When we think of the way that winter is depicted in our modern culture, we may think of loneliness, darkness, and loss. We may think of the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, a character who embodies many of our modern sentiments toward winter: cold and conspiring and devoid of hope. If the White Witch had her way, it would always be winter, yet never Christmas. We might echo the popular Game of Thrones refrain, “Winter is coming,” which strikes a chord with us because we have somehow experienced winter as ominous or foreboding.
Then winter eventually gives way to spring. As the harsh bite of winter’s cold recedes, we might think about the way in which it can give us more perspective on the other more agreeable seasons. As Adam Gopnik says, “If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely.” In some sense, many of us believe that winter is merely something to survive on our way to spring. The opening lines of William Shakespeare’s play Richard III appear to confirm this idea: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.” The speaker here, the yet-to-be-king Richard III, is celebrating the crowning of his brother, the son of York, as king because it means the end of the oppression of his family. “The winter of our discontent,” he says, has been made into “glorious summer.” The seasonal metaphors are clear: winter is bad; summer is good.
It is true that things do not appear as though they were made to be in winter. Farmers do not harvest, trees do not bear fruit, flowers do not bloom. Winter seems to posture itself against the very things that give our lives sustenance and beauty. Aslan, the divine protagonist of Narnia, is the picture of warmth and welcome, the antidote to the cold White Witch: “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight / At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more / when he bares his teeth, winter meets its death / And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
Here, I argue that our modern understanding of winter as bad and spring and summer as good, though a useful literary device, is unhelpful if we want to live holistic and sustainable lives. We have allowed the White Witch sense of winter to dictate our understanding of the season, and we have become more disconnected from the natural world than we have ever been. The natural world has become something to be commodified, dominated, and controlled, sometimes to devastating effects. However, the irony of our modern world is that the season we most want to push to the margins of our lives has become a central character. Indeed, as global temperatures rise, ice caps melt, glaciers and arctic boundaries recede, and sea levels rise, we are reminded of the central role that winter plays not only for the well-being of our planet but also for the well-being of individuals and communities.
Over the last four hundred years, the natural world, often given the affectionate name of Mother Nature for its life-giving and fertile qualities, has been under siege by those who wish to subdue and control it without much regard for its well-being. The British philosopher Mary Midgley has noted that the pursuit of the bounty of nature has often been shaded by sexual undertones of rape and torture, and in the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon famously announced the “masculine birth of time” and the Royal Society in Britain claimed that the proper pursuit of science was to find “a truly masculine philosophy.” Wendell Berry believes that this masculine and often violent way of relating to the natural world is a distinctly modern phenomenon, an “elaborately rationalized rape and plunder of the natural world that is a new thing under the sun,” and Midgley argues that this modern “radical de-mothering of nature and the earth” has helped pave the way for the technological subjugation of the natural world. We now assume that the world is here to serve our needs, and when it does not, in the form of natural disasters or limited resources or bad wintry weather, the natural world becomes to us a nuisance or a thing to be subdued and conquered. We have turned Mother Nature into a disobedient child.
However, the story of our relationship to the natural world is more complicated than that. If one presses the de-mothering narrative too far (Midgley and Berry do not), it can lead to unhelpful misgivings, like believing that technology, in all its forms, is bad. This is simply untrue—humans need technology to live sustainably in communities; it’s one of the traits that makes us uniquely human. To live sustainably in close proximity to many other people has meant that we have necessarily become dependent on one another via creative technologies that provide everyone with many of life’s essentials, like food, clothing, and shelter. In turn, this dependency has given us the freedom to think beyond our next meal and to begin to tell stories, create art, develop culture, and grow in numbers. But as we have grown in numbers, we have also grown in space, which has required us to expand our borders and to live in a variety of places and in a variety of climates, including winter climates.
To a certain extent, this winter living has meant that we must learn to muzzle its deadly bite. As Gopnik says, “The conquest of winter, as both a physical fact and an imaginative act, is one of the great chapters in the modern renegotiations of the world’s boundaries.” This is true: our ability to live and even thrive in cold climates is one of the great achievements of humanity. But in conquering winter, we have also turned it into an afterthought, an annoyance, or an arena merely for recreation. Winter with a purpose or meaning can now only be found in books or movies, not the outdoors.
One of the main reasons we have been able to conquer winter is our ability to build shelters. Shelter-making is so significant that Henry David Thoreau imagined it to be one of the first creative acts of humanity:
But, probably, man did not live long on earth without discovering the convenience which there is in a house, the domestic comforts. . . . He was at first bare and out of doors; but though this was pleasant enough in serene and warm weather, by daylight, the rainy season and the winter, to say nothing of the torrid sun, would perhaps have nipped his race in the bud if he had not made haste to clothe himself with the shelter of a house. Adam and Eve, according to the fable, wore the bower before other clothes. Man wanted a home, a place of warmth, or comfort, first of warmth, then the warmth of the affections.
Despite the early roots of shelter-making that Thoreau imagined here, the modern revelation of shelter is not just that it gives people comfort but that it also gives people an opportunity to observe the world at a distance. Gopnik identifies the advent of central heating in England in the mid-nineteenth century as one of the main reasons for this revelation. Central heating changed the way we thought about space because warm spaces were no longer localized to a fire or a particular space but could be everywhere that could be sheltered. In the twenty-first century, this means that our warm spaces know no bounds—we build cars and garages and underground cities and tunnels to help ensure that we are cold or uncomfortable (i.e., outside) as little as possible. As a result, shelters in the modern world have made winter something to look at as much as something to live through. As Gopnik says, “Once you were truly warm, winter was, more than ever, for watching. Winter became first of all a thing to see.”
Comfort, like technology, is not necessarily a bad thing. There has recently been a deluge of articles and books on the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”), which might be best described as winter “coziness.” This sense of hygge emphasizes the simple pleasures and comforts that come with the season of winter—think knitted things, warm drinks, fires, and friends. Instead of viewing winter as an inconvenience, hygge helps people view it as an opportunity to engage in simple activities that are not possible in the hustle and bustle of the warm seasons. Hygge is a romantic view of winter because it would not be possible to enjoy simple activities in winter without the security of a warm shelter.
To me, hygge represents the best and the worst of our modern approach to winter. Retreating to the safety of the warm indoors and taking in the simple pleasures can, as Gopnik argues, allow us to sit, reflect, and take in the beauty of winter. This can help soften its harsh bite. The beauty of a new snowfall can transform a once familiar landscape into a winter wonderland, as if we were observing another world. As J. B. Priestley writes, “The first fall . . . is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment, where is it to be found?” Indeed, the enchantment of winter can hardly be rivaled by the other seasons, but enchantment itself cannot bear the weight of winter.
Even though it is good to appreciate beauty and to be cozy and comfortable in the midst of winter, it is a rather narrow and modern way of appropriating winter. Critics of hygge describe it as “unabashedly bourgeois” and even closed-minded because it celebrates a certain way of life that not everyone has access to. If the pursuit of hygge is taken too far, it can easily exclude those who do not have the resources to be comfortable in winter, like many immigrants and people of lower income. In other words, hygge is a luxury, not a way of life.
If we take seriously the task of living holistically and sustainably with all of our neighbors in this world, then we must begin to rethink the way we understand and relate to physical space, particularly the spaces created by shelters. We need shelters, especially in winter. But in many cases we have transformed our shelters into refuges not only from the discomfort of the outdoors but also from the discomfort of our neighbors. Therefore, we must learn how to reengage with our shelters so that we can in turn learn to reengage with the things outside of our shelters, too.
The difficulty with engaging with our modern-day shelters—and this is also the difficulty with most modern technology—is that the mechanisms that form our shelters are concealed to the untrained eye. If you are not a tradesperson involved in some aspect of the construction of a home or a building, it is likely that you do not know how a structure is framed, how outlets and lights are wired, how water is piped, or how vents circulate air. It would be unreasonable to ask everyone to have knowledge of these things, but these mechanisms have become so concealed and unintuitive that it is very difficult to figure out how these things work on our own. We are always dependent on someone else. Eventually, this difficulty will lead most of us to disengage with the actual mechanisms of our home in favor of a surface-level engagement with finished products. This can also be seen outside the home: the mechanisms by which we receive our food, clothes, phones, computers, and cars—you name it—have all been obscured by a long production process that seems to have an endless amount of moving parts. The philosopher Albert Borgmann identifies this process of concealment as one of the most influential and concerning characteristics of modern technology because concealment encourages disengagement over engagement, commodities over mechanisms, and distraction over focus.
In response to the problem of concealment, Borgmann argues for a recovery (or a discovery) of “focal things and practices.” A focal thing for Borgmann is something that has the power to keep an individual engaged with the real world because its mechanisms are actively revealed rather than concealed. A focal practice arises when an individual or community intentionally engages with a focal thing in order to center their actions toward concerns and values that are bigger than themselves. Borgmann believes that focal things and practices have “ultimate” concerns with metaphysical implications, but that in their everyday use they can be very simple and easy. For example, a garden can be a focal thing and gardening its focal practice; food can be a focal thing and cooking its practice. Likewise, playing an instrument, running outdoors, or reading poetry can all be focal practices. These focal practices are not anti-technology. Instead, they serve to reveal the workings of technology and thereby give people a context in which to understand themselves and their activities in a constantly shifting technological world.
As a counterexample to focal things and practices, take central heating. The term central heating is somewhat misleading because we experience central heating everywhere, not in some central place. The source of the heat is usually centralized to a furnace, but our interaction with that heat is anything but central. In contrast, consider a fireplace or a hearth. Prior to the invention of central heating systems, the hearth was the primary source of heat for a home. When the weather was cold, as it is in the winter, the hearth would be the focal point of heat around which everyone would gather and around which homes were constructed. The hearth held a commanding presence in the home because it brought people together and provided a center or a focus for everyone in the home. The hearth serves as Borgmann’s primary image for focal things and practices. He points out that “The Latin word for focus means hearth,” and that “in a pretechnological house the fireplace constituted a center of warmth, of light and of daily practices. . . . The hearth sustained, ordered, and centered house and family.” Preparing, building, and sustaining a fire in a pretechnological house was not easy work but it was centering work because it engaged people with the real, tangible mechanisms that go into heating a home.
We have largely lost this type of engagement in our modern technological world. We lack things and practices that have the power to focus us and to move us toward the world that is beyond our homes. That is why, perhaps, Borgmann identifies the wilderness—the world beyond civilization—as a necessary focal thing in our modern world. Unlike the shifting and concealed world of technological devices, wilderness is, when it is not being eradicated by encroaching civilizations, uniquely stable in its presence. As a result, the wilderness, much more than the home, is one of the few refuges in our world for silence and solitude. Unsurprisingly, Borgmann says, “the wilderness now appears as a sacred place in the disorientation and distraction of the encompassing technology” because it has the power to humble us and remind us that the world is “other and greater than ourselves.” There are some things in this world, like nature itself, that we should allow to “be in its own splendor rather than procuring it for our use.”
Winter is a kind of seasonal wilderness. In winter, the hostile forces of nature encroach on our domestic comforts at every corner. Winter can interrupt our daily routines and activities in ways that are simply beyond our control. Therefore, despite my previous examples of our attempts to conquer winter, we cannot conquer it. We cannot defeat winter in the way Aslan defeated the White Witch, nor should we. Winter will always be a persistent character in our story here on earth, so we might as well learn to welcome winter rather than try to overcome it or avoid it.
Just over three years ago my wife and I moved back home to Ontario, Canada, after living in Uganda and a mild-weathered Canadian city. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most difficult things about our move back home was the weather. The summers in Ontario now seemed uncomfortably hot and humid, and the winters felt inhumane. We found ourselves asking on many occasions, why do we live in such a wretched place? And since our primary reason for moving back was family, we began to question our family’s decision to live in such a place. Yet now, three years and two kids later, we have no plans of moving.
The thing that saved Canadian weather for me (I can’t speak for my wife here) was learning how to make winter a focal thing in my life. The way I did this was quite simple: I began biking. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, ten degrees or one hundred degrees, I will be on my bike. I won’t lie—many days it is difficult to muster up the enthusiasm to bike through what is often torrid weather, but I have found that the more I do it, the more I relish it, whereas the less I do it, the more I miss it. My decision to bike through Canadian winters was not an orchestrated effort to save myself from the dominance of modern technology. It was more of a challenge birthed out of necessity—it is a lot cheaper to bike than to buy a second car—that I grew to love. But the reason I grew to love it, I think, is because biking became, unbeknownst to me at the time, a focal practice. Biking was a practice that rooted me in winter and to winter. And eventually, slowly, I began to see how being exposed to the cold, dark days of winter gave me a context in which to make sense of my fragility in the natural world, and ironically, it gave me a context to understand the fragility of the natural world.
Biking through Canadian winters has been a helpful reminder to me that the world is, in fact, much bigger than me. There is a wildness to winter that reminds me that the natural world is not as far away as I am tempted to believe. The cars and homes that dominate our landscape and insulate us from the natural world should not conceal the fact that we depend on the natural world for life and sustenance and beauty. Indeed, the beauty and splendor of the natural world alone should demand our attention and our respect. It should force us to sit down, be quiet, and “listen.” But to listen, we must go outside. For winter is a season that needs to be experienced up close, not observed from the comforts of our shelters.