Winter came early this year. Between the snow and the frigid temperatures, November and December have felt uncharacteristically winter-like.
We can point to the weather and suggest that we “don’t remember it being like this.” But our memory is short. Records show (and meteorologists confirm), we’ve had plenty of early snowfalls, and — over a century or more — below-zero temperatures prior to the solstice.
Some Vermonters define the start of winter as the first snowfall that sticks to the ground; for others, it is the first time they put on skis or snowshoes. Old timers will tell you it’s when the first cord of wood has been put in the wood stove.
Winter in Vermont means different things to different people. Despite its beauty, it can be a harsh season for people living on low or fixed incomes, especially when temperatures go below zero.
Vermont depends on winter and the money it pumps into the state. Every year, millions of visitors turn out to enjoy our outdoor recreation, and they bring their wallets. Warm winters may help out homeowners, but ski areas (and the vendors and service sector that support them) dread poor conditions.
Winter is a complex give and take.
In 1942, Charles Edward Crane, of Montpelier, wrote a book that was widely purchased. At the time, it was one of the most popular books published about the Green Mountain State. “Winter in Vermont” was reprinted several times, and often given as a gift to people with ties to the state. (You can find a copy at any used book store with a Vermont section.)
Crane was a longtime correspondent for The Associated Press and feature writer and editor for newspapers around Vermont. He considered Vermont “home.”
What’s interesting is that Crane is not a fan of the season. He admits he can “take it or leave it,” but became fascinated by how the entire culture of a state can shift — priorities shuffled with an entirely different crop of expectations.
Crane captures the beauty of a Vermont winter over several chapters, illustrations and black-and-white images. He infuses his prose with anecdotes and poetry — sometimes from literature. And while it is a trip back in time (1940s America is unique when it comes to fashion, style and technology), the imagery and language used in “Winter in Vermont” transcends the decades.
It is by no stretch of the imagination an era-specific advertorial for the ski industry or the then-equivalent of the tourism and marketing department. (Vermont Life would soon have that covered.) In fact, he has chapters depicting the physiological effects of exposure and cold weather to body and mind. (It’s not Jon Krakauer “Into Thin Air” gross, but it’s graphic enough to suggest danger.)
It is a lovely reminder of why four-season states are so unique and worthy of study and certain interpretation.
“Winter is a privilege, isn’t it? I doubt that half the world’s population knows what real winter is. It’s not so with summer — that’s more universal — even icy Greenland has its green summer,” he writes. “But winter is a minority blessing — a mixed blessing, if you will; and those familiar with it must own to familiarity that breeds contempt. If they speak of winter with praise, they must be allowed to include a deal of cursing.”
Crane looks at everything — from the ecology (which critters migrate and hibernate) to the gastronomy (what we like to eat in the winter months and why). There might even be a recipe in there for salt pork and milk gravy, and preparing a proper bean pot for baked beans.
But the real gem comes in the chapter titled “We Have ‘Wood to Burn.’”
“As I put another log on the fire, I remarked, ‘I have discovered that the origin of our word ‘winter’ traces back to the Indo-European words for ‘wet’ as ‘wed’ and ‘wod,’ so it appears that we do not get winter from its association with cold or snow but from its association with wetness, as was common in the Indo-European region.” Crane consults the Oxford English Dictionary to find “On sumera hit bith wearm and on wintra ceald” in A.D. 888.
By any name, it’s just as cold.
Winter in Vermont, above all else, is a time for us all to come together — face to face — to share warm meals, have long talks and maybe even play some board games.
It’s time to go outside and embrace this season many Vermonters love to hate. It has much to offer in what it reveals about us as individuals and communities.
If there’s any doubt, there’s a book out there that makes the case.