The Grammarian in Winter

Grown to middle age, my calico is placid and content.  She spends her days searching for perfect napping spots, occasionally indulging herself  in bird-watching at the window.  Long past the enthusiasms of kittenhood, her favorite excitement  is shredding cheap tissue paper.  She prefers white, although she’ll work with colored if she has to, and each Sunday she gets a dozen sheets. For the next week she rolls in it, hides under it, buries toys in it and claws at it, until nothing is left but ribbony shreds and bits of paper.   

Despite her increasing years and even temper, she dislikes every sort of storm.  Lightning brings her to electrified attention;  thunder triples the size of her tail in a flash.   The approach of a winter cold front sets her pacing for days.  Once a low has crossed the Red River, she begins to move restlessly from room to room.  By the time it gets to Dallas, she’s tearing full-tilt through the house, circling around and around until she collapses in a panting heap.  She’s survived several tropical storms and two hurricane evacuations, and what she lacks in scientific knowledge she makes up for in pure instinct – she knows they’re bad.  When her people begin to fuss and mutter about systems still hundreds of miles away, she’ll head to her carrier, snuggle down into her sheepskin and wait it out: wide-eyed, anxious, uttering low, undeciperable sounds she reserves for rising storms.

She has a lot in common with her people.  When a storm is brewing, the air is charged as much with nervousness as electricity.   Anxiety and fear mix with a strange excitement.   Conversations grow a little louder, chatter becomes a bit more insistent.   As weather bulletins increase in frequency, questions become more pointed and attention more focused.  We may say we want the storm to turn, to dissipate, to wander and die, but we’re equally eager to see what Nature might have up her sleeve this time.  We’re like children convinced goblins are living in the closet – overcome as much by curiosity as by our wonderful terror.


The strange combination of fear and fascination accompanies winter storms as well as summer.    N’oreasters, blizzards, white-outs, ice  – we hate the interruptions they bring to our lives, the complications, the immobility.  And yet, and yet…  There is a compulsion that overtakes us, an insistent need to feel nature’s effects, to walk, to measure, to experience the howl of the wind and the hush of new-fallen snow.  We become spellbound as much as snowbound, in thrall to the swirl of the storm:

The night is darkening ’round me,
the wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
and I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
and yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
wastes beyond wastes below;
but nothing dear can move me;
I cannot, will not go. 
Emily Brönte, Spellbound 

Brönte had it right.  As much as the storms of summer, winter storms are compelling: exciting and beautiful.  Unfortunately, winter is more than storms.  Vita brevis, ars longa, as the saying has it.  But on this side of Solstice, Vita brevis, ars longa, et hiems longius seems more appropriate:  life is short, art long, and winter even longer. December passes quickly enough with celebration and holiday distractions.  January arrives with all the hopes of a New Year, a sense of renewed purpose and optimism. But now it is bleak mid-winter, the season of sighing, and waiting, and longing for an end to cold, darkness and similitude.  As the exultation of Brönte’s storm passes, the endurance of  winter begins. It is the patience of a sickroom, the shock of unexpected absence, the tedium of sleeplessness that marks creation as the world waits in quiet resignation for a turning of the season, the lengthening of days, the coming of the light.

In the bleakness of mid-winter, the world grows quiet. Creatures seem to evaporate, leaving only tracks in freshly fallen snow.  Where beauty walks the land she leaves no tracks but goes and comes in secret, like a wraith.  For the watchers from the windows, for the walkers beneath the moon, for every harsh and glittering  star reflected in the sparkle of the snow, time seems to stop.   Pondering the demands and joys of the days ahead, I find myself compelled to stop and turn, leaving the accustomed road of essays for Brönte’s more poetic path.  Come along, and enjoy a winter’s walk. 


The Grammarian in Winter
Winter speaks in passive voice,
Conjugates brief slants of light
and parses out its stars along a tracery of oak.
Beneath the rising moon fine participles gleam,
dangling remnant leaves pulled free by time
and tumbled down the sloping winds,
evocative declensions of a season soon unbound.
Split by ice, the pond breathes smoke.
Split by cold the blackened ferns grow crisp and shatter at a touch.
Split by hoarfrost, fences drip, refreeze and lean across the land.

Infinities abound.

Silent, shrouded in the pond’s same breath,
cattle cast their spellbound gaze past perfect sweeps of snow
as if to skry spring’s synonym
and punctuate the sentence of the hills.
Linda Leinen


Photographs are courtesy of Weather Underground photographers bionicdan, barsik and shutterbug1, respectively. Please click on each image to be taken to their site for more photos.

Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

22 thoughts on “The Grammarian in Winter

  1. Linda, that was beautiful.

    We Canadians have a strong connection with winter for obvious reasons, and among the Canadians, perhaps the Quebecois the most. Their unofficial anthem, Mon Pays begins with, My Land, it’s not a country, it’s the winter. I miss the deep, crackling cold of a Quebec day in January, cross-country skiing, skating or just walking about. Once out of the cold, warming up by the light and warmth of a crackling fire. Such simple pleasures, but if it’s been a while, you forget you once enjoyed them.

    And storms? My daughter has never lived through a cut in power. We used to get one about three or four times a year. The sudden change in mood, the scramble for candles, the glow and huddle of sitting it out as the wind howled and licked through tight cracks in the doors somehow brought us all closer for a while.


    It is easy to forget. I was raised in snow, but have been gone from it for years. Only recently have I begun to remember its textures and sounds – crusty after melting, squeaky to walk on in bitter cold, dry and powdery like so much drifting beach sand. And for a child, “snowed in” meant fireplaces roaring, books, music, hot chocolate. There was nothing to do, but “be”.

    My most memorable snowfall actually occurred in Germany. I was working in West Africa at the time and a co-worker invited me to visit his family during Christmas holiday. They lived in a traditional home in the Black Forest, with the cattle beneath and that wonderful roof. It began snowing the day after we arrived, and snowed for three days. I’ve never seen so much snow come at one time, or heard such silence. I miss those kinds of days.

    Thanks for stopping by, and for the kind words.


  2. Linda,

    Another triumph.

    The role of the writer I feel is to entertain, inform and/or educate the reader. I have been all three! I came across a word I have never heard of before, and had to look up its definition. I shall leave you to guess which one it is!

    The visual imagery you have portrayed with your poem takes me back to my childhood when, with only my trusty canine friend as companion, I fetched the cows from the fields on cold, frosty mornings. The silence is all enveloping, only broken by the occasional snort from the bull in the next field. They really do stand spellbound, watching the white world, requiring the odd slap to rear quarters to make them move!


    Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I can’t imagine any word you wouldn’t know ~ forced to guess, I suppose I would choose “skry”, or perhaps “wraith”. Here’s my writerly confession. I looked up “skry” myself, because it came to mind as the right word, but I was a little uncertain and had to check to be sure it meant in truth what I imagined it to be!

    And here is the wonderful secret of the poem. When I was a child – perhaps 10, perhaps a bit younger – I was traveling with my parents one weekend afternoon, through the Iowa countryside. I was in the back seat of the car, snuggled in a red plaid stadium blanket, looking at the passing scenery. I remember as though it were yesterday suddenly saying to no one in particular, “If those hills were sentences, the cows would be puntuation marks” – or something nearly like that. It was my first metaphor, and I’ve carried it with me for a half-century or so. Every now and then I’d think, “That’s good. I should do something with that.” And now I have.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and sharing those childhood memories of yours.


  3. I like to read well written words more than once and take time to savor the images they evoke. My only complaint which most likely is also a blessing is that as you say, vita brevis, life is short. As I ponder each wonder, others fly by.


    And so we’ve rounded back to JD’s point that there’s just not enough time – not for all the images, words, books, flowers, birds… all of it. We have to pick and choose. I do that choosing a lot more easily than I used to, and I’ve discovered that by choosing to eliminate certain things from my life – commuting, shopping, Desperate Housewives, Wii, texting, radio and tv talk shows – I can carve out a little more time for words, books, flowers, birds….

    Thanks for stepping off the blog porch to wander over and visit.


  4. I must say, you found the right words indeed! Ah the visual images that ran through my head as I read each word, the tornadoes we huddled down through, the magnificent lightning we witnessed, the blizzards that reshaped our landscape! Beautiful writing, thank you so much for sharing with us! And the pictures and photographs are beautiful.

    Hi, Tricia,

    Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your comments. We surely do get shaped by our experiences with the natural world, don’t we? I love remembering such things, and I enjoy writing about them. I also enjoy combining words with visual elements like photographs – finding the right ones is always a delightful challenge. So thanks, too, for recognizing these fine photographers. I know they appreciate it.


  5. Linda,

    Wonderful words again. Thanks for using my image. If images work here, this is another to go with your poem.

    Evening, Daniel,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, and the poem. Images don’t work here, but links do, so I’ll just link here to The Fence. Not only is the fence perfect as an illustration, the Swan Range is really lovely with all that snow. Thanks for making me aware of the photo.


  6. Hi Linda,

    Here in Southern California, we don’t experience harsh winters, but after reading your essay I buttoned up my sweater and wondered if I should dig out my one pair of wool socks.

    One of your commenters mentioned a word she was unfamiliar with. For me, it was the word “skry” in your poem. I looked it up and feel quite satisfied at having learned something new in the midst of such beauty of prose.

    Another stunning piece!

    Good morning, teeveebee,

    That is some of the highest praise I ever have received – the thought that you’d be buttoning up and looking for socks after reading my winter blog! I’m very, very happy to have made you feel cold!

    As for “skry” ~ that word hasn’t had so much play since… well, who knows? I imagine it’s living a pretty good life in Wiccan literature and the alchemist websites, but I’m not sure how it got into my mind. I’ll bet Shakespeare used it, but a casual search didn’t turn it up. In any event, it’s a great word!

    As always, many thanks for stopping by.


  7. For being away from winter for some time, your poem has captured it perfectly. After reading your complete post, I found the poem is what I went back to, to reread, and again. It is lovely, and the story of the cow/punctuation is such a treasure.

    I am one who loves winter, loves blizzards, loves being snowed-in, though I never let snow or cold keep me in the house. I could not live somewhere that did not have winter.

    Winter and snow create a certain kind of aloneness you can’t find anywhere else, which for me, is what you speak to in your poem. And there is nothing more beautiful than the hint of spring on the wind, after a long, hard, winter.

    A lovely post, Linda.


    Perhaps that’s why fog is my favorite weather ~ it’s the warm-weather-dweller’s substitute for snow. That aloneness of which you speak is one of the things I like about fog, and it provides the same sense of quiet comfort I’ve always felt with a “blanket” of snow.

    The poem and post developed in an interesting way. I spent a great deal of time on WeatherUnderground, reading blogs written by people with names like “blizzard92”, and looking at the plethora of wonderful, winter images provided by photographers there. Since snowy winter hasn’t been my experience of late, I tried to understand how people who do live in it and love it experience it. When I finished the poem, it just felt “true”, and I was very happy with it.

    What’s most interesting about all this is that it puts a new twist on the old saying, “Write what you know”. We tend to read that as “Write what you’ve experienced.” But it seems we can write what we don’t know – what we haven’t experienced – as long as we find a way to lovingly and imaginatively enter the experience. Lots here for me to think about, too!


  8. “Where beauty walks the land she leaves no tracks but goes and comes in secret, like a wraith. For the watchers from the windows, for the walkers beneath the moon, for every harsh and glittering star reflected in the sparkle of the snow, time seems to stop.” I particularly love these lines you write in your text, the image of walking, including Beauty, and those of us beneath the moon. Sweet, sweet stuff.

    And then your poem: the title nails it.

    The lines “split by ice, by cold, by hoarfrost” – they leap off the page for me -is it the rhythm? is it the short words? is it the images? Is it because I know you? No. I don’t know. It’s all of it. And now knowing about the cattle on the hill returning as an image, a line from your ride in the backseat wrapped in a plaid blanket.

    Oh, and a pat on the head for the Kitty. I see Kitty on the sheepskin, safe and wide-eyed.

    Thanks for helping to kick this January drear. It is beautiful, isn’t it?


    There are days I think everything in the world is connected. Part of the mystery of writing is that even as we put words on paper we know they’re meant for someone. We just don’t know who it is, or where they are, or how we are connected. So we write, and if we’re lucky the connections come clear and we find out who we were writing for all along. I look at winter photos and remember “my” cows in the field, and in the meantime you’re off shopping at Target, finding the sign that brings the story full circle. What’s not to love about that?

    I’m glad you like the three “splits”. I do, too. Once upon a time my dear, favorite professor told us that “time is but a split down the middle of infinity”. I’ve never forgotten that, either.

    Miss Dixie thanks you for the virtual pat. She is such a good, patient creature, and I do hope she doesn’t have to face a storm again this year!

    We need to appreciate January while it’s here – beautiful as it is, it’s almost over!


  9. Greetings!

    Of course I had to stop by, after the lovely words you left for me (thank you so much; I will keep the advice close). Yours is a beautiful blog, and this is an especially beautiful post: the thoughtful essay, Emily Bronte (!),the glorious photographs, the rich imagery of your poem. I liked “skry” also & found it connects in a different way to the Bronte–did you intend that? I will definitely be back. Thank you.


    Oh, my. Now you have given me a mystery! I went poking about last night to find the connection between Bronte and “skry” but couldn’t find it. It makes sense that it might be there – it is a very “Heathcliff on the Moor” sort of word – but you may have to help me out!

    I just discovered your Wallace Stevens selection last night. It was so interesting to read it, for many reasons. Winter doesn’t have to be entirely a burden, does it?

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your comments. I love having a new mystery to solve!


  10. Linda, you deserve every accolade that your readers have written in their comments. With this essay and poem you have touched my heart and memories, and obviously you have touched an emotional chord or evoked a memory in your other readers.

    “The Grammarian in Winter’ is BEAUTIFULLY written!


    Thank you so much ~ since you helped to set me on the path toward The Grammarian with your request for winter poems, I’m especially glad you like it. You surely know one of the photographs I pondered during the process was the wonderful view of Librizzi in snow.

    And thanks to you and your familial experts for help with the Latin. I still remember “Omnia Gallia”, but I’m afraid not much more is left! Now, it’s time to turn and see what comes next.


  11. Your blog is one of the best blogs I’ve come across in a long time, and your posts always give me pause.

    This post was absolutely beautiful!


    Adonya Wong
    Author | Autism Blogger | Twitterer


    Thank you so much for stopping by in the midst of all your activities, and thank you, too, for the kind words. This is one of my personal favorites, and I’m glad others are enjoying it.

    Best wishes with the rest of your virtual book tour, and all of your other activities!


  12. I had been working on my post for tomorrow, and came across similar themes here, amazing actually. It’s a treat to visit your blog, so I’m glad you found me. The poem is beautiful. We moved to our little farm in November 2003, and I was grateful again and again that we got to know the property in winter – slowly, meditatively, without the hoopla of summer. It’s so nice to find someone who loves winter too.


    I’ve never thought of it, but coming to a new place in winter would mean new discoveries and delights every day as the seasons turned and the place revealed itself to you. Instead of watching things disappear, one by one, into the depths of winter, they would begin emerging one by one into the light of spring. And, not knowing what to expect – it must have been wonderful.

    I’m looking forward to getting to know “your place” as the seasons unfold.


  13. Linda, thanks for your pictures and the romantic description of winter storms… an image to cherish when I confront our next one. Here in Alberta, winter storms are debilitating, treacherous and sometimes deadly. While some of us may have grown accustomed to living through our Alberta winters, I’m also resigned to be humbled thus by the elements. It’s always the morning after that we see the beauty of snowcapped, weighed-down evergreens and grateful for the calmness and peace. Shelley’s line never fails to stir new hope: If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? We’re counting the days.


    You know, of course, that it’s always easier to wax romantic at a bit of a distance. Come around at the end of next August and ask me to write a paean to summer days on the Texas coast and we’ll see how far we get. If you really want some fun, take away my air conditioning and then ask me to sit around and write. I can feel my enthusiasm dripping away now…

    But, still ~ the fact that summer’s heat and winter’s cold are tough on us humans in a variety of creative ways doesn’t take away from the beauty of each season. How lucky we are that Mother Nature has seen fit to grant us variety in our months so that we do have something to look forward to. We’re only about three weeks away from our time to begin pruning. You have a couple of months left, I imagine. While we wait, we’ll just have to huddle around the warmth of our monitors and take our beauty where we can find it!


  14. First, Linda, I am — as always — so moved by your writing. The words wrap around me like a soft fleecy blanket on the cold snowy days I know so very well! (And my Gypsy is a tissue paper ‘ho.)

    In the bleak mid-winter — one of my favorite holiday songs, but I always wonder how they nabbed it for December when February seems a far more likely candidate. It’s a hard time of year for me.

    Prose or poetry? Do you have a preference? Both are so very beautiful. (Oh, do stop by for my One World, One Heart drawing! I’m giving away three things!)


    Not too bleak here today, but mid-winter for sure, and a good time for cozying up. Dixie’s given up her tissue for fleece, but sends her regards to Gypsy – soulmates, they are.

    I had to laugh about your poetry/prose question. It’s not so much a preference as a matter of what happens, happens. The very few poems I’ve written don’t so much get worked and struggled over as they just emerge. I start thinking about something, and jot down words, and eventually it becomes clear that they aren’t going to be an essay. Since they certainly aren’t going to be a novel or an instruction manual for a toaster, they must be a poem! I’m always surprised. But, once I know it’s there, then I start giving it a little more thought as a poem, and eventually it comes together.

    I think if the writing fairy came and was willing to grant me a wish, I’d ask for the gift of poetic prose (as opposed to prosaic poetry!). I just love beautiful words, and when something happy happens in my writing, I’m happy.

    Whatever it is, I’m glad you like it. Thanks so very much for stopping by ~ it’s always a delight.


  15. P.S. I meant to tell you your photography — breathtaking.

    Oh, Jeanie,

    The photos are lovely, aren’t they? But there’s a note at the bottom – I’m not the photographer, only the cropper and framer! The three photographers post their work at Weather Underground. Bionicdan is in Montana, Barsik in Russia, and shutterbug1 in Minnesota – I have to depend on the northerners for photos of snow!


  16. Linda, this post is a feast for eyes and ears and heart and mind — so thick with beautiful images! — and all I have is a few minutes to graze and nibble. I’ll be back to read slowly and savor, let this one sink into my bones. Thanks so much!


    Oh, thank you so much. I’m working along on my next post, but it’s going a little slowly, and I suspect my own reluctance to move from this one is the reason. The few times I’ve managed a poem, I’m always so startled I want to hang around and look for a while!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  17. I would like to give your blog the Pink Heart tag. Read more about it on my blog.


    What a lovely gesture! Thank you so much. I enjoyed the sayings, and the images are especially lovely. I think the words that struck closest to home today are, “The mind is like a parachute; it only functions when it’s open.” Thank you for helping to open my mind to a different kind of writing, and to a world so different, yet so similar to my own!

    What fun it will be to consider who to “tag” next!


  18. Hi, Linda!

    I am sorry to have left you with a mystery; it was purely accidental! Total misreading on my part. Could not find “skry”–with a k–in any dictionary, so took what appeared to be a small linguistic hop over to “skreigh,” which is to screech or cry, and seemed to fit Bronte’s wind so perfectly, and is a brooding Heathcliff-y word. But the wild moors of Yorkshire do not feature in your poem and cows do not screech (or are not known to screech, at least not in my memory). They are earthbound creatures and make earthbound sounds. Besides, your cows are silent. The little hop became a flying leap from a cliff–“skreighing” all the way–because when at last I had the good sense to check the modern spelling of the word–with a c–there it was in all its glory: “to see or predict the future by means of a crystal ball.” Or, in the case of your silent cows, the winter sky. Which I have to say is looking rather threatening from down here on the Shoals of Mea Culpa (along the Sands of Error)…

    Also, I poked around a bit through your “Why I’m Here” and Sisyphus posts. Great stuff. I cannot wait to read what you write next!

  19. Oh, this was so beautiful. I’ve been longing for snow all winter, and I feel like I finally got my wish. We used to get those lingering, deep, cleansing snows when I was young, the kind that produced long, tapering icicles. The world seemed magical in its quietness. Our climate has changed. We seldom get snow anymore, and I miss it so. This was lovely.


    How nice to be able to give you a bit of winter. I remember those childhood snows with delight – can even taste them! – and I don’t think their magic was due only to the fact that I was little and easily impressed by everything. The wonderful drifts and the simple impossibility of travel – we accepted it as part of life. It snowed, there was a blizzard, and you stayed home. You made cookies, and played games, and tended the fires, and waited. Eventually, the plows came through, the drives got shoveled out and life began again. But that brilliant light, and boots full of snow and sleds pulled behind cars (!!!) – we lived through it all just fine.

    Ice was something else again – much more trouble as the poor folks in Kentucky and elsewhere are finding out right now. But it was equally beautiful. I loved it all.

    So nice to have you come by, and thank you for the kind words. I wish I could give you a cup of hot chocolate – with colored marshmallows!


  20. Brönte was certainly good at storms and bleakness.


    Wasn’t she, though? and the best part is, she makes storms and bleakness seem perfectly desirable! Many thanks for your comment, and your appreciation of Ms. Bronte.


  21. Hi Linda. A lovely poem of yours at the end of this post.

    We are at the mercy of the elements, of course, and the most worrying one over here in Chile is the possibility of an earthquake. The funny thing is that although we get occasional phone calls from family and friends, saying “Did you just feel that?”, we have not noticed a single tremor, since arriving here a year and a half ago. Fingers crossed, then…

    1. Andrew,

      I’ve far more experience with snow than with earthquakes, but the two dish-rattlers and one “wave” producer I’ve experienced have given me a healthy respect for the things. I imagine it’s the same in Chile as it was in California when I lived there – I knew earthquakes were a possibility, but I didn’t really think about it. Hurricane season’s far more stressful – until the earthquake happens, of course.

      I’ll keep my fingers crossed, too, that your 2012 remains earthquake-free!

      And I’m glad you liked the poem. I might repost it this year if we get a real winter storm here in the south.


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