A Spiritual Biography of the Season
This winter’s frequent cold blasts forcefully reminded Michigan residents of the season’s power.
But for Calvin College professors Susan Felch and Gary Schmidt, winter has not only a physical force but also a spiritual impact. It’s a concept they explore in a new book of essays and poems they edited called Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season.
The book, from Skylight Paths Publishing, explores winter’s character—its cold, stark, dark and even deadly character. It also examines what winter does to those who endure it.
Already in its second printing and featured in such media as the Boston Globe and Vermont Public Radio, the book brings together essays by Jamaica Kincaid, Rachel Carson, John Updike, Henry David Thoreau, E.B. White and a multitude of others on winter’s vicissitudes and joys.
The collection was the idea of Skylight editor John Sweeney, who wanted a seasonal book with a spiritual focus. Schmidt and Felch were happy to take on the challenge.
Their collection includes musings about dead gardens, winter fishing, winter burial, wood-splitting and whether or not a seagull will eat a smelt. Poet Donald Hall ruminates about how winter drives us into hibernation, saying, “We are partly tuber, partly bear.” Annie Dillard stalks a reticent coot along a frozen river. Jim dale Huyot-Vickery mourns over every dead deer he encounters.
Central to all these experiences of nature is the human response they provoke. Felch and Schmidt broke the book into sections that map out a spiritual trajectory for the season. In the section titled “Winter as a Time of Sorrow and Barrenness,” Barry Lopez talks about perlerorneq, the extreme depression suffered by Polar Eskimos during winter darkness. In “Winter as a Time to Be Scoured and to Succor the Scoured,” William Cooper exhorts, “We shou’d be patient under the cold since ’tis God’s cold.” In “Winter as a Time of Shoring Ourselves Up,” John Updike discusses the wardrobe created just to get through the season. And Mark Noll celebrates the snow in which “buttoned, capped and booted, you and I / go dancing, tromping, dancing by” in “Winter as a Time of Delight and Play.”
Felch, who grew up as the daughter of missionaries in Papua, New Guinea, empathized with one offering in particular: Jamaica Kincaid’s admission that she simply doesn’t like the season.
Schmidt and Felch were struck by the generosity of many of the contributors, particularly by Barry Moser’s free gift of illustrations he has used for another book. Some of that generosity, they said, is the outgrowth of the college’s Festival of Faith and Writing, where many of the authors featured in the book have made connections with the Calvin English department.
The two editors spent a year compiling material, drawing on memories of favorite works and favorite authors and searching books, microfiche and even the Internet for inspiration.
Because of the first book’s success, the pair will next collaborate on a book about autumn. They’ve already begun brainstorming.
When a young girl, Anh Vu went to bed at night with bombs exploding around her; she would tell her sister, "If we're hit by a rocket tonight and blown to bits, when we wake up in the morning, we will be in heaven with God.
That was the only comfort Vu had as a child living in war-torn South Vietnam during the 1970s. Vu and her family were among the last Vietnamese evacuated from the roof of the American Embassy during the fall of Saigon.
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