Winter's promise

January 01, 2004|By Crispin Sartwell

THE LENGTH of the year is fixed by the orbit of the Earth around the sun. We also experience the year as a cycle of seasons. But the time at which one year ends and another begins is purely a matter of convention, and various cultures have fixed it at different times.

One would naturally think of the beginning of spring and the coming again of life into flower, and many people have: the ancient Babylonians, for example.

The season at which we celebrate the new year is the spiritual, though not the orbital, opposite: the dead of winter. But of course the winter is not dead at all, and I rather like our choice - which stretches back at least to when Julius Caesar established something resembling the modern Western calendar - and not only because a celebration is needed at this time of the year.

In midsummer in the place where I live - rural Pennsylvania - the climate is essentially tropical. The earth is teeming with vegetation, the atmosphere both profuse and unified: maximum variety brought together by a light made lush in its diffusion through water. Summer's beauty is baroque.

But winter's is classical: clean, clear, as full of light but with more emphatic and definite shadow. Life is made somewhat more difficult, but for that reason, living creatures, including us, are made somewhat more alive, more vigorous and definite. In the summer, things are brought together by light and growth into unity; in winter, each thing, and we ourselves, are etched alone against the landscape. The winter imposes on things an ontology of objects, and on persons an ethic of self-reliance, classical in America since Emerson.

The other day, I saw a bird of prey, which I believe was a sharp-shinned hawk, stoop to take a small rodent out of a snow-covered field. Often when a hawk takes its prey, it lands quickly and as quickly ascends; this one stood still in the snow for some time, as though proclaiming to me that it was not a representative, not an emblem, but an individual.

Winter must be a good hunting season for a hawk, since any creature scurrying around is immediately visible against the snow. The mouse's loneliness and vulnerability is resolved by light against the snowscape; the hawk hunts alone and gains in power and definition - in winter, it is more a hawk.

That to me is why the "dead" of winter is the moment of refreshment, the moment when the earth is made new, scoured clean, when its power and ours is invigorated, the moment when the year is new. In winter, things are stripped to essentials: the value of winter is its simplicity, and its value to us is the way it helps us return to simplicity.

Perhaps we are particularly in need this year of a resort to the fundamental, to a radical simplification. We are beset by, among other things, the world's immense and intolerable profuseness, which every day seems closer to home: the complexity of world ethnicities and religions, struggling toward the light by trying to choke one another off.

We are beset by gigantism, of our government, of our military, of our corporations. We sit in the center of the world economy and reap its benefits, but we are also endangered by its ungraspable complexities and the rivalries and pain it produces and by the messiness introduced to us by our own privilege.

In relation to these enduring engines of both pain and pleasure, each of us is small and ineffectual. Our powerlessness is not simply a state of mind; it is absolutely a fact.

Perhaps to emphasize at such a moment the small raptor's grace and power in a single field is the counsel of despair. But it is also a necessary moment, by the hearth, at the American new year: the reflection on where self-reliance is still possible and the resolution to possess and apply it even in the midst of the monstrous powers that beset us. Winter drives you inward, and the movement inward is a necessary moment of resolution, perhaps the first moment of hope.

It may or may not be true that you can't change anything but yourself, but it is certainly true that if you can't change yourself you can't change anything. So I would ask you, among what I hope are a generous set of resolutions that other people will find helpful, to resolve also to return to your aloneness: to know your self and to forge it.

Crispin Sartwell, a syndicated columnist, teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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