I did not make the rain. I did not make the earth on which it falls. I did not make the snow that blanketed the trees that I did not make. I did not make the sun, or its light, or anything that grows and greens under its warmth. I did not make the icebergs or the ocean in which they list. I did not make the mountain ranges that lie in shadows. I did not make my breath that rose before me in that silent wood in Vancouver.
I did not make any of it.
Neither did you.
The Psalmist, addressing God: “It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter” (Psalms 74:17). Winter is because God freely chose that it be. No created thing is the source of its own being. Winter shares, therefore, with all other created realities that quality of being gift. What else could it be? God was not compelled to create. Nothing outside of God existed prior to God’s making that forced his hand. No lack in God needed filling. God was not lonely. God was not incomplete. God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is, and always has been, fully and joyfully complete in God’s own self. In creation, therefore, God chose freely to share his own joy, love, and delight with others. All creatures and all creaturely realties live within a wider context of God’s free and delighted giving.
Winter is a gift. To winter well, then, is to receive the gift of winter with delight and gratitude. But to so receive—to open ourselves, put out our hands—we must trust that winter is indeed a good gift. This does not mean trusting that we will find every aspect of winter pleasant or even trusting that we will always comprehend what it is that makes winter good. As children, our excitement at receiving gifts arises from our deep trust in the love of the giver and in the giver’s competence to give well, not in error or thoughtlessly. To trust that winter is a good gift is to trust that God is the giver of good gifts (James 1:17). And it is to assent to God’s own judgment of the very goodness of his creation (Genesis 1). It is to believe that winter finds its meaning and place in a wider context that is life-giving. On one level, we know this. We know the rain, the cold, and the dark that so discomfort us all play a role in the flourishing of the earth, in cycles of dormancy and rest that enrich soil, conserve energies, and initiate processes of growth and flowering. But, sometimes, we can’t see the full picture. We are rain-soaked and sick of the dark. And so we need to trust. We need to declare with storm-shaken Job both our faith in God and the inadequacy of our own limited perspective:
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
Such trust opens us to receive the gift of winter. We become God’s expectant people. We begin to pay attention.
“To pay attention,” Wendell Berry writes, “is to come into the presence of a subject.” To receive the gift of winter, therefore, we need to come into the presence of winter. We need to get outside. Winter is not a subject like a tree is a subject, like snow is a subject. Winter is the name we give to a process, to things happening among and through subjects in nature. To come into the presence of winter, therefore, is to enter with our whole selves into the whole system of nature and natural processes and events that is winter. To winter well, get outside and feel winter. Allow the wind to sneak under your collar. Smell the earthy scent of wet leaves. Let the rain ruin your hair. Feel the cold in your fingers and toes. Winter is to be walked.
Near where I work is a giant holm oak that spills water from a wound when it rains. The tree stands over 20 metres tall and has a great wide reach of long, up-thrusting limbs. Some time ago, one of these limbs was lopped off. Perhaps it was diseased or damaged in a storm. Now, there is just a flat stub. In the centre of the stub there is a hole, and, when it rains, water flows from it. I noticed this one day on a walk. I hadn’t paid much attention to the tree before, but the spilling water stopped me. I became—for a moment—aware of the tree as a living thing. I imagined its great vascular heart, the great highways of xylem and phloem that move water and nutrients thoughts its slow, living body. This tree is like me, I thought. Upright. Limbed. Vascular. Living by fluid dynamics. And yet it is other than me. It towers. It feeds on sunlight. It is three times my age and will still be living and growing long after I’m dead and gone. It is a wonder. And I would not have noticed it if I had not been walking in the rain.
Walking is the natural pace of human attention. Sit for too long and it is your mind that wanders. Run, bike, or drive and the world passes you in an indistinct blur. If you want to pay attention to winter, walk winter. Explore its different moods and geographies. Rain walks. Wind walks. Snow walks. Night walks. Frost walks. Each has its own gifts to give. It is our job to notice and to receive these gifts with delight and gratitude. To winter well, then, is to delight in the muffled ocean roar of wind through high, wet leaves; to marvel at the blue black bruise of thunder clouds rising on the skin of the sky; to enjoy the pleasure of fragile winter sunlight warming your face after long days of rain; to laugh at the squelch of mud under your boots; to be calmed by the sibilant patter of rain on the roof. It is also to know what Ali Smith knows when she writes:
how beautiful everything looks under a high frost, how every grassblade is enhanced and silvered into individual beauty by it, how even the dull tarmac of the roads, the paving under our feet, shines when the weather’s been cold enough.
All of this is winter’s gift. Even the warlike way of winter can be experienced as a gift if we pay attention. Winter reveals aspects, qualities, textures of the earth that are hidden in the more boisterous seasons. In winter, we become aware of the ramified forms of trees left bare of leaves and of landscapes stripped back to their essentials, to their “bone structure”, as painter Andrew Wyeth put it). Winter widens our field of vision.
And winter walking has its own physical pleasures. The Dutch have a word, uitwaaien, which translates literally as “out blowing.” Uitwaaien is the practice of walking in wind, especially in the winter, letting the wind snatch at your clothes and blow your hair. Uitwaaien refreshes. The 19th century American philosopher Thoreau likely didn’t know the word, but he meant uitwaaien when he wrote, “I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind.”
There is a risk in the call to pay attention that we imagine ourselves mere observers, as if to winter well is simply a matter of walking winter and having a good look around. But to receive the gift of winter requires that we don’t just observe but enter into winter as participants: winter as a verb. The Bible is not shy in asking us to attend to other creatures and how they live: “Go to the ant” (Proverbs 6:6); “Consider the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26); “But ask the animals, and they will teach you” (Job 12:7). Insects and animals don’t act in winter how they act in summer. They have a seasonal consciousness (Jeremiah 8:7). Some migrate, others hibernate; most slow and seek comfort and shelter. We are wise to imitate. To winter well is to participate in winter, and this means not acting in July how we act in February. Winter is a time for slowing, for resting, for seeking comfort. Buy a woollen sweater and warm socks. Spend evenings in candle- or firelight, light that does not banish winter’s darkness but warms it, enriches it. Eat good, nourishing food. Tell stories through the long evenings. Slow. Take more rest. Some of winter’s deep pleasures are found when we listen to the animal wisdom of our body as it responds to the seasonal shift.
You may think I am making too much of all this. But I am trying to follow the chain of thought that begins with naming God as creator and creation as gift. The significance of a created thing is not found only in its usefulness—its ability to feed or shelter or be made into other things. The significance of a created thing is found also in its beauty and goodness, its ability to comfort or provide pleasure or satisfaction—to calm or heal. The trees in the Garden of Eden were both “beautiful to look at and good to eat” (Genesis 2:8). God has made the world as gift, an expression of his love. To refuse the gift of winter is to deny ourselves one of the constitutive flavours of creaturely life. It is to be mean with one of the ingredients God saw fit to measure out lavishly on creation. It is to forgo (forgive me) one of God’s seasonings. Ultimately, it is to commit a type of injustice—to not live in the world as it actually is.
To winter well, then—to receive the gift of winter with delight and gratitude—is a moral act. It is to enact one of the primary callings of human life. The human capacity to enjoy and name the goodness of God’s creation is part of the very creation that God has named good. All life is receiving. Each breath is gift. To live well is to be aware of the gift we have received and to respond with delight and gratitude.