Winter – gnawing the marrow

Devil's Peak, Royal Gorge, elevation 7,074'.

Winter couldn’t wait. A week short of the solstice, a snowstorm swept through the granite spine of the Sierra Nevada Range. Bear Valley registered 30 inches in the last 48 hours. The calendar belies it; the imagery clarifies it: black bears and big-leaf oaks lie dormant. Fangs of ice hang from the lips of cliffs and carpets of white weigh precariously on windward mountainsides. Winter is here.

For us west of Central Valley, the fee exacted for eight months of dry skies is four months of rain. No sub-zero temperatures crack our water pipes, no blizzards send our cars careening into ditches. Winter in the Bay Area: If this is as bad as it gets, we’ve got it good.

We Bay Area folk might wish our winters were more severe. According to Garrison Keillor, chronicler of Minnesota’s imaginary Lake Wobegon, harsh winters produce virtuous people. At the least, communal shivering discourages the vice of self-pity. “Winter is not a personal experience,” writes Keillor. “Everyone else is as cold as you are; so don’t complain about it too much.” And the physical challenges of winter – shoveling sidewalks, jump-starting dead batteries, pushing cars out of snowdrifts – provide ample opportunities for neighborly acts.

The naturalist Barry Lopez echoes Keillor’s take on winter. In his travels with Eskimo hunters, who live “in a world where swift and fatal violence, like ivu, the suddenly leaping shore ice, is inherent in the land,” Lopez was struck by the Eskimos’ acceptance of Nature’s hard knocks. “They have a quality of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive; and delight in finding it in other people.”

In the crucible of winter, our molten frailty hardens into a Promethean shape: resourceful and defiant. We bring down fire from heaven. Fire, in fact, has always been the chief weapon in our war on winter. Harnessing fire allowed us to emerge from the last Ice Age and pursue the woolly mammoth across the Arctic Circle into America. Tens of thousands of years later, the sparks thrown by those modest campfires have set the forest of our civilization ablaze, jumped the fire line and changed the face of the planet.

But there’s a catch. In the words of archaeologist and anthropologist Loren Eiseley, “The sorcerer’s gift of fire in a dark cave has brought us more than a simple kingdom. Like so many magical gifts it has conjured up that which cannot be subdued but henceforth demands unceasing attention lest it destroy us.” This applies not only to the fire of nuclear self-annihilation. Our modern version of primitive tinder and flint – coal, petroleum, natural gas, nuclear fission – might shield us from the ravages of this or that winter. But they cannot prevent the next Ice Age or global warming. They might, of course, bring them on sooner.

Wind-whipped ice razors on the Mt. Diablo summit.

If winter makes us tougher, it can also make us more thoughtful. Thoreau believed that winter promotes a more inward life. Standing on the banks of a frozen river, he imagined the human brain as “the kernel which winter itself matures.” Winter clears the mind’s clutter as it clears leaves from forest branches, giving our intellectual landscape a transparency that allows us to see through things. “The winter,” wrote Thoreau, “is thrown to us like a bone to a famished dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it.”

No matter how compassionately winter treats us in 2015-16, it’s clear that Nature has required us to submit to its terms. Be grateful for the challenge. If it’s a pass/fail test, we’ll surely pass. The greater achievement will be to embrace the cold rain and long nights, let them sweep into and through us, and find on the other side of the season a place where the first wildflowers grasp for the growing light, a place that without winter would be far less sweet.