For two days it’s been too cold to be outdoors by choice. The thermometer read 17 degrees when I bundled up to feed the chickens and put out fresh water. The children are antsy and the noise level in the house has racheted up with each passing day. But winter is a profoundly special time. I feel the pull of my roots like no other time of year.
In the piedmont of North Carolina, winter is never deep by New England or Canadian standards. But it is cold. Plants go dormant. Hardwoods shed their leaves. The ground is rock hard with frost tips poking up through wet, frozen leaves. As a child, this was the time of year when I explored the forest. The copperheads were sleeping, the ticks hybernating, the mosquitoes gone. From our trailer in the woods I could walk for miles in a mix of southern yellow pine and hardwood forest, feeling the sunshine where normally the shade was so deep nothing grew but christmas fern. One year I found a near complete deer skeleton with the exposed half bleached white by the sun. It was clean and perfect.
I imagine the thick hardwood trunks sucking up the sun light that normally never reaches them in the forest. Everything looks completely different in winter and I try to imagine what it will look like again in spring and fail, despite having watched the transformation dozens of times.
Just as I become perpetually grumpy, our south facing windows really begin to do their duty. Now they are at their peak, capturing the warmth of the low, bright winter sun. We built it this way on purpose, sticking to the design my father in law used for the rest of the house. Every year I am grateful when I begin to feel cold in my bones. Only in winter does the sunlight stretch all the way across the room. The winter sun is magic and everyone notices. The cat splays out across the warmed floor. The toddler lies down on the rug and closes his eyes as dust motes dance over his upturned face.
When we begin to feel cooped up we bundle up and foray out into the yard. The big kid with a jacket on backwards and no socks and no hat. The toddler stiff with layers. We stay until the little one is too frustrated with his decreased mobility to enjoy himself. His fingers too red and numb. I gaze at the garden while performing my swing-pushing duty and daydream.
Every January I make big plans and the possibilities seem endless. I start talking to my husband about sheep. Again. He rolls his eyes. Again. Instead I clear brush, dig new garden beds, transplant perennial flowers and herbs, start seeds.
Winter has its own quiet and its own noise. There’s no dense leaf buffer to muffle the sound of cars, coyotes, and owls. But the quiet is crisp and I feel more alone when I walk outside. Perhaps it’s the lack of insect and small creature chatter that undergirds outdoor life in southern spring, summer, and fall. No spring peepers. No crickets. Though the squirrels make a ruckus in winter like nothing I’ve ever heard, throwing nuts at the tin roof to explode the quiet inside.
Winter light is my favorite. The world outside is sparse and I notice more, perhaps because of this. It’s the best time for walking in the woods. For finding fairy habitats with children.
It’s also a time of forced domesticity that each year I embrace more easily. This was when my great grandmothers made quilts, rendered lard, and set the home back in order before planting time. This was when my great grandfathers cured meat and repaired tools. This was when people had time for visiting. When stories were invented and told. I can do this too. Accompanied by these hardy souls from a harsher, but simpler time, winter no longer feels so lonely.
My elder child has asked to be read to for hours on end these long, cold days. I finally got around to hand threshing and winnowing the sorghum I grew and dried this fall. To mending the mountain of clothes my children shred in their long days outdoors. To going through the generations of family papers stored since my father passed and only now come to light. All to the soundtrack of children playing, children fighting, the days taking a slower rhythm through the coldest months.
As I grow older, I’m no longer in any hurry for spring. I know when it gets here I’ll miss winter.