Saturday, June 9, 2012

Winter Scenes and Adam Gopnik's Winter

Funnily enough, at least in retrospect, I hurried to finish Winter, a collection of last year's (five) Massey Lectures. Joining a long list of illustrious speakers (Thomas King, Margaret Atwood, Northrop Frye, Ursula Franklin, Noam Chomsky) Adam Gopnik chose to ponder the nordicity of our nation but also to explore the significance and context of winter itself.
Given his focus on the former, his Euro-centrism in considering the latter is understandable, although I found it limiting at various points. I would have been as fascinated about the historical significance of snow in the Himalayas and its representation in South America, for example, as I was by a prolonged discussion of polar expeditions.
Perhaps some of my reservations stem from my West Coast (from birth) failure to engage as strongly as other Canadians with those nordic images through which so many of us seem to construct and represent our nationality.  And perhaps my gender interfered as well, or at least my lack of fascination with hockey and heroism.

I did find much of interest in the cultural history Gopnik lays out whereby the domestic comforts brought on by stable indoor heating systems made winter a time of sweet enjoyment intensified by the contrast of a warm home with the cold outdoors. And the cultural history he stitches together from letters and fiction (especially regarding 19th and early 20th century skating as courtship) shows  the recreational delights of the season, both outdoors and in. I was particularly engaged by his study of how the transformation of terrain by frost opened up transportation possibilities in colonial Canada. As well, he considers the change to a modern city in the way snow renders individual automobiles less useful, turns the urban space back toward its more pedestrian-centred possibilities.  And most urgently, he wonders what global climate change will do to winter -- and how the lack of winter's edge will blunt our enjoyment of the respite spring brings. That is, he makes a cultural claim to amplify environmental concerns -- without Winter, our culture(s) will surely change.
I finished Winter before March 21st, when that season ended. We're almost into summer now, and I'm only just blogging it, but at least I'm able to amplify my post with some images from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. All the images above are of Hendrick Avercamp's c. 1608 painting, Winter Landscape with Skaters.

And below,
in Caesar Bo√ętius van Everdingen's A Young Woman Warming her Hands over a Brazier, the young woman is meant to represent Winter.
If she's like me, she's dreaming of summer's warmth. One week into June here, we've yet to enjoy temperatures above 20 Celsius. . . .

and we readers, we long for those hammock days, no?

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