The Forest In Winter

April 2018
For all the living we do, less of it is done outside than in. Sure, there's a time for hot cocoa, wool socks, and a book by the fireplace, and then there's a time for none of that.

At the ready age of 22, Charles Darwin set sail on what would become the most important event of his life, an epic adventure circumnavigating the globe as the HMS Beagle’s tag-along naturalist, to study the flora and fauna of places largely unknown to the developed world. The five-year plan was tremendously opportunistic for the young scholar as those experiences became the origins of his contributions to the fields of biology, philosophy, and modern thought. So great and diverse were Darwin’s accomplishments that his character would be immortalized in the annals of human history as an almost mythical deity of science.

Though Darwin’s voyage is most remembered for his time spent on the Galápagos Islands studying the shells of giant tortoises, aquatic habits of marine iguanas, and beak diversity of finches, he also made several excursions into South America along the continent’s southern coast. In his book, The Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin recalled a particularly fascinating moment that contrasted cold acclimation between the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego and the ship’s crew members, "We were well clothed, and though sitting close to the fire were far from too warm; yet these naked savages, though further off, were observed, to our great surprise, to be streaming with perspiration at undergoing such a roasting."

Sitting around the campfire, Darwin and friends were fully dressed and sitting comfortably near to the snap and crackle of firewood. The unclothed natives, however, were sweating profusely. They had acclimated to their tundra environment in the same manner as their British visitors had acclimated to the warmth of buildings and wood stoves. This Age of Convenience, which so graciously provides us with ample food and shelter, has effectively turned homo sapiens back into cave dwellers who only venture outdoors when the need arises. For all the living we do, less of it is done outside than in, and that there’s the rub.

A frozen creek in winter

Snow falls on a cold creek in winter turning its perpetual flow into a quiet murmur.Tischer Creek

Staying indoors breeds insanity. It’s no mystery why winter gets so many of us down. Humans were never meant to confine themselves inside the small enclosures of buildings, sniffing stale air, and sitting in chairs all day. We are nomadic animals whose mental and physiological faculties are best suited for wandering through nature, frolicking in meadows and grasslands, trekking along lakeshores and rivers, sauntering under open skies or canopies of giant forests. Removing the great outdoors from the daily feast of living will always result in that mild form of malaise which surrounds our being with the same happy comfort as a cold, wet blanket.

Commonly known in wintertime as seasonal affective disorder, this universal sickness can strike at any time of the year when cave-dwelling takes precedence over adequate sunshine and fresh air. In winter, though, cold is the turnoff from venturing outdoors, and it’s those uncomfortable temperatures that urge us to dive into bed and just hibernate the season away. But it’s when we shut ourselves off from cold weather that we overlook the season’s gorgeous vistas and, in consequence, lesson our appreciation for summer.

Enjoy Everything While It Lasts

The public adores its 72 degrees and sunny weather for outdoor activities because that’s the climate they’ve spent their lives acclimating to inside their caves. But if we awoke each day to the same thing over and over again we’d soon be bored with the repetition and begin wondering, “When the hell is it going to rain?” Diversity is what keeps things interesting. Mother Nature should behave more chaotic and give her children more violent thunderstorms in summer and more whiteout snowstorms in winter. The medley of atmospheric conditions would appease any lover of four-season climates.

Towering pines under a winter sky 15mm voigtlander

Walk under towering pines and dreary skies and sniff that crisp air that only winter provides.Hartley Nature Center

But winter in particular is the one season that stands out from the rest. From its atmospheric sun dogs to its subzero temps, winter should be breathed in deeply and acknowledged for its own virtuous qualities. For without the cold months to recharge our spirits we wouldn’t value the warmth of summer to such a degree. The existence of winter cuts us off from flowers blooming, trees swaying, birds singing, butterflies dashing, and the odorous perfumes of a bright summer day. And because of that, winter embellishes these things for us and makes them radiate with much more vibrance, giving us more reason to emerge from our ill-lit caves and enjoy good weather while we can.

Wintertime is the season for other joys too. It’s a time to pause and reflect on the wisdom gained over the past year. The dormant months give us the chance to think, gauge, and understand—to set plans for the next summer. Winter also lets us wrap up in wool underwear, stretch out on a comfy sofa and make a dent in our stockpile of books that we keep acquiring faster than we can read.

Deer tracks in the forest snow

Chase deer tracks in the forest snow until your lungs explode.The Forest In Winter

But winter shouldn’t be spent studying life indoors every day. We can still get out and enjoy quiet walks, or strenuous snowshoeing, through nature even in the dark afternoons of this frigid season. Long walks in any season transform the problems of existing into a passing reverie. Thoughts are erased from the blackboard of the mind while our lungs breath in the cold which helps ease a tense body. Regardless of how long winter is, the simple activity of walking through nature lifts our spirits and hastens our inner peace.

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.Henry David Thoreau, essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, and tax resister

Without our walks in winter, this annual trip around the Sun would feel toothless, like listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio without the jazz pianist. So don’t discount winter. Sally forth into a world of ice and frost. Invigorate the senses with snow and crisp air, and top it all off by experiencing the forest in winter.

The Forest In Winter

There’s no other time or place in the world quite like a forest in winter. No leaves shaking in the wind. No birds chirping at your presence. No rummaging sounds of squirrels hopping or rodents scurrying. Even the snow crunching underneath our boots is but a murmur. The whiteness seals earth, muting all echoes with a gentle softness.

Like the thick blanket of snow, dense stands of trees also diminish the appearance of human progress. The further into the woods we go, the fewer planes, trains, and automobiles lash out and disturb the quiet waters of the mind. The forest in winter becomes a home of peace and simplicity, the quintessential habitat for mindful presence. We can feel a cautious self-awareness that any sudden movements might disturb the solitude, so we walk softly as we can knowing that we too are part of this natural world.

Pine trunks rise from a blanket of snow

Pillars of pine tree trunks rise from a blanket of snow.Hartley Nature Center

Winter doesn’t really begin until that first snow transforms the forest into a winter wonderland glittering with immense grandeur and beauty. It’s impossible to refute the elegance of snow. We all love to watch the white flakes descend upon the earth in meandering slow motion, zigzagging across each other like falling dandruff scratched loose by the hand of Zeus.

An intense feeling of serenity passes throughout our entire spirit as our gaze catches the path of each flake traversing delicate winds without the slightest haste. Our thoughts downshift into a lower gear and no longer race away but become focused on this one moment of mindful presence. This feeling of tranquility is embellished tenfold when you’re surrounded by acres of timber which enlighten the outdoor experience with fragrant notes of coniferous wood.

This winter day — grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual — striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music, I have ever read, seen, heard.Walt Whitman, poet, essayist, and journalist

When we stand underneath giant timber of old forests we feel embraced with a euphoric ambiance of everlasting magic. For we are bewitched, entranced, and fascinated by the unabashed demeanor of those wry trees who, with their outstretched limbs, catch every snowy white dusting to flaunt as if it were a fur coat sewn by the finest tailor.

Pine tree draped in snow

The wry trees catch and flaunt every snowfall as if it were a fur coat sewn by the finest tailor.Every Pine in Minnesota

It’s a damn shame some animals and people migrate south for winter. They will never behold the unique beauty that can be seen only in winter months. They will never catch snowflakes on their tongue, break trail through deep snow, inhale crisp winter air, or feel their mind flushed empty of anxiety, obligations, and concerns as the forest silence obliterates their daily stresses with its infinite permanence. The forest in winter is seductive in its own way and it is essential to the human spirit as any moment in summer.