Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Winterwise" and Zephine Humphrey

This week I begin the observance of an annual tradition. I take down from the bookshelf a 1927 copy of Winterwise by Zephine Humphrey and begin my yearly reading.

December 1st:

It is snowing today, and the mood of the world is hushed. The crests of the mountains are not to be seen, even their lower slopes climb vaguely into the shrouding mists; there is no sky at all.

When I first read those opening lines almost fifteen years ago in the aisle of a used book store in Boston’s Back Bay, I was smitten. The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, now an online establishment, used to be located on a block of Newbury Street. It was standing in the shadow of its tall bookcases that I made my acquaintance with Zephine Humphrey, a Vermont writer whose books – long out of print – I would subsequently track down on other online sites and carry with me and pore over and savor in the years to come.

A Southerner happily transplanted to New England, I responded deeply to this journal of one particular winter in Vermont, a record full of musing and unabashed reverie:

Winter is the supreme season of reconciliation. Stripped and austere, the earth ceases from her long activity and gives herself to the repose which waits at the end of every cycle of growth. The naked trees are reconciled with the gray sky, the brown hills with the russet fields, and when the snow falls, as today, even the white houses are merged and lost.

Steeping myself afresh in the first ten pages of Winterwise can make me aware that the seeds of my own blog are recognizable in how Zephine records the flavors of her life with artist Wallace Weir Fahnestock. Zephine might be a guest blogger writing a post for Writing Cabin:

But it is in the evening that the living-room is at its best. Then, with a lamp and the fire lighted, Christopher in his big chair – Tommy on his knees, I in another which I share with Grizel, the daily paper disposed of, books and a pipe in action, the winter wind without, the wall-flower smelling very sweet – then the quintessence of home seems distilled for our beatification.

Home. What can people have in mind who do not prefer it to any other place? Home: one’s own life, one’s innermost, ultimate concern, the center from which alone one can radiate effectively and mean anything.

Maybe passages like that, the instincts that prompted the author to include just those details and feed a full range of the reader’s senses, first captured my attention and my eye and made me suspect a kindred spirit.

I want to travel some of December with Zephine Humphrey again this strange, new year. I intend to face the approach of winter in the company of her words and her moods.

And so I settle down to read.

As soon as I was clear of the house, swinging down the road with my hands in my pockets, I found that the day was not really dismal at all, only very solemn. The hills underneath the low-travelling clouds were dark gray and lavender, purple and brown, with a delicate brushing of silver frost on their tree-rough summits. They were not depressing – quite the contrary; but there was something stern and inexorable about them. The incredibly brief December day (I never remember from year to year how short a day can be) was already drawing in and dusk was preparing to claim the world. Winter dusk, of all earth moods the most mystical.

Image of "Snowfall" by Wallace Weir Fahnestock at AskArt


Kimberly said...

"I never remember from year to year how short a day can be...Winter dusk, of all earth moods, is the most mystical."

Oh! Oh, how I agree! These paragraphs are a gift to me this morning...they are a wingback chair, a christmas tree, cold outside, thick hot soup, crusty bread, and an interior fullness.

I wonder if it isn't the mystical dusk itself that calls the soul to choose certain readings...readings known to enhance the restorataive instinct toward a period of comtemplative hibernation.

John said...

This Monday evening with Italian white bean soup and foccacio with onions is a fitting time to let that mystical winter dusk say its piece.