But, overall, the Canadian winter is a pleasant academic season. Students are well into their stride, expectations are known and the locations of lecture halls and seminar rooms are familiar. The coldest days are also the ones with the bluest skies and the clearest nights. There’s hot chocolate, skating rinks and ice sculptures. It’s a winter wonderland.

By contrast, the ugliest season is spring, when the pristine snow melts to reveal accumulated detritus from the past few months, accompanied by deep mud puddles. In Winnipeg, the lengthening of the days is also accompanied by the rapid development of mosquito larvae. Toronto’s dry cold has its benefits.

Jim Woodgett is director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Toronto.


Seasonal adjustments

Some Januarys ago, after a run of mild, damp winters in England, I booked myself on to a flight to Stockholm for no other purpose than to experience some proper winter weather.

It didn’t disappoint. The city was swaddled in a thick duvet of snow, and at night, in the windows of the sturdy fin de siècle apartment blocks, candles glimmered in a vision of Nordic cosiness. My need for a fix of seasonal distinctiveness was more than satisfied.

In Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons, based on James Thomson’s poem of the same name, the annual cycle begins with spring and ends with winter, a trajectory that reflects our own sense of the human life cycle, from spring-like birth to the vigour of summer, the ripeness of autumn and the wintry decrepitude of old age.

I find myself approaching my autumn, duly mellowing, with the fruits of my life’s labours falling into my lap. But Haydn’s text doesn’t spare me: “So understand, misguided man, the picture of thy life is here: Thy Spring was short and now is gone,/exhausted is thy Summer’s strength./For now are come thine Autumn years,/while Winter pale already nears,/and shows to thee the open tomb.”

We only get one go at life. But the academic year is both cyclical and seasonal. When the late summer nights start to draw in we know that it’s time to gird our loins to review those course outlines and prepare beaming faces for the influx of new students. Easter marks the onslaught of the exams season, and summer (eventually) delivers time for R&R, before the cycle renews itself, bringing either cheerful anticipation or a weary “here we go again”.

Yet it is cockeyed that the academic year begins with the descent into winter. The start of a new calendar year, with the arrival of a new cohort of students, should surely coincide with the promise of spring (which, while we’re at it, should really begin with the new year, in January). And the students should reap the harvest of their efforts in autumn, not summer.

 

Person walking through wintry forest

 

But rites of initiation (and what else is a young person’s passage through university?) typically require the initiate to descend into the underworld, or get lost in a dark forest, to prepare for enlightenment. Haydn’s oratorio begins with a stormy prelude that represents this passage from winter confusion to the beneficence of spring. Perhaps the new academic year’s descent into winter marks the moment when, after the adrenalin-protected first encounter with university life, many students get stricken with a sense of the enormity of the challenge before them, and perhaps of their inadequacy to meet it.

Winter also brings its own comforts when, with the arrival of the Christmas vacation, the students can return to the womb-like warmth of home and family, as reassurance that the old, secure world of childhood that they are gradually leaving behind is not yet gone forever.

So what does winter bring to the yearly cycle of the academic? Many people seem to dread its advent. But as the leaves clatter from the plane trees outside my study window, my winter outlook, obscured all summer, emerges into view again. Hello, I say, to the familiar church spire that reveals itself across the roofscape, and to the BT Tower some miles further distant. I welcome winter. A fine summer evening can sometimes seem like a reproach when I’m holed up inside, head somewhere in the 16th century; winter dusk invites one to hunker down and climb into the time machine without regret.

In truth, however, we are inoculated from the realities of the seasons in our largely urban existences, until they come back to bite us in travel chaos or worse. The bucolic vision of the countryside that Haydn shared with his Viennese audience in 1801 was pastoral make-believe, for all its summer storms and wintry shudders. Art anthropomorphises and prettifies the seasons to make us feel in control of the natural world, and in the UK we are protected by a, for the moment, still temperate climate that makes it easy to ignore the global changes that are edging nearer day by day.

There is false reassurance when seasonal weather seems to behave as it should: when it’s gusty in March and showers in April; when it’s frosty in winter. No wonder I hope for properly wintry weather again this year (knowing that I won’t be shivering on a picket line this time round). But how much longer can we kid ourselves that all is well when it snows in winter?

Nicholas Till is professor of opera and music theatre at University of Sussex


Story time

I can make any excuse not to sit at my laptop and write. The dog needs a walk, scripts need marking, coffee needs making (and then drinking while it’s warm). But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about characters, stories, plots.

I love the way winter can shatter and challenge our routines. An icy blast turns roads and pavements into danger zones; an unexpected deluge of snow forces us to stop what we normally do. Last year, when the bitter weather system known as the Beast from the East struck the UK, I ended up being stranded in Nottingham, unable to make my long commute, so I skidded across the city to a cheap B&B. It shook up my routine but provided wonderful material for a story.

I’m used to hearing people make excuses for not writing. But, if you do want to write, whether it’s a novel, play, memoir or poetry, now is the perfect time to begin. We all have valid stories to tell. Our experiences can speak volumes but maybe we just need to dig deeper, to go further in order to find those key themes and stories that speak to others. No one lacks creativity. No one lacks worthwhile experience on which to draw. No one lacks the ability to tell a story. Sometimes, we just need a shake to see the world through fresh eyes.

Stories are what make us human. We communicate our ideas through stories, we communicate our lives through stories, and we get to know strangers through stories. Stories help us make sense of the world and help us understand who we are.

 

Writer

 

One of the oldest myths to help explain seasonal change is that of Osiris. It’s a story of sibling rivalry, of desire for power (to rule Egypt), of murder, love, rebirth and return. Osiris, the king, is tricked by his bother into a coffin, which is nailed shut then set afloat on the Nile. The coffin comes ashore against a tree, into which Osiris’ body grows. When discovered, the beautiful tree is returned to the palace and Osiris is briefly brought back to life. The myth helped explain the loss of crops and food, the bleakness of the winter months and then the magnificent return of the force for good (spring).

Many stories deal with this cycle of struggle, death and rebirth (either literal or metaphorical). There’s often a point where the hero is at their wits’ end and all is lost: where the safe, secure (though imperfect), old world that they knew has long since gone. In story structure, we call it the dark night of the soul. But on the story goes, and the protagonist comes through (hopefully) and battles on into act three.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell discusses how we re-tell the same story over and over. It’s the story of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, of Luke in Star Wars. It’s a story of transformation. But who or what is holding us back from what we really want to do? We are our own worst enemy. The cave you most fear to enter holds the treasure you seek, says Campbell.

I love the heat of summer. I love long, warm evenings. But I also love the places to which seasons take us. Seasons help to shake us up. They remind us that we can change.

If you want to write then don’t put it off. Use this time: use the long nights and the frosted windows. Use the walk to the pub, the mulled wine, the roaring fire. Use anything you can to generate ideas.

To riff on the winter theme, creativity and self-expression can let in the light. We don’t need to fight or fear the winter, we need it in order to grow. So, if it’s what you want, no excuses. Write.

Anthony Cropper is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Nottingham Trent University.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: In the bleak midwinter

Reader's comments (2)

Beautiful words. I have always loved the four seasons. As an avid, amateur gardener, I appreciate winter when gardening stops and reading, planning and dreaming begins. Thank you for sharing these essays that once again help me to appreciate winter.
Loved every bit of these essays

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