Moving to Wisconsin, as I did this past year, I expected winter to be white, windy, bleak. I expected it to be a blanket, to press down on us, to whip us around, to send us scurrying through the streets and into shops and cafes. I was actually looking forward to weather so oppressive that I would want to stay indoors, alone—weather that would quiet the din of the world so I could think. Quiet. That is what winter should be. A time when activity slacks, slows, stops. A time when we meet occasionally, if loudly, for bursts of cheer, to break the solitude. But mostly it should be solitude. A time when the distances between us stretch.
But this winter is timid. What little snow has fallen has mostly meted, leaving bare brown grass to make its shivering stand against the wind. We go outside in light jackets, scratch our heads—yes, it feels nice not to have the wind etching lines into our faces, but isn’t something missing? Solitude is missing; there is nothing to slow us down this winter, so we don’t slow ourselves, we barrel ahead furiously, but toward what?
I want to stay with slowness for a while. It is out of fashion, has been for some time. I need not dwell on the infinite ways technology has quickened us (but I will). Once, not even so long ago, the Americas and China knew not even of each other’s existence. Thousands of years passed in each place, entirely separate. Now, news in China is news in America in less than a second. We know more about planets in other solar systems than a Mayan a thousand years ago knew about Africa. The pace of life these ancient people must have led would be unbearable to us now. What could they have done all day? And yet, this is who we are. We are slow beings forced to be fast. Someone once said to me that when we fill our lives to the brim, when we force ourselves to be always busy, always running to the next thing, we do violence to ourselves. I thought, if we do violence, does that mean we are injuring ourselves? And if so, how would we know?
Rob Nixon speaks of another kind of violence. We as a species are committing slow but vicious violence upon ourselves through climate change. Heat means quickness, activity, motion. As the Earth and its atmosphere gain energy, things will speed up, and collide more frequently, with more force. Storms will rage, insects will swarm, diseases will spread, and masses of coastal people will be on the move, looking for new homes. Where will they go? Will we let them in? We, who have through our carelessness, and our mad pursuit of speed, perpetrated this slow violence against them, flooding their homes?
For us in the middle of continents, the sea will remain distant. But winter will retreat toward the far north. Good riddance, some might say. But wait—isn’t winter part of who we are? There are pictures of me as a baby red-faced and bundled against the cold. If parents don’t have to bundle their children against the cold, what does that mean for parents, and children? Snowmen, snowball fights, sledding, hot chocolate, puzzles by the fireplace when the snow was too deep or the night too cold to go outside. Sweaters, coats, jackets, scarves, wool hats and socks, boots and mittens. What if my own children don’t know these things—will they have lost a part of themselves (will that part have been cut out of them)? If we are a sum of our experiences, and we no longer experience winter, are we less?
Here in Wisconsin, winter defines—or has defined—a third of the year. The men who sit stoically on buckets over small holes in the ice for hours (what are they made of that I am not?)—what will happen to them? The skier gliding through the quiet woods, the pirouetting skater on the frozen pond, the hunter stalking his prey—where will they go? What if one third of people’s lives are taken away, what do we call that?
Winter used to be the time when we were not what we were the rest of the time. We were not farmers, bicyclers, porch-sitters—we became skiers, readers, thinkers. Annie Dillard writes: “I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia…At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.” In winter we retreated. Retreat—to withdraw, to take shelter. Winter was a time of retreat, but is now itself in retreat. It won’t happen all at once—maybe next year winter will be cold and full of snow, and we’ll say, “ah yes, this is what we remember.” But thirty, forty years from now, when children I may someday have might be the age I am now, winter won’t be what we know it as. We will be left out in the cold, except we won’t be, because there will be no cold. The world will swirl ever faster; we will look for a quiet place to retreat to and there will be none. How ironic that in our mad pursuit of speed, we have accidentally made speed the only choice—our destiny.