“…a regular snowstorm has commenced, fine flakes falling steadily, and rapidly whitening all the landscape. In half an hour the russet earth is painted white even to the horizon. Do we know of any other so silent and sudden a change?”
Leah and I decided to rename our property עץ קר, or “cold tree”, which isn’t a terrifically original variation on the existing “Winterwood.” I thought perhaps to take it a little bit further, for those who know me and are familiar with colloquial Hebrew, and name it עץ קר רוח, but Leah said no.
That said, our property is now living up to its Hebrew or English name.
A couple of weeks ago, the temperature minus windchill was -10º F. We had a couple of belches of snow to go along with it, and finally, while we were on vacation in Williamsburg, Virginia, Maine enjoyed its first nor’easter of the winter.
The plow delightfully did our long driveway and roundabout, so that we came home to the mere thin white sheen covering our gravel driveway. We post-holed through to the house, and I got the snowblowers going to clear our large deck and paths to the cars. Much to my consternation, while the top layer of fresh powder yielded, the frozen base three inches rendered both of my snowblowers impotent.
The following day brought with it continued labors against the snow, a Girl Scout cookie rally for Amelia, and a wood fire accompanying a BBC Cumberbatch Sherlock binge. Today, as I work, some non-committal snow falls. A crop of spindly icicles dangle precariously from the A-frame soffit outcrop above my office windows.
This house came with three heating systems. Electric baseboard heaters which soak money, two kerosene heaters strategically placed and capable of whole house warmth, and our favorite, the woodstove which easily heats the 2000 square feet of our entire house, perhaps excluding the mud room.
But that’s not really the kind of warmth I’m talking about here.
We’ve just come off of Chanukah. Talmud Bavli (Avodah Zara 8b) tells us that Adam himself was terrified of the shorter days, and fasted for eight days, until the darkest day of the year. After that day, he saw the days become longer, and learned that this particular mechanic was the way of things. This, the rabbis believed, was the unknown origin of pagan solstice festivals, and part of why the Maharal and many rabbis opted for the miracle of lights over the story of the Maccabees for Chanukah – no accident that we are in Kislev lighting the darkest time of the year. The mitzvah d’rabbanan of Chanukah was indeed instituted in a time when the Jewish people had no “light” from the Divine, the winter of a dispirited and occupied people.
Staying warm is a lower human function, like eating or sleeping. We understand instinctively that being cold is bad. We’ve long recognized our relationship to the sun
But to answer Thoreau’s rhetorical question: The human heart often changes silently and suddenly. I mentioned קר רוח above, though its translation of “nonchalance” or “dispassionate” isn’t a true fit for “cold hearted” (that would be לב קר). When the heart goes cold, when a relationship sours, when love dies, it’s all too easy to grab any number of desolate winter metaphors.
The Talmud indicates that fire didn’t exist at Creation, just the potential for fire. We don’t truly need the fire until it’s dark and we are cold; we do the work to simulate what the Creator did on a grander scale. Similarly, we can do the same with our relationships with other humans.
Winter is my preferred season. I love skiing. I love falling snow. I love the silence of the woods. I value most the test…it was why I loved being an arctic paratrooper in Alaska years ago. Nature throws its cruelest at you. Food is scarce, temperatures can be fatal, but the tools are on hand to survive.
With effort, one can stay warm in any winter.