Light In The Dark of Winter

Last week, many of us in Maine awoke to the season’s first dusting of snow on the ground. Snow is seen by some as a magical kind of natural phenomenon, twinkling, sparkling ice crystals that descend from the sky and collect to coat the ground like frosting on a cake. For others it is the onset of winter, and a sign that soon we will be able to ski. I like to ski, Nordic (cross country) mostly, and to me this is something like a sacred activity. There are few things on earth I can do with my legs, arms, abdomen, heart and lungs that bring such a pure form of joy. Cross country skiing is work, it involves sometimes going uphill and using muscular power to propel one’s self forward, in concert with fluid friction and gravity. Many winter enthusiasts gravitate toward the slopes for downhill adventures when the snow hits, and they experience a similar euphoria. There is nothing quite like stepping into your skis on a day when snow conditions are perfect; on an alpine slope, you let gravity do most of the driving, and the majority of your physical efforts are technically conducted to keep yourself from crashing. There’s some of that in Nordic skiing also, in fact a steep, slender, curvy downhill can be a worrisome thrill ride, as these are generally taken on in a tuck (if you like to go fast on your skis), and the trees tend to be very nearby, if not also accompanied by rivers and rocks and other skiers. Downhills, when conditions are good, on a professionally groomed Nordic trail, on glide-waxed racing cross-country skis, are very fast and exciting. But for me it is the rolling ups and downs, the combination of self-propelled forward momentum coordinating with earthly physics, that brings me the most joy. Cross-country skiing is an exhilarating recreational activity, a highly effective form of exercise, and also a practical and efficient mode of transportation, given the right conditions.

Not everyone associates such joys with the first snowfall. Snow can be a symbol of things to dread. If there is snow, then there is cold, and cold is uncomfortable. Snow also brings the inconvenience of shoveling, and the likelihood of a few white-knuckled commutes on greasy roads between now and about Easter. And there is also the increase of dark hours to our waking lives, and a decrease in sunlight, vitamin D, and for some, motivation.

One could say that snow and winter combine to fend off a fair amount of state revenue. Many people simply don’t want to live in or even visit a state that is as cold and snowy as Maine, even if we advertise it as “Vacationland.”

Working in schools, there is always a special excitement in the air when the first snowflakes have been spotted. Teachers are well aware that teaching and learning will come to a halt for a time when this happens. Snow falling from the sky, to a child of elementary school age, is so exciting! You just can’t scold a student or a class for being distracted by each winter’s inaugural snowfall. Most teachers surrender to this fact, and allow everything to come to a halt in order to honor a few moments of snow appreciation.

Winter is hard, but there are important reasons to respect and appreciate it. It shelters entire ecosystems that keep our yards and gardens healthy, it provides a great many winter recreation options, it gives Maine’s biggest retailer a product to sell, and it looks pretty. Moreover, a snowy winter generally means a wintery winter, and we need our winters to stay wintery. Our winter tourism relies on it, our fruit trees need it, our rivers and streams need it, and our plow truck drivers thrive on it. Maine needs a good winter like every human needs a good night’s sleep.

Having a positive outlook toward this magical season has many impacts. See winter as something to look forward to, and relish. We are better at what we do when we are enjoying life, and when we have things to look forward to. We are better colleagues, better patrons, better public servants, better friends, better brothers, sisters, and parents when we are in a good mood and appreciate our surroundings.

When children look out the window of a school building, I am reminded of a metaphor I like to use in winter. The darkest period of the year can be one of the most enlightening. We tend to spend more time indoors, but we then gain a perspective we don’t always have. Standing outside on a hot summer day, the sun blinding, we wear sunglasses to lessen our strain, sometimes a baseball cap too. Looking toward a house or a building, we only see our reflection in the windows. The same is true on a winter day, perhaps even more so. The sun may be lower, but it is closer to the earth, and its reflection against the snow can be almost blinding on certain days. So we ski, snowmobile, snowshoe, and commute to work with our sunglasses on, but when we go inside, and look out at the world, we have a special appreciation that we don’t often have in other times of the year. We go into a dark place in order to appreciate the light that is outside.

That’s what winter is. It’s a dark season, but one we celebrate with lights, warmth, friendship, family, football, food, shelter, and giving. Winter allows us to appreciate things that we don’t always appreciate. Sometimes you have to go into a dark place to appreciate and understand the rest of the world.

So here’s to a long, fabulous Maine winter. May it remind us of what is important to us, so that we can then take good care of ourselves and our surroundings. May it help us all be better citizens, do better work, and create inspiring art. So the next time you gaze out your office or home window and notice a dancing flake or two… Smile. If you are lucky, soon there will be more, and more still, and then they will be dancing all over. A meteorological flash mob. Just for you.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.