Does the idea of a walk in winter make you shudder with dread, or shiver in adventurous anticipation? Everybody loves the blossoming exuberance of a walk in springtime, and lush summer gets all the glory. Fall, of course, has that foliage. Walking in winter doesn’t get as much good press. The austerity of a pared-down landscape, the penetrating views that bared branches and emptied beaches offer in a cold climate, and the bracing need to move assertively (lest you freeze), seem to hold stoic, niche-appeal. While I know why I like to walk in winter, I wasn’t sure about others. Recently, I took an informal poll on Instagram, asking whether, and why, people walk at the coldest time of the year. The answers were interesting. Together, we make a case: Walk in winter. It’s good for you.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
Our appreciation of the familiar, now changed, is intense. The beauty of dark trees etched in white triggers the same part of the brain that responds happily to art (and to chocolate cake!). The fact that we must be outdoors and interacting with nature to appreciate the transformation, adds the proven therapeutic benefits that a natural environment provides. Our blood pressure drops. Our stress levels decrease. We breathe.
Winemaker Jayme Henderson, co-founder of the Storm Cellar winery in Western Colorado, looks within during winter. “My winter walks are deeply introspective and inspiring,” she writes. “The quiet allows me to notice the broad strokes in nature—the roots, the exposed branches, the waterways—much of which is hidden with the overgrowth and noisy distractions in the summer. Like the roots developing underground, I find I make the biggest leaps of growth in the dormant season. It’s become my favorite season for that reason… I love the subtleties that you have to hunt out in the winter—the smells and sounds and signs of life.”
A Sense of Wonder
The sense of wonder evoked by the architecture of snow and ice is a powerful force. Experiencing the complex emotion of awe is associated with less rumination, and more well-being. In plants that withstand the bitterness of winter we see what is possible, and our awareness of what we thought could be, suddenly expands. That alone is worth stepping outside when we’d rather burrow more deeply under the covers.
A walk in winter requires some personal resilience to counter our primal fear of cold (despite the luxury of warm clothes and the privilege of being able to return to a welcoming home). But it is the indifferent resilience of the botanical world that strikes us now. Encased in ice, at temperatures below freezing, plants endure hardship before thawing, to live and thrive through another season.
Errands Become Adventures
Montreal community worker Dahlia ChanTang (@afoodiesquest on Instagram) takes more walks in winter than in summer because she hates warm humidity. In winter, she says, “I will walk to the grocery store, and make detours in the neighbourhood. Running errands on foot becomes an adventure instead of a chore.” Her favorite winter activity? “Walking during a raging snowstorm—though they are getting more erratic because of climate change.”
Winter may be made for introverts (speaking for myself). “Fewer people,” writes Rhode Island artist Catherine Moylan, summing up her love of daily winter walks, during which she finds the quiet time to “obsessively plan” her garden “as opposed to obsessively taking care of it.”
Trees are an important theme, when people think about winter walks. “I love seeing the shape of trees,”says Brooklyn resident Saara Nafici (@wonderweedsbk):”…the twists and gnarls, the way they lean and adapt to their surrounding environments—winter reveals a nakedness that is regal and majestic, even for the scrawniest of trees.”
Our Senses are Honed
For Claiborne Wild, a writer in Brooklyn, her senses are tuned differently in winter, “since there aren’t the same stimuli from color, sound, and smell. If there is snow on the ground there’s an opportunity to look closely for animal tracks, plant shoots, and other signs of life.”
Tacy Quin’s family roots are Norwegian, so it is perhaps unsurprising that for her, winter walks “give crisp clarity of thought. The cold brings things into focus in ways other seasons don’t. It’s not the bleak season people think.” Her family’s New Jersey-based life embraces the Scandinavian ethos of friluftsliv (it translates literally as “free-air-life”), which they share with others via Instagram @friluftslivfamily and with regular winter programming in collaboration with the Raritan Headwaters Association in New Jersey.
Living near Stockholm, Sweden, sun-loving, South African-born Lynn Renard (@gentle.adventures) describes the low-angle sunlight at those latitudes as “liquid gold flowing over the landscape. It’s beautiful to see and fascinating to try and capture.” You walk in winter, she says, “because in Scandinavia, it’s important to experience as much of the daylight as possible.”
Notice New Plants
Last winter I suddenly noticed unfamiliar, tall grasses growing beside a black pond in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The limited colors and stripped textures of the December landscape had brought its sculptural seed heads into focus. I had no idea what it might be even though I had walked that way before, distracted by summersweet in perfumed bloom, and chokeberries ripening. I identified it using the iNaturalist app. It is bushy bluestem, Andropogon glomeratus.
Every deep winter, my husband and I walk along the endless, cold shorelines of Long Island or New Jersey, to find overwintering snowy owls. They are sometimes spotted sitting or hunting in the dunes. It is exhilarating to watch these otherworldly raptors living their strange, feathery lives in such an apparently inhospitable environment.
The hush of snowfall is followed quickly, in an urban setting, by the happy shouts and laughter of children, old and young. A routine walk around a your local park becomes a living Breugel snowscape, where it is impossible not to feel connected to a bigger, warmer community.
Who trains all the titmice and chickadees? For anyone who was walked where these winter visitors congregate, it is a familiar and tender feeling: stretching out a hand, with or without seed, to feel the magical and delicate grip of tiny claws, as their owner searches intently for the food you are supposed to proffer. (We use human-grade sunflower seed, as treats.)
Picnic Like You Mean It
Pack your lunch. Cold-weather picnics after a winter walk can be austere, in the bracing Scandinavian sense, or soothing, along hot-soup lines. Whatever your style, you will be rewarded with the quiet that begs to be heard: waves, bird calls, the sound of your feet as they shift in the sand. Lie back and close your eyes. Listen to yourself breathe. When you are ready, sit up, pack your things, and walk (briskly) back to where you left your life. You are ready to carry on.
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