Within the Northern Great Lakes region, there is no season more evocative than the harried depths of winter. Harsh, frigid, unforgiving, this time of year is a potent reminder of how harrowing life in the North would be without our modern fortifications of climate-controlled homes and heated automobiles. And yet, for all its tribulations, winter also has the effect of revealing our ingenuity, perseverance, and connection to those who live around us. We have a complicated relationship with winter, a relationship constantly in dialogue with our history, culture, and traditions.
In history, winter has always carried a significant mythical weight for residents of boreal lands. Consider for a moment the Scandinavian concept of “Fimbulvetr”. While Fimbulvetr can be used generally to refer to an uncharacteristically cold winter, the term has more mythic origins as well. In Norse mythology, Fimbulvetr refers to a period in which three successive, brutally harsh winters will put an end to all life on earth in a prelude to the end of world. Some scholars believe that this mythological concept can be linked back to an abnormal weather event in Nordic history. Perhaps the winter of 535 CE, which involved a significant drop in temperature in northern Europe, or possibly to even more ancient climate fluctuations. While this type of myth is no longer believed in modern society, it echoes the apocalyptic narratives that our culture endlessly constructs. We may now see nuclear weapons, plagues, and rogue technology as greater threats than an eternal winter, but even in an increasingly secular society, fascination with eschatology remains.
Winter is no longer the existential threat that it was for our ancestors, but we cannot avoid the fact that we are not nearly as sovereign over our environment as we imagine. Extreme weather events seem to grow more frequent every year, and the specter of climate change hangs over a public that cannot seem to find any consensus on its cause (or our response to it). Regardless of what your personal opinion on the realities of climate change may be, it is an interesting thought experiment to consider what the future could hold for our region with drastically different climate circumstances. The one indisputable fact of climate research is that climates change over time, look no further than the Fimbulvetr of the 6th century for evidence of this. What would we lose if we lost winter? What if global temperatures keep rising and snowfall rates continue to decline?
The concept of the unexplored frontier is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. We are captivated by the idea of an unknown wilderness that we could be the first to explore, chart, and subdue. In the past, this idea has led to horrible mistreatment towards the native peoples of the American continent, but the drive behind our exploration is not necessarily immoral. The wilderness is an opportunity to create order out of chaos, and while the wilderness of pre-industrial America, uncharted and ineffable, no longer exists, winter can be for us a modern reenactment of the struggles of our ancestors. When we laugh about frigid wind chills and icy wastelands, part of our satisfaction comes from the knowledge that we have been tested by a hostile landscape and come away victorious. The idea of being warmed in front of a fire, subzero wind howling just outside, reminds us of our success in taming the climate, in segregating between the hostile wilderness and the comforting hearth, in subduing the cold itself.
As you struggle to stay warm through the cold months ahead, I would urge you to take note of the winter traditions you enjoy and revel in the rich culture we’ve developed to keep ourselves sane this time of year. Hot drinks, wool socks, and roaring fires are more than just utility, they are our unique way of making order out of a chaotic landscape of ice and snow. Perhaps in confronting the harsh realities of winter, we are participating in a creative act that reconnects us with our humanity. Living through winter becomes a way for us to know and understand the limits of our physicality, as well as the triumph of our ingenuity.
- By Micah Eriksson