Saturday, December 15, 2012


Winter Cabin – Vilhelm von Gegerfelt von Gegerfelt 1844-1920

For four or five months a year, snow, ice, slush and some of the most extreme cold endured by anyone in the continental U.S. conspire to keep us Minnesotans indoors. But if you’re like me, just because you’re confined doesn’t mean your curiosity, your sense of wonder, your appreciation of beauty can just be turned off like the water supply to a frozen pipe.

From summer’s wide-angle view of Nature, winter has us dialing down to a tighter, more selective framing of things. Instead of the near overload your senses might experience at summer’s explosion of life and light, you’re challenged to find and cherish smaller, dearer things. You learn to appreciate—and appreciate learning—things that might not even make the cut on summer’s infinite to-do list.

Inside that dark little chamber a miniature 
electrical storm kicks up as the Orlon interacts 
with your dry hair.

If there’s one thing that loves a Minnesota winter, it’s static electricity. Arctic air, stabbing down from Canada, is already bone dry by the time it gets here. (Witness our chapped lips and the Styrofoam-like crunch of fresh snow delivered by one of our “Alberta clipper” storms.) But indoors, desiccated still further by furnace heat, the air shrivels to desert-like, single-digit relative humidities, cracking hair and skin, parching houseplants, separating furniture and floor joints.

Add to this perfectly conducive medium the tinder of friction between things fluffy and synthetic (like slippers or socks) and natural fibers (like woolen carpet), and you’ll discover one way we northerners stay awake through all those long, housebound evenings.

The sparks are even more fun when observed in the dark or, better still, when released, with their satisfying little snap, on the tender ear lobe of an unsuspecting sibling. Or try turning off all the lights and then peeling off your Orlon pullover. Inside that dark little chamber a miniature electrical storm, complete with high-pitched zaps of thunder, kicks up as the Orlon interacts with your dry hair.

Have you noticed how outdoor summer air teems with particulate matter: dust, pollen, mold spores and who knows what else? Indoor winter air, barring expensive filters, is every bit as richly seasoned, albeit with different “spices.” What it lacks in pollen it makes up for in dander from humans and pets. The dust and mold are there too, just different kinds.

To see for yourself how much solid material lurks in household air just study a shaft of sunlight, a flashlight beam or the glow of your bedside reading lamp. (This works especially well when the rest of the room’s dark.) If what you see doesn’t alarm you, it will, at least, make you appreciate how well the nose and the rest of the respiratory system manages to filter out all this junk.

For our animal fix, we turn to the certainty 
of specimens we shape to our convenience.

Could there be a more elegant artistic expression than the crystalline masterpieces Nature renders with water?

Outdoors, of course, it’s snow. Whether you perceive it as flake or drift, it’s the most sublime of sculptures. Indoors, relegated to the two-dimensional “canvas” of frozen glass, she once again outdoes herself. One appreciates the brushwork of strokes and patterns; marvels at the feathered crystalline detail; imagines how the artist determined where each element would go.


Perhaps the one thing that changes most when our world moves indoors is our appreciation of things that live and grow. Instead of marveling at a tree, shrub or flower in its natural, wild setting, we devise ways to shrink it, capture it and confine it in pots that clamber close to windows.

For our animal fix, we turn from the chancy thrill of spotting critters in their own realm and on their own terms, to the certainty of specimens we shape to our convenience, bred to need no more than our care and attention.

Instead of discovering a strange new fruit or nut on a wild plant somewhere in the woods, we learn to explore things closer at hand, perhaps things so common we never thought to look at them with care. For example, have you stopped to appreciate the elegance of line, color, form and texture in a freshly sliced strawberry?

Within our own minds—and those of people we care about—lie at least as many layers, twists and turns of discovery as there are in Nature’s outer realm. Our winter proximity to other human beings, whether it’s being sealed inside a vehicle or huddled around a hearth, encourages conversation, rewards patience and understanding.


It rewards self-discovery too, for turning our attention inward, in reflection, reverie or meditation, can show us the way toward becoming more loving—of others and ourselves.

Our taste for transcendent thought, that yearning for chances to glimpse the unfathomable, knows no season. But in winter, when we’re stuck inside so much of the time, often in close quarters, finding a quiet space and some time of our own can be challenging.

When we can find a way, though, the benefits will likely outweigh those of all the breezy tips I’ve noted above. For once you’ve found your spiritual wings, not even the cruelest Minnesota winter can confine you.

When your interest in firsthand observation has run its course, what better time than a long, bone-chilling winter evening to turn to vicarious discovery. Turn on the tube. Try to avoid stepping in TV’s notion of “reality,” and find one of the many excellent nature and outdoor adventure programs.

Fly off around the cyber-world on the Internet, or, better yet, turn off everything but your mind and journey into the boundless world of imagination and wonder to be found in a good book. Get lost in a gardening catalog or website; build a model; collect something; plan a party. Or, if none of these virtual escapes quite satisfies your itch, book your dream vacation…and get out of there for real!


jean said...

Great post and wonderful pictures. Virginia winters are not so severe, but we are always glad to see the first outcroppings of spring. I, on the other hand, would nestle in my "cave" all winter if I could, and be perfectly happy!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Jean -- Thanks for commenting. I must admit I'm one of those who live for spring, but that doesn't mean we can't embrace winter while it's here. Do you get much snow where you are?

Anonymous said...

In a sense, one steps outside one's rationale and how they ration the worlds stimuli, and enter into an irrational moment. One then take the irrational and rationalizes it... meaning one incorporates a new vantage point into one's personal story.... creating an expansion or broader sense of experiencing their version of the world and their sense of reality.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Bernie -- I like what you say about entering that "irrational moment." Isn't that what wonder -- and its close relative, love -- are all about?
And isn't it interesting how those states of being at the same time both focus and broaden our experience? Fascinating stuff...

Anonymous said...

I agree Jeffrey.... there are so many ways to describe Wonder where one learns to let go and play in a return to Love.... entering that quantum state of new potential... riding the wave of the question instead of marking life with a definitive period.... or focusing only on an ending point known as a particle.

In living... one can be said to know how to trip out.... to enjoy the images of the imagination... to hallucinate a new vision... to give voice to things others have cut the vocal chords to.... to go where no one has ever gone before.

The solution then to life's problems is in identifying with the mixing of the whole. All ingredients come together to express a unique blend that is always the best and newest and greatest taste sensation.

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