Winter: Welcome When He Goes — Brooke Larson
In early summer I woke up in bed with a spanking new brain. I had just come back to Arizona from Utah, a land where spring is too chicken to push back against the snow. For months there it seemed that winter would not, in fact, end, ever. Who knew hardly an hour flight was enough to land me on a different planet of worldview. That first morning woke me with light. I rolled over in bed, breathed, eyed, flexed, and so impacted the space of the room, the whorl of the sheets, the very squibs of the air, and when I stood, a sea of particles parted and we were all every bit a phenomenon. I went on my way, making it. I found myself walking outside to some local supermarket.
Summer. Heat streamed from pavement, steamed my bare legs, backs of knees sweat-beaded. When I stepped off the sidewalk the ground gave to receive my weight. Grass, green. It made me come up short. That sweet hushed way it takes you by the feet. Already I was blubbering. Everything means! The world is obscene with meaning, clear as day and dense as dirt!
More than a mood, it felt like a head transplant. It felt like I recognized the world for the first time. And there was this. I didn’t want to die. Living didn’t feel like a choice I was making. I was just alive, and I didn’t question it.
A cool licking blast through the sliding glass doors. When the brilliant colors from the cereal aisle hit me, I secretly wept for the miracle of Cap’n Crunch orange, Raisin Bran purple and gold, glazed infinities of Cheerios. The space between me and suburban ladies pushing shopping carts dissolved and I loved them and our lives. You are a person!
Everywhere, sunlight devolved me to a moony-mush of emotions.
As if my mind interpreted summer like art. What happens to your eyes before art? You think shape, color, context, you think along and in and around, and above all, purpose. Because art has full permission to mean. The reason the fixed eyes of a flat painting can follow you while those of a statue cannot is imaginative complicity: you agree to perceive the flat as three-dimensional. You agree to the art. My body was agreeing.
Before had been winter. Winter surfaces like a funhouse of mirrors. Where where I was was distortion. All was a troubling doubling reflection of yourself, yourself a reflection of where you were, where you were never to find a way out.
But the earth tilts and turns, and shifts happen. I inhabited summer, and the mirrors opened out like windows.
The therapeutic effects of light have been noted for millennia. King Hammurabi, in 4000 BC, ordered his priests to use sunlight in the treatment of illnesses. Sun-gardens were kept by the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians. Sunlight in itself was understood to be a remedy for what was called gloom, melancholia, lethargics. Hippocrates prescribed it. A Roman physician recommended patients live in rooms full of light. The Germanic tribes toted their sick to sunny slopes in the springtime to give them their skyfull of medicine. But the sun’s position is always changing in the human cosmos. Sun-bathing, seen as a heathen practice, was squelched with the rise of The Church, and so powerful plasma was thrown out with the pagan bathwater.
But you can’t keep the sun from rising. The fact that light carries weight when it comes to our psyche was not lost on people in polar extremities. Victorian arctic explorers described a syndrome of fatigue and depressed mood driven by winter darkness. Frederick Cook, an American physician and the first man to reach the North Pole, called it a “progressive depression.” In the Antarctic in 1898, his boat thoroughly trapped in ice, he used bright lights to treat the melancholy of his crew. Around the same time there was Emily Dickinson writing about that certain slant of light, the one that oppresses winter afternoons. Yet outside the extremes of ice floes and poetical flow, the connection between sunlight and psyche was not treated as material.
Only in the last three decades has winter gloom been exhumed from its benighted state and remade as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or its darkly cute acronym, SAD. The disorder is characterized by an annual episode of depression usually during the winter and a remission or mild mania in the summer. With the onset of the cold months, mood-boosting neurotransmitters are significantly less fired up. People feel unmotivated, unfocused. They just want to eat. And sleep. And not feel so down. SAD is said to affect 2-5% of the general population in temperate weathers, and seems to increase with latitude, though the relationship between incidence and latitude isn’t exactly tidy. For instance, Icelanders, living at intrepid latitude, show a 3.6% incidence, in contrast to the 7.6% among Americans living in lower and greener pastures. Sweden is a saturnine planet apart, with a SAD population estimated at 20%.
It was the Swedes, in fact, who inspired what some claim to be the proto-diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder. Found in Jordane’s Gotica, the account, written in about 550 AD, gives a history of the Adogit people of Scandinavia. The author describes a 40-day period of continual light in summer and 40 days of unbroken darkness in winter: “By this alternation of sorrow and joy they are like no other race in their sufferings and blessings.” While some find in this description the root of what we now know about lack of sunlight and biochemical imbalances, the conclusions reached by Gotica and those of modern science couldn’t be more at odds. Extreme “sufferings and blessings” cast a very different light on seasons than “transient depression” and “hypomania.” In Gotica, the earth-spinning intensities of emotional life are seen not as deviation from the norm but as a clarified expression of our humanity, of our emotional inter-relationality. We’re given a picture of how emotions create each other, as seasons do: summer highs bloom from winter compost. The shittier the compost, the richer the yield. Whereas with SAD-thinking, seasons become islands, and emotions isolated. For the modern world is not round but specialized.
Though SAD has flooded popular culture, its validity in the scientific community is still hot-and-coldly debated. There are some who dismiss it altogether. They argue that these “seasonal depressives” might just be recurrent depressives who feel crummier in the winter. Others challenge its very existence with a suck-it-up logic. Most everyone gets a little slower, a little pudgier, and a whole lot less jazzed when it’s cold and dark out. It’s the natural cycle, not a sinister sickness. What’s wrong with slowing down and entering a period of contemplation and reserve? Even as my own experiences tell me to ultimately agree with this steely seasonality — that seasons have been shapers of our biology and behaviors since the dawn of life: midwife to form, husbandman of change, forcing life to think again, to think it different, to surrender to discomfort, in ourselves, in the world, and to find we’re not left comfortless, that leaves are the underside of returns, seasons teaching us morals in the mud, law of the harvest, principle of rebirth, eminence of impermanence, ever numbered days, and everything in its own time, that these seasons made life as we know it and are making life we’ve not yet imagined, that they demand blood and give rain, fatten us, flatten us, slick, nip and burn till we bow, pray, dig, kill, sleep, change our ways, cycle back, read the signs, recall the past, forecast, prophesy, ferment, tell tales, chart and calculate and alter and erase, dance like life depended on it, like life is for the upending, and we must keep on, let go, get a grip, grit our teeth, grind together our bodies till babies come in a wave of thaw, and we’re all raw, we’re depleted, we refresh, and we do it all again, but deeper, quieter, polishing some inward grain, and this is how seasons become us and we become seasoned humans, citizens of the earth, givers and takers and knowers of what we’re made of, all balanced on that freaky 23-degree tilt and its psychical slant and cyclical bent and savage arc of empathy — even as my experiences force me to say all this, they also make me shiver inwardly and eat my words.
The truth is, I see no more sense in neutralizing seasons than in pathologizing them. Saying that the ways seasons make us feel are normal may put a stop to the clinical insults, but it doesn’t do them justice either. Because natural is lightyears from normal: the earth is a freak to the core. And nature is no tree hugger. She bites.
Emily Dickinson, with her deceptively childlike beat, never shied away from joining in the seasonal lunacy. She made calendar a mentality, a space in which self and the world are inseparable. Her poems pull nature up by the roots. She describes Autumn by resurrecting June: “There is a June when Corn is cut/ And roses in the Seed –/ A Summer briefer than the first/ But tenderer indeed.” Such lines harrow the rows of linear time, creating psychical time. What she crafted through her work was nothing less than a personal mythology of the seasons.
Thoreau, for all his naturalism, was likewise making myths. He mucked about in seasons believing they held what he called a “solid bottom.” They composed the grounds of being, of our being. Today we talk of how our superstitious ancestors made up myths and legends and rituals and festivals to explain the seasons they could not understand. Since we know the facts, we don’t need to enact myth. Or is this an ironic case of naiveté? Creating a personal cosmos has gone out of fashion in the face of hard information. We live aseasonally, in the biological darkness of artificial lighting. We are secular earthlings. Where seasons once challenged us to create the personal myths that would sustain and inspire us, they now stand as an arbitrary backdrop for our schedules. Yet there are setbacks to living linearly: We’re SAD. So we minimize seasons even more, in a sort of bloodless cycle. Maybe myth doesn’t explain the reason behind seasons. Maybe seasons explain the reason behind myth.
When I hear that all eukaryotic organisms — from flowers to birds to the whole of humanity — are descended from a single ancestral population, I impute, but I don’t feel, what that means. What I do feel is fresh wonder at all the talking animals, animal-headed persons, and animated soil and rock and tree of ancient mythology. They understood ecological reality: our boundaries are misty, our matter amorously entangled with the altogether elsewhere. This is not a sense instilled by insulated walls, filtered light, and processed air, where moderns spend 90% of each day. What in a cubicle suggests that the universe is related rather than random, expanding not contracting? What blinking, beeping contraption is going to sound the gong in me of kinship? Science tells us, all 59 elements in the human body are found on the earth’s crust; a story says, from a handful of dust man was made and man shall return. But it’s when I stick my fingers in the breathy soil after a good rain that I believe.
I am going to tell you something that a season told me quite privately. It was early fall in a park in Harlem. Summer had burned itself up inside of me and with the change of the leaves a pulse-raising quiet was starting in. The alert calm of Autumn that comes of knowing it’s a dying cause. And it’s for this reason that I am slowed to a linger: I inhale deep, exhale long; I take the roundabout way home. Happiness is mine when shoelaces come untied and I can bend to the ground, stay a minute, knuckles cozied in the grass. Most of all, I look up. Leaves are hurtling stained glass. Backlit reds and yellows, black purple, pale green. And this is where it happens. I’m brought up short by a cottonwood. The narrow path I’m on is lined by tall sprawling trees on both sides, giving a vaulted cocoon-like feel. Noon, no one else. Light filters through the roundish leaves, and at once they all shiver, all those silvery greens twirling in place, and it goes straight to my head, down into my chest, my blood is a herd, and for reasons more than I can say or begin to know, my whole body is stampeded with tenderness. A feeling something like purity, in the sense that it’s love without plans or future or hope, just joy that the tree should exist. Which purity quickly goes to pot when the next feeling tears through: I’m the only one who saw. I’m alone, I’m in love, and it can’t possibly be shared. A hurt as unplumbable as the high. That life forces you to know it singly. I can feel myself come apart. No one’s here. And now, another turn: As soon as I think this, a voice, very still, says: But I’m here.
When a voice in your own head takes you by surprise, you have a decision to make. Take it to heart or shrug it off. The force of subtlety is that it won’t let you remain passive. Subtlety bids, and you raise it or fold. Life is so much more interesting when I raise. And the graceful recklessness of falling leaves compels me. So it is, October, and I’m given to granting scanty scraps the distinction of dropped breadcrumbs. This small phrase — But I’m here — has come to be an enchanted footpath for me.
But I’m here. What a thing to say! Who’s here? Spirit? Me? The tree? These are live questions the seasons turn up or down, but always touch. On days with good light, it’s all three speaking, and inseparably. Months later, after the fall passed and everything was January deep in winter, a friend shared with me a line of sobering advice that she’d been given years before: You will always be alone in the forest. In a rush my head went to standing below that cottonwood. I think I’m alone in the forest. But the trees themselves make this impossible.
Walking home in the cold that night, through that same park, I looked at the weird, twistily textured bodies of the trees and said aloud over and over with wooly breath:
You’ll always be alone in the forest — and each time, like an old spiritual, answered my own voice — But I’m here. Here started my winter mantra. Two lines making a live duet in the dark.
To a plant, cold is not the lack of warmth and dark is not the absence of light. Cold and dark are powers in their own right.
While we most often associate plant life and growth with the sunshine, in actuality it is darkness that animates the growth process. Farmers have long observed that crops like corn and sorghum grow taller at night. While most of us assume that plants grow at a slow and steady rate throughout the 24-hour cycle, Charles Darwin, more than a century ago, noted the nightly spurts of plants. Plant stems, he recorded, elongate fastest just before the dawn. These observations, largely ignored in his day, are now the stuff of a continually mystifying truth: plants grow rhythmically, and in this dance, the darkness leads.
In fact, many plants can’t bloom in the spring without first undergoing a prolonged period of cold and dark. This is a fertile fact my sun-flung self takes pains to keep in the pocket of her winter coat. The ritual is called vernalization, which stems from the Latin “vernus”: of the spring. A misnomer maybe, as the flower actually owes its thrust not to the spring but to the winter—but we humans are remote animals who see only the bright result. The plant’s perception of extended cold and dark enables it to distinguish spring from mere warm fluctuations in the fall. Without winter there is physically no spring for the vernal plant. Deep darkness prepares it to recognize the right light, as immersive cold protects it against deceptive warm spells. Vernalization in itself does not induce blooming — rather, it makes the plant capable of flowering when it perceives an opportunity. The plant effectively “remembers” the cold period, then the lengthening days invite it to choose: to bloom or not to bloom.
By simply fiddling with light switches we can fool animals into thinking it’s summer in winter, or get birds flying the wrong way, or plants to grow wildly out of season. You can’t do that with humans. The same lab tests fail to flip our switches. Human beings, we concluded, have evolved past the animal dependence on light signals. Our intelligence could run circles around the sun.
We get ahead of ourselves. In the early 1980s researchers discovered that humans are as responsive to light as the rest of nature’s sublunary lot. As in plants and animals, light is the primary stimulus for regulating our physiological and behavioral rhythms. However, it takes much more light to influence melatonin in humans than is required for some other species. When experiments started exposing human eyes to brighter bulbs, our most basic rhythms lit up. Bright light can do a lot of things. The past thirty-some years have seen it produce therapeutic benefits in patients with depression, sleep disorders, menstrual difficulties, and problems related to jet lag and shift work. While the bone-deep effects of light and dark reveal us to be more vulnerable than we thought, they also show we’re more connected to the world than we know.
So what is going through our heads when we see the light? The first thing to know is that eyes are not all about vision. Light enters the eyes and stimulates the retina, from where neural signals zip to the visual centers of the brain, but also to the hypothalamus, a non-visual area. Tucked inside the hypothalamus is what’s called our SNC, or “master clock”, which is responsible for controlling daily rhythms like sleep, wakefulness, body temperature, and hormonal secretions. As it turns out, we don’t just look to see, we look to get synched.
The eyes need light to both project the world and to internalize it. Eyes, those old oracles: through their portals non-visual photic info floods your body and synchs its cycles with the surrounding cosmos. It does this on the level of the cell. Organisms are aggregates of thousands of cellular clocks, all beating among feedback loops, coming together to give us our sense of time. Indeed we have “clock genes,” proteins participating in 24-hour loops, and countless receptors that sense light and shake their stuff in time with the higher spheres. Is it any wonder that Prajapati, the progenitor God of Hindu myth, is said to have come into being with Time as an internal organ.
Recent studies show that between 60 and 80 percent of SAD sufferers benefit from daily light therapy. They also show that antidepressant medication is equally effective. Equally effective, that is, in suppressing symptoms, but not in sustaining change. More lasting are the unwanted side effects. It’s a bit peculiar in the first place that antidepressants are used to treat seasonal affective disorder as it’s distinct from depression. Here is where the term “disorder” may be doing us a disservice. We hear the word and already we’re anticipating a drug, as if the next line to a song we all know. To every season there is a disorder, turn, turn, turn, and a drug for everything under heaven. “Disorder” contains an entire way of thinking, one which tends to divorce problems from their relationships. Winter gets reduced to a senseless crime perpetrated on side-streets of the body. Darkness, a prank-caller, ringing my pineal gland till daily life comes unglued. Dark Season, the recreational terrorizer.
Re-creational, in fact. I am being undone, remade, and when I call the process a disorder, I am essentially saying that I shouldn’t have to put up with this shit. Winter is wronging me. It’s making me different, and that’s a slight to my rights as a self obsessed with coherence and consistency. I am one person, dammit! I won’t be made to feel otherwise. Trees can drop their leaves, vermin can change the color of their coats, but I will not give an inch when it comes to my self-concept. I deserve to feel unswervingly myself. Which is to say, invulnerably happy.
This is mental health.
A growing body of research suggests that psychosocial approaches to therapy work better in the long run (nature’s notorious time frame) than biomedical “interventions”. Said plainly, getting outdoors works wonders. In Denmark, outdoor work has been used to treat those who struggle during the dark season. Winter horticulture groups are bearing fruit. Another study found that an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light. There seems to be something uniquely galvanizing about light from the sun. Mankind, after all, adapted to the full range of the solar spectrum. Artificial distortions of that spectrum, argue some, have left our bodies in a state of spectral malnutrition. Our prescribed fear of UV light — America’s cult of sunscreens, window shades, state of the art sunglasses and UV-shielding clothes — could actually be doing us harm. The trace amounts of UV radiation in natural daylight are vital for normal cell reproduction. And variances of lighting, given by a sun arcing across the sky, play a role in this process. Even the angle at which light enters our eyes effects the body. As we are moved by the low blaze of a sunrise or sunset, so too are our cells.
It’s a kind of lunacy to maintain we are beyond environment when we are born of it. Nature causes problems for us, problems that it also resolves. The key is to step outside and engage its challenges rather than retreat from them behind doors. How to engage, without getting your human ass beat, is the question.
Emily Dickinson, in one of her letters, referred to nature as “old-fashioned, perhaps a Puritan.” She often spoke of herself as a “Puritan,” and her flowers as her “Puritan garden.” No one could associate her with the rigid dogmas of Christian Puritanism. She meant something else. Nature is old-fashioned in the way it has and gives character. Nature is a discipline. Strict, but bounteous. We become flexible, humble, a bit out of whack, and the wiser for it. Seasonal soft spots keep our hard heads newborn.
Dickinson’s winter poems punch with this spirited surrender. One poem shows how Dickinson, affected and infected as she was by the cold and dark, found it in her imagination to speak warmly of winter:
Winter is good—his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield—
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World—
Generic as a Quarry
And hearty—as a Rose—
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.
This world of a woman who elsewhere wrote that winter was a thief and an enemy could also begin a poem with Winter is good. To a gardener, “generic” would allude to a genus like a plant— a rich and live source, a quarry. As a person who worked as much with flowers as words, Dickinson knew intimately that without snow and frost perennials cannot produce new growth. A “green” winter is actually the death of a garden. To her, winter’s character is italic — an emphatic element working on the intellect. A flavor. In the last eight words, we’re given the whole drama of humanness and winter — the interplay of acceptance and subversion; stoicism and playfulness; the need to let ourselves be ravaged, and the humor to keep from being martyrs. Invited with / Asperity / But welcome / when he goes. Yes, and yes. The rich strangeness of Dickinson’s voice rests on a winter virtue: it says yes to what negates it.
A cold that gets in your bones. It’s too bad this expression has lost its bite. Philosophically it’s stunning. A cold inside you. Chill teething in your very tissue. Winter as a colonizer. Where other seasons draw you out, winter gets in. Sweat you can wipe from your surfaces. Draft, on the other hand, is trawling in your meaty deep. This is insane. The weather should stay on its side of your skin. Think! A cold in your bones. Winter: an obtuse roommate clanging dishes, slamming doors, fiddling the thermostat — and who is this character anyway? — living in such intimate quarters with you. Wind doubles you over and numbs your idea of what is yours, to the very tips. To say that winter isolates us is not the whole story. It also invades us.
I wouldn’t feel a bit bad gagging my winter gloom with medication if it weren’t so damn articulate. Winter says some importantly upsetting things. It’s not like I feel despondent for no good reason. Winter inspires different and darker questions, so that the mood it makes feels more like a timely conversation than some incoherent rant. Winter will always give me more reasons to despair than to live, and that’s a valid side of reality. That’s reasonable. There are sicker mentalities than winter’s slant on death and illness and impermanence. Like, for instance, the insistence on 24-7 well-being. Seen in earth’s shifting light, a permanent smile is laughable.
If I’m making winter sound like an edifying misery, I should step back and get real. I should say, I start feeling panic in August about January. This last August, the premonitions of darkness became so real that I relocated to the deep end of a pool to save on Kleenex. The tears and snot would not staunch. Morning to afternoon the best I could do was dunk my head at intervals. I was legitimately, if irrationally, terrified for my life. As crackpot as this sounds now, it felt deadly full of sense then, and I know I’ll be given to feel it again. And I’m not alone. Studies show a depressive bump in the general population at the end of August. There’s no obvious cause. Outside gives no hint of a chill. Skies are yet blue, trees green. Blooms won’t bow out for another bit. The world is in a state of seeming-Ok. But your body has the nerve to feel otherwise. A felt sense disquiets you. The wet walls of your insides pick up on some countercurrent, like a licked finger to the wind. It’s the sense of too quiet. The sound of everything stopped growing. It goosebumps the brain. Did you feel that? Earth just turned in her grave.
Why am I driven to the depths of a chlorinated Kleenex? To shiver in advance? Winter wants to kill me. Good-naturedly, but winter always takes it too far. That’s winter’s way. I get tired of the shadows. All its twilit bullshit. Gets to where I’d rather not play. At all. Before I go on, let’s operate on the belief that winter needs no curing. Unstable, for the moment, is a precondition and not a “condition.” In winter I decide I will die. I am going to end. The idea makes a chilly sort of sense. Dear yearly end of the world: Do I exist? What exists? I’ll leave and find out.
Though I now know certain thoughts as seasonal patterns, and can talk some June sense into January’s tailspin, getting to this point was a process, and one shot with huge risk. As a young adult I didn’t know wanting to die could have something to do with the position of our planet. So I tried for death, and I am indebted to failure. My body is a genius. During the dark seasons of trial and error, it would usher me outside again and again, against my will. My body would say, You can’t die inside! Get up. Let’s go find a bridge. A lake. There you can end. What happens outside? For me, an astronomical subtlety: I stop seeing from my head. I see in surround. Under sky, myself as yardstick is snapped in half and thrown to the wind. I start seeing from outside. Ha! My hands are so freaking tiny. Look – I’m just a miniature creature, an awkward, bony heartbeat. Hallelujah! I can’t be taken seriously.
Earth puts me in the dark, but the earthling in me knows what to do. It gets me out the door and into the winter that shut me in to begin with. The relentless paradox earth tells over and over: I will kill you. But I am the one who brings you back.
Is not treating winter depression as a disorder naive? If a person submits herself to the rhythms of nature, and mother nature ultimately fails to pull this person out of the seasonal abyss, so that this irreplaceable person succeeds in self-destructing, what then? No one could say that it was a courageous decision not to go on medication. It is clear that the seasons demand not just our acceptance, but our enterprise.
We don’t need to get back to some primitive relationship with the seasons to experience their power and healing. It would be dangerous to romanticize the lives of pre-moderns in lock-step with the weather. Death, disease, exposure, starvation, immobilization, all came with the territory. Rather than build a wall between us and the seasons with talk of Disorders, and rather than impulsively tear walls down in a flurry of Idealism, we could approach the relationship as we have since our beginnings on earth — as gardeners. We cultivate. Our technology, our knowledge, could be the best way back to nature. Innovations in design, architecture, biotechnology, can bring our daily lives, neighborhoods, and cities, into closer contact with the seasons — without making life unnecessarily harder. For instance, within the past couple of years a group of Taiwanese researchers were able to engineer trees with bioluminescent leaves. The idea is for these lambent leaves to serve as an alternative to street lamps. Would it really make a difference, walking under the soft glow of a tree rather than a street light?
A world of it, I think.
There was a spell there when critics were cuckoo for pathologizing Emily Dickinson’s life. She’s received posthumous diagnoses like honorary degrees. Recent dating of her poems has allowed intense examination of the “periodicity” of her work. Scholars and psychologists have plumbed her expressive extremes for signs of seasonal affective disorder, and, as biographers have long commented on the “the winter within her,” it’s not surprising that her work follows patterns. I wonder what Dickinson would think of these identifications. During her lifetime, she was diagnosed as having “Nervous Prostration.” This seemed to mean much less to her than her own words. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “Possibly I have — I do not know the Names of Sickness.”
The results of these recent studies show that Dickinson’s productivity has a distinct seasonality: for a couple consecutive years summer accounted for three times the output of fall and winter combined. A letter written to a friend in November shows her wintering mind: “I thought perhaps that you were dead…. Who is alive? The woods are dead.” With everything dead, or assuming the look of death, there’s not much to say. However, the pattern is radically disrupted in 1861. Dickinson experiences a “Terror” that seems to turn the seasons on their head. She becomes more productive than ever, and in the winter months. This period of crisis and creativity had such an effect on her that she would remark afterwards, “I made no verse — but — one or two — until this winter.” What’s clear is that creation doesn’t discriminate between despair and joy, cold and warm. Creation has one lowly condition: contrast.
The question of course arises: so if, in general, Dickinson was writing wildly more in the summer and all but dying in the winter, what would her body of work look like today if her SAD had been diagnosed and treated? There could have been hundreds — nay, a thousand! — more poems. But can we separate Dickinson’s summer output from her winter input? We can chart out and talk up patterns of productivity, but if seasons tell us anything, it’s that creation doesn’t happen in the moment it appears. Dickinson, naturally, said it best: “Bloom—is Result.”
I want to go back to the Utahn snow-stifled spring that began this exploration. The false starts, the taunting cold, merciless frost that thwacked back hope — they made for an eventual release. There came a day in May when I was walking to work and it out-of-the-blue hailed — prickling my skin with cubed vicissitude — and I knew something. Discomfort was not the enemy. Routine was the enemy! Smothered impulse! Fear of appearing weird! I stopped dead on the sidewalk. Looked around. People walking, driving, in straight lines. But when I thought about it, or unthought, the sun and hail made me want to shake my ass and wave my arms at the sky, and spin with my tongue hanging out. I was cutting through the Carl’s Jr. parking lot when I made the commitment. No more slinking through the motions. I would move with the weather. I would let the weather move me. My body and brain a yearlong sukkah porous to the skies. I gave a free dance show to the burger-eaters behind the glass window. There’s living as a person, there’s living as a human, and then there’s living as a fucking earthling. I would be an earthling.
What I’m saying is what I’ve come to believe: that longest winter was midwife to my new head. Seasons are somehow continuous with consciousness, not a mere metaphor for phases of life, but physically constitutive of them. Seasons evolve us, as organisms, individuals, societies. And not without that heaping portion of darkness. All seasons are incurably connected. Each summer, the brainchild of its winter.
The one thing the biologists and psychologists and poets all seem to agree on is this: There’s something unique about spring. Just as the plants can recognize spring warmth from fall warm spells, there is something in us that intrinsically knows the spring from the spring-like. Studies related to cognition and weather have placed our peak mood at 72 degrees. Anything warmer or cooler and our performance as people starts to go downhill. According to this model, we should be feeling as optimal on a toasty fall day as in spring. However, as it turns out, the effect of temperature change is asymmetrical: temperature changes towards cooler weather do not predict higher mood. The researchers concluded that there appears to be “something” singularly spiriting about warm days in the spring. There’s 72 degrees, and then there’s 72 degrees after a long winter. Dickinson could have told them that. “A Light exists in Spring / Not present on the Year / At any other period.” More than a millennia ago another poetess, Izumi Shikibu, expressed the fact of the matter this way:
these pine trees
keep their original color,
is different in spring.
If only 72 degrees was all there was to it. I could move to some balmy locale and bury my winter brain in the yard. If only there were no order at work. Nature has her own syntax, and for all our sophistication, we can’t seem to talk ourselves around it. Against our very human will, we are on a clock bigger than ourselves.
Brooke Larson is a writer, collagist, and fungi enthusiast. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, and is currently a PhD student in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her poems, essays, and art have recently appeared in Foothill Journal, Split Rock Review, Gravel, The Swamp, Timber, Split Lip Magazine, and The Journal of Creative Geography. She calls home Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, where she is a sometimes wilderness guide.
“Winter: Welcome When He Goes” is from the essay collection Pleasing Tree, forthcoming from Arc Pair Press in 2019.