The Secret to Surviving Winter

So it’s March 24th and the official start of spring has come and gone. When I looked at the thermometer this morning and it was 4°, I got to thinking about how cold, snow and ice affect our sense of well being.

In the fall, after a summer of warm sun and nurturing green, the first cold snap and snowfall are pleasant signs of the change of seasons and the coming of family gatherings. I am invigorated by daily hikes with friends and Silas – our fat, happy dog.

Then I start to snuggle in to cook soups, bake bread and work long hours on illustrations. The freezer is full and the top of the cabinets are lined with canned tomatoes and grape jellies put by from the garden, their colors pleasing and their presence enhancing a sense of safe, warm comfort. The dropping temperatures seem a natural progression and I look forward to getting a lot of work done and catching up on reading novels and other hobbies. I pull out wool hats, long underwear, snowshoes and skis with anticipation.

A couple of years back, I set up my small workshop under the grow lights where, in the spring, my seedlings would be started. The theory was that the full spectrum grow light would help me see my projects while staving off the cabin fever that always seemed to rise in February for me. My secret to surviving winter, as such.

This year’s project is to build a fairy house for my future grandchildren (the first of whom is due at the end of March). I collected fallen birch bark, seed pods, pine cones, and other interesting stones and bits from the woods all summer and set down to build a fantastical little world for the small children that would be coming into our lives.

My husband built a frame and I began to glue pine cone seeds on the roof as shingles while listening to music, Silas sleeping at my feet. I bound sticks with twine to make tiny brooms and used birch bark as siding. One morning I came down to find tiny chairs and a table that my husband had built in his own workshop. A few days later a tiny ladder appeared leaning against the eaves of the house. There be fairies here…

As the fairy house grew, I began to worry who would inhabit this tiny kingdom. This was no home for Lego men, action figures or Barbie dolls. I looked online and found all kinds of figures from small farmers to fairies in gossamer wings. None seemed quite right. But I kept framing tiny windows with bits of wood and constructing a kitchen table and chairs with sticks and bark. Window boxes made of fungus were glued in place and a chimney of pebbles went on the roof.

Then in February, I started to feel that familiar sense of claustrophobia that always seemed to come after many months inside. It had been below zero every night for several weeks and the snow banks were shoulder high. The treacherous ice on the trails was beginning to seem a personal affront. I was tired of wearing spikes and snowshoes everywhere. I hated my wool hat and wanted to break my ski poles over my knee. I turned off the grow light and left the fairy house. I cooked a massive lasagna and froze batches of oatmeal cookies for my husband, made sure there was enough dog food and flew to California to visit my sister.

San Francisco in February is sunny and 65°. The neighborhood gardens are blooming and the smell of their blossoms is heady and rejuvenating. I walked and walked and walked winding through impossibly steep neighborhoods that have never even seen a frost. I stopped now and then to stare off at the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay and marvel at the weird contrast between the view of mountains back home and the view of the heavily developed San Francisco Bay area – still breathtaking but in a different way. That first week, I didn’t worry about my husband or dog much or think about the fairy house at all.

We shopped and sat at outdoor cafes sipping cold drinks watching stylish people walk by. We drove to Point Reyes and hiked the cliffs and then the beach, the sound of the waves ever present and soothing. Her puppy ran wild, tossing into the waves, greeting people, digging in the sand. I understood how she felt. The warmth of the sun and the smell of the ocean were like some kind of magic working its way into my muscles and bones. I wondered if my husband was taking Silas out and skiing. I found a tiny seed pod that would look good in the fairy house garden and put it in my pocket.

My brother drove up from LA and we traveled up the coast to visit the redwoods. We wandered among the giants with awe, their bulk turning the noon sun into twilight. It was hard to see them without feeling a mixture of wonder and shame. The idea that we cut so many of them down is hard to take in. I thought about the scale from Redwood to human to fairy house.

We walked Scott’s pack of dogs on the rocky Eel River and I found a round, flat stone for the tiny fairy walkway and slid it into my pocket.

We drove further north and watched the dogs run with abandon on the wide expanse of beach north of Eureka. We found sand dollars and odd crustaceans I had never seen on eastern beaches. I picked up an interesting shell that would make a artful fairy salad bowl. I breathed in the sea air deeply and felt myself whole again. Then I realized that just as my sense of needing to get away had crept up on me at home, my need to get back to my own pack was becoming hard to ignore. I knew it was time to go.

Back in San Francisco, my sister gave me a little gift before I left. I unfolded delicate tissue to find tiny mice made of wire and wool, dressed in little hats and jackets. They were adorable and exactly the right size to sit at the kitchen table that was waiting in my fairy house back home. Hmmm….

Coming home was still a bit of a shock admittedly. It was still hovering around zero even though it was early March and the woods were icy and treacherous. We went for a hike up a small mountain behind our property and it was frigid and slippery with ice flows pouring over every cliff. Ice flows form when a seeping spring pours out layer after thin layer of water that freeze on the rocks and build up into what looks like a beautiful frozen waterfall. They can be cloudy or filled with colors – brown, green or blue and are quite lovely close up. Despite their beauty, I was anxious and cranky as I stumbled and slid on hidden slicks of ice, regretting having stubbornly left my spikes at home.

My husband kept climbing up, never looking back to see if I was ready to turn back – a technique that over the years he’s found effective for keeping me going. Silas ran back and forth in total bliss, smelling deer tracks and looking back at me to see why I was not running with glee, like him. It was tougher going for me. The crusty, untrustworthy snow kept giving way every third step plunging me shin deep into the snow. I scrambled on disgruntled about the cold and the mean spirited branches that kept snapping in my face with stinging accuracy.

But then something shifted, as it always does while walking. I started to feel warm. My muscles started to feel stretched and humming. I could almost feel those magic endorphins flow into my bloodstream and I started to feel happy and kind of powerful. The view began to appear through the trees behind us showing snowy mountains and the sparkle of Lake Champlain in the distance. It was a stunning sight. I looked out at it and sighed contentedly. I was sweaty, cold and longing for spring, but I was home.

And there were mice that needed to move into their fairy house.


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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.