How to Survive the Winter
There is more than one way to survive the winter. Maple* and Hemlock, who live behind my house, reminded me of this as I sat with them a few days ago. Maple was bare, her leaves composting on the ground. Her thick branches were unmoved by the solstice breeze, trembling only at their very tips. Hemlock, on the other hand, was fully clad, robed in a lush display of flat, green needles and small, ovoid cones. Her flexible branches arced and swayed, dancing in the wind. When it snows, these same branches will bend toward the earth, inviting the snow to slide to the ground. When it does, they will spring upward again.
Neither Maple nor Hemlock will photosynthesize in the cold, dark of winter. Why, then, does Hemlock keep her leaves? It comes down to a calculation: the amount of energy required to construct new leaves each spring versus the amount of energy a tree can acquire in a single growing season. Conifers offset the cost of leaf construction by protecting their needles with a sort of antifreeze and then retaining them through multiple growing seasons. This also gives them a jump on photosynthesis in the spring and allows them to weather colder, harsher climes than their deciduous cousins. There are many ways to weather the winter.
Two golden crowned kinglets flitted between Hemlock’s branches. Were they warming themselves with this perpetual motion? They breed in coniferous forests far north of here. Hemlock must seem to them like a piece of home. They may make it as far south as Mexico this winter, but then again, maybe not—tiny as they are, they can survive -40 degree nights by huddling together for warmth. There is more than one way to lean into the reality of winter.
Successful survival strategies have this in common: they begin with an acceptance of what is. Neither Hemlock, Maple, nor the golden crowned kinglets can survive the winter by pretending it’s summer.
In the northern hemisphere, winter is upon us in more ways than one. There is the literal winter, of course. But there are metaphorical winters, too: cold, dark, hard things that we must weather. A new Covid variant. An infinite array of possible personal winters: financial hardship, perhaps. Or illness. The loss of a loved one. Burnout. Or maybe a holiday season that feels more lonely than merry and bright.
How do you lean into the reality of winter? How do you survive the cold, dark, hard things while at the same time nourishing your ability to absorb what is warm and light?
I’m doing this—or trying to—with the help of Maple, Hemlock, and whatever birds happen into my yard. This winter, I’m committing to spend time in my ‘sit spot’ at least three days each week. That means switching my phone to airplane mode (or leaving it behind), bundling up, and seating myself in my favorite spot, where I can gaze up into the branches of both trees. I’ll stay there for at least twenty minutes each time, with no objective other than to simply be present with the world around me. Sometimes, we don’t need to do more to survive the cold and dark. Sometimes, we need to do less.
And yet, being a doer, of course I am already imagining what might grow from this. For me, time in my sit spot usually prompts time spent writing or journaling. I don’t sit down with the objective of writing, but as often as not, words arrive unbidden—migratory birds alighting in my mind. It nourishes me to spend time with these words, shaping them into something that can be shared. That’s how this blog post came about.
I want to create a space where I can share micro essays like this one—little glimpses into whatever grows from my time in nature. I hope this space will support and inspire you in your own sit spot practice or in whatever else you’re doing to live a beautiful, connected, creative life. I’m not able (or perhaps just not willing) to commit to writing on any particular schedule right now. I want to be in nature without a sense of hard-and-fast objectives or deadlines, after all. (Plus, the bulk of my writing time is dedicated to my novel.) But if you don’t mind the sporadic, unscheduled nature of my sit-spot-inspired musings, then I’d love to email you whatever emerges. You can subscribe for free here, and whatever I write next will land directly in your inbox.
Drop a comment below and share what the word ‘winter’ conjures for you right now. Or listen to Krista Tippet’s beautiful interview with Katherine May, author of “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.” Or, I don’t know, maybe ditch the screen you’re looking at right now and step outside into the cold but beautiful world.
* I’ve written Maple and Hemlock as proper names here because I’m referring to individual trees—trees who feel as unique and real and alive to me as my human friends. I appreciate Robin Wall Kimmerer and her soul-stirringly beautiful book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” in which she breaks free of “grammatical blinders” by capitalizing the names of individual plants and animals, thereby placing them on par with humans rather than relegating them to a lower-case (and lower-class) existence. I aim to follow her example in this newsletter.