Three Seasons Out Of Four
When Shakespeare began Richard III with "Now is the winter of our discontent," he began with the wrong season. Summer is the real season of discontent. Summer has all the disadvantages and none of the benefits of temptation, ratcheting the desires up tight with devilish enticement but never offering a spasm worth the twinge. Summer does have some virtues, like a boring man who dresses well. But summer is really cheap seats, soft ice-cream, crumbs in the bottom of the cold water bottle.
So what recommends the great and glorious winter, this season of content? Many people don't understand winter. They see winter as confinement and negation, the natural symbol of being sent to bed without supper. But the opposite is really true. Winter brings reality down to inescapable essentials: warmth, decent food, serviceable clothing, proportional thought, considered action. Winter helps us measure ourselves; it resists us and does not protect our cherished myths about superiority or talent. It is a harsh-lighted mirror that throws back at us what we are not and what we need to become. Where summer is sand that shifts, a smooth undulation, winter is crazed ice over purling water, one element in two versions, just as we in ourselves hold the ice of death and the free water of imagination.
The winter I think of most often is the first winter Thoreau must have spent at (and on) Walden Pond. His cabin was ten by fifteen, heated from a fireplace built with his own hands, his woodshed a few steps from his front door. The closest sign of life was the railroad a few rods from him; Concord was a mile and a half away. As the shingles of his cabin grew more weathered during his first winter there, so must have he. By investigating his world, he investigated himself. The depths of the pond he recorded so dutifully were his own depths, its length and breadth the geography of his own place in the world.
Thoreau could not have done what he did if he lived where it was always summer. He needed a world of contrasts in order to find comparisons. He needed a restricted world in order to find what was free and unlimited. He needed a world loosened from material desire, even from emotional desire, so that he could hear and distill the silence of a December night. Our modern world is in part filled with too much summer, too much that simply *is* without question or balancing contrast. A strong dose of Thoreauvian winter, both literal and figurative, would remind us of essentials, and the coldness that surrounds us might be balanced by the warmth of discovery and explanation.
* * *
Full spring will soon be here. The air will lose its sting and edge, soften into a gauzy flair that hangs, like Spanish moss, from branches, phone lines, the eaves of garages. Spring brings water to the dry sponges of our bodies, filling out what has been made arid during winter. This restorative tonic of spring is what poets celebrate when they write their paeans to the season, what Longfellow called the "wonder and expectation in all hearts."
But much of what we think as actual "spring" is really the end of spring, its final report, the crescendos of the fourth movement, not the delicate allegro of the first. By the time we notice spring's beauty and fizz it's over, and something we had hankered for since the thick storms of January has once again passed us by. Despite our good resolutions to pay attention, we stay so busy with the other matters of getting our living that spring sort of sifts in like a fine dust that accumulates quietly until with great surprise we suddenly find it thick enough to write our names in and wonder where it all came from.
George Santayana had, I think, a better notion. "To be interested in the changing seasons" he said "is...a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with Spring." Prior to what we think is spring are a few "sub-seasons" of spring, and to be interested in these is to learn how to appreciate the yeasty conclusion we rise to in April. e.e. cummings named one "just- spring," when the world was mudluscious and puddlewonderful. I like the small season right before "just-spring," when the world is melting and the air can still carry an electric charge of sharp chill. I find this usually on my first bike ride. The scabrous snow, darkened and more salt than water, is running away through the culverts and down the cloughs. The vowels of loosened water mix with the hiss of the tires on the road, the slur of the chain over the sprockets. In the sunlight I can feel the advent of August, but in patches of shade lingers a cool vagrant who steals my sweat and makes my skin perk and dance. I like best this prickly interregnum between the harsh edge of March's ending and the opening sultry drawl of April's yawn.
There are other small seasons in spring if you think about them. It's important to notice them and not let them be swamped by the official induction ceremonies granted to March 21 and Hallmark cards. Too often we want to move quickly from what we don't like to something we think we want, and we wash over all the odd quirky bits of time and space that could give not only momentary plea sure but also a more lenient and durable fullness to our lives. There is a season, as the Preacher says, and it would be good to add as many seasons to his list as we can.
* * *
How quickly this time goes. Just beyond the edge of daily memos and the duress of circumstance, carbonating our routines, is this tonic air and pervious light of autumn. It burns off summer's humid residue from the blood, leavens the air with chilly jazz. The eyes become a smeared palette of primaries, thick impasto at the edges of sight, vision Monet-like in apprehension and dissolve. The bones ratchet with less grind, even hair loses its amnesia. The body for a moment bumps up against life and the two dance extravagant mazurkas, wicked tangos.
How quickly this time goes. John Gardner, in his book October Light, talks about "locking time," that slow deliquesce of heat from the earth that turns soil to iron, air to knives, sky to fist. One of the characters talks about how locking time is always a surprise. The prelude is full of light and zip: leaves drained down to reds and yellows, Macintosh apples ballooned with sweetness, the corn chopped down, the hay taxed into bales and collected. Even veterans fool themselves into believing that this swell and tumble of abundance can survive the lapse of the earth around the sun. And then one morning frost rimes the window corners, thin ice bolts across shallow water. Locking time has started; before long the world will think in parsimony, everything, as the singer Lui Collins puts it, "hung in suspension awaiting the snow."
How quickly this time goes. Every year I promise myself to travel to every apple orchard, stand of raspberry canes, and corn field I can to splurge in the ripe muchness that reports from the land. Every year I promise myself a pilgrim age and every year I side-journey somewhere else, usually too busied with making a living to actually live. And then I feel my own locking time, feel the mud of my guts turn to hardpan and the sap rescind its sweetness. And I know I've missed it again, failed to make my imagination press some quickening cider from the time, can some preserves against the January lees. Next year, I say, next year, knowing there are fewer years each year I can say that.
Perhaps this is too dour. There is spring in this fall as well. Autumn makes us slough off summer's Eden, reminds us that even locking time, even the cold rind of February, even this season of our own mortal thoughts can be a season for living. Autumn tells us that the thing is to live at all, to get some even as the much slips away, and grasp that some as if all life, like the red wheelbarrow, depended on it. This is an invigorating desperation, calling us to rise and leave Paradise. No Pascal's wager on this one; all we can do is breathe deep, look hard, and keep the furnaces stoked.