The painting at the start of this post is “Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Breugel.
When I was a child, living in England and largely innocent of a winter that was anything other than wet, damp and gray, a print of this painting hung on the wall of the Victorian school room in which I dreamed away my afternoons.
This picture became the Narnia that I escaped to; a place more vivid, more exciting, and more suited to my personality than the day to day world in which I lived.
I am, at heart, a Winter person.
Spring tries too hard to be new and jolly. Summer is too torpid; filled with oppressively humid days that last longer than they should. Autumn’s fading beauty struggles to disguise the whiff of rot that taints it like stale sweat on a party frock. Winter is starkly honest, uncompromising and fundamentally magical.
It is Winter that transforms the world; stripping away the face-paint other seasons hide behind, to reveal the gaunt bone structure that is the true source of beauty.
“The Hunters in the Snow” shows a world in which every tree is limned in a coruscating ghost-shadow of snow; every breath turns to mist, every sound is muffled, and every pond grows a shell and carries people on its back.
Before I ever felt air so cold it burnt my ears and froze my hair, it seemed I yearned to be in Winter’s fierce embrace.
For me the meaning of “Hunters in the Snow” was clear: life must carve a place for itself in a beautiful but unforgiving world. That, of course, is what makes life exciting.
When, in my final years at school, I was taught that physicists believed that heat will move inexorably towards cold, I was reminded of “Hunters in the Snow” with its bustle of human activity in the depths of Winter. It seemed to me that Breugel was trying to show us that the pulsing heat of life is a fist raised in defiance at the forces of entropy.
At university, in Yorkshire, I experienced real winter snow for the first time. In my ignorance I stayed on the snow clad moors even though I could see the snow storm coming. At first I was surrounded by so much white that I could see nothing at all. Then the sun deserted me and I was left only with the cold and the darkness.
In Summer, being trapped on the moors would mean no more than sleeping beneath the stars. Even I knew that in Winter, sleeping in the snow that blanketed the world would be a surrender that there would be no coming back from.
I found a cleft in the moor to huddle in and shivered through the night, forcing myself to stay awake. I summoned my memory of “Hunters in the Snow” once more and realized that while Summer lulls us into inactivity, like a hand rocking the cradle, Winter makes us pursue life in order to sustain it.
I know how abstract this all sounds, but this is life as I live it.
I am an atheist. I accept that when the last of my heat finally seeps into the ubiquitous cold, there will be no rekindling. Winter will cover all I ever was in a snow so deep, that even the memory of me will not remain.
Now, I live in Switzerland, where, each Winter, snow dresses the mountains in finery so grand, it literally takes the breath away. In February, when the moon is full, the sky is littered with stars and snow has claimed the forest, I like to put on my snow shoes and walk until I can hear nothing but my own labored breathing. The snow on the ground is as beautiful, and frigid and unforgiving as the dark vacuum of space visible above the trees.
If I stand still and listen hard, I can hear the cold calling to me. It whispers that all I need to do to achieve peace is to settle at the base of one of the trees and let myself sleep for the last time.
Each time I hear this Siren call, I let my mind fill with the bright heat of home: hot food, warm spiced wine, and the company of someone who loves me more than I deserve. Then I turn and retrace my steps, a hunter in the snow, returning with a renewed determination not to surrender to the cold just yet.