Winter Reading

by Jim Eagleman

Like for many, winter months give me opportunity to delve into the nature books, articles, newsletters, and magazines neglected all year. Warmer days were enjoyed outside and I always thought to do it later. Now there’s time to enjoy articles, or revisit favorite books, journals—even poems. Reading by the woodstove on long winter evenings has become most enjoyable. I even make time to scan academic articles with statistics, charts, and graphs—suggested reading by a supervisor.

A book friends and I always take down from the shelf at this time is The National Wildlife Federation’s December Treasury and its companion edition, Wildlife’s Christmas Treasury. While holiday themes prevail, topics also deal with wildlife, survival, and winter accounts by biologists. I am sure more current work has been compiled since these volumes were published in 1985, but the art prints, photos, and entries help recall for me my youth in hilly, southeastern Pennsylvania. A nostalgic sap, I seem to think Robert Frost’s poems were written just for me, or that Grandma Moses prints depict our favorite sledding hill. I look close and see a house I knew, a passage brings back the smell of wet wool. The snow, the fires at impromptu hockey games, and the biting cold comes back. I am a kid again on my new Flexible Flyer sled. Snow days meant no school and snow forts took precedence.

How gifted these past poets and authors—the stories paint a mental image. I marvel at word choice, cadence, and how they recount the natural world’s chilly time. When young, I may have memorized an entire passage or line for an assignment, but never had the appreciation how carefully words were crafted, sentences assembled. Like a favorite song we know by heart, works by writers like Longfellow, Dickinson, Hal Borland, Ernest Thompson Seton, Sigurd Olson, Leopold, Edwin Teale, and others come easy. They tell a story and charm the ear. All are nature observers, lovers of wild places now in winter, noting “nature’s music” for all to hear and enjoy. They seem to say: “Why not invite all who read to see for yourself—bundle up, look for tracks, signs.”

A creative writing instructor once told a class, “if the words aren’t compelling enough to move you to action, the writer failed.” Then he added that such writing, if the student was to pursue, would be one of the most difficult tasks in the language arts. Yet some authors have a knack (or skill) to convey action, movement—a change. Others spend time. Winston Churchill, the great British orator and writer, was known to have spent an entire day on the flow of one sentence. He would say a sentence out loud several times, emphasizing a different word, not knowing how future readers would hear, and hopefully reflect on the message.

Winter also allows a visit to museums and art galleries to see up-close the talent of landscape, bird, and wild place painters. Having observed a lot of natural areas, and familiar with the woods, I think I have a pretty good feel for lighting—how shade covers the ground or how sunlight is reflected off tree trunks and water. Until I see an exquisite painting that captures the scene so eloquently. That the artist spent enough time to study the likeness is a credential I’ll acknowledge—they spent the time. Like a select few authors I admire, only a few artists can convey it perfectly.

The DNR web page <> is full of winter activities at many state properties. You can get outside for guided hikes, ski tours, and toboggan runs, and have warm places to go afterwards. Notices remind you to dress in layers and know your limits. Snowshoes and ice fishing keep outdoor enthusiasts active. Wide, winter tires on mountain bikes keep park trails full of tracks. Long, skinny trails side-by-side indicate cross-country skiers. We are fortunate to live in a place that offers so much year ’round.

It is with a tinge of guilt I stay indoors on cold and stormy days. Tending to the stove and watching birds, I reach for another story in the treasury book. I recall a duck-hunting trip a few years back when I left the warmth of the house to freeze. My hunting partner reminded me that the coldest, most inhospitable day for humans is a great day for ducks. Now, I go less and enjoy reading about the duck adventures others recount.

Enjoy these long winter days with a good (nature) book. Share what you are reading and a favorite passage. Happy New Year!