Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Brutal Romance

Toronto is currently locked in a bright minus-19 day, the kind where the sun hurts your eyes and the wind freezes your nose. It's lovely, but it's also bleak in the way that only a city in the winter can be bleak. Seriously: give me a stickish, gnawed-on clutch of trees in a matted field. It's better than a dusty gray parking lot any day of the week.

Right around this time of year, I generally fall in love with the brutal romance of the Arctic. Or, at least, the idea of the Arctic. I've been north of the Arctic circle once, and it doesn't count because it was July, it was hot, and we all got sunburns. I've never known the despair of long nights, the crackle of the aurora borealis, the howl of a vicious wind that's picked up speed as it's swept a thousand miles south from the North Pole. I just don't have those experiences in my mind, and try as I might to imagine them (reading Le Guin helps), I have a hunch that, like childbirth or making sourdough bread, it's an experience that doesn't really translate into print.

I'm not sure why the Arctic is so alluring, especially when, in Toronto, I can go outside and get a blast of cold air any time I feel like it. I think there's something to be said about the forced hunker-down mentality. I mean, I've seen The Thing. I know the importance of choosing your winter-over companions very carefully. But at the same time, I also know that forced coziness can have a real impact. (All you September babies, holler!) It really does feel like a frontier. Miles from anywhere, you have to plan your approach very carefully, lest you end up Franklin-ing yourself. Here, the winter doesn't force you to do anything, except add another 15 minutes onto your commute on those bad snowy days. Life, for the most part, can ignore nature's intrusions.

That ability to ignore - some would say rise above - the elements is one of the major themes of modern life. The natural rhythms of the world don't have to affect us. We can take the same buses, sit at the same desks, shop at the same grocery stores. Sure, there are seasonal shifts. We lose the figs and gain the blood oranges. But for the most part, July and January have the same look.

I would have been a terrible frontierswoman: I am prone to complaining and dithering over minor injuries, and I need far too much coddling in the form of frequent baths and baked goods. I have absolutely no idea how food works—how does one make flour? Or butcher a pig? Or grow a head of cabbage? (Sorcery is my best guess, especially for flour.) But an Arctic lifestyle would force my hand. A short summer and a limited agricultural scene makes you get creative. Plus, who doesn't like cured meats? I know this creativity runs rampant in Nordic countries: you only have to look at the culinary or music scene for proof. (Sadly, Canada's Arctic, being chronically underfunded and neglected, doesn't have quite the same cultural cachet.)

Honestly, I think this is another manifestation on my ongoing modern-life malaise. I want to get back to the land. I want to taste food that I grew. I want the solstice to mean something. And I want the stakes to be higher than they are now. I want to turn the heat down, and see what happens.

Image via Lovely Dark & Deep