October 7: I love the times around equinoxes – they are the best seasons. They are complexly bold. For one, my apartment gets penetrated with sunlight right to its back wall. It is the only season when this happens for my window orientation. And it is during these seasons that day and night are the most expressed and pronounced. One is told that the day is done by the perceived change in the world and its state. In summer, I am always puzzled when I’d be doing stuff in the evening and then find it is 11 at night and still dusk but I must get some sleep. It is such an abrupt end to a seemingly infinite evening. It’s easy to catch insomnia in summer and, as a student on off-time, I often did.
Due to geometric reasons, the rate of change of the day’s length is most profound at the equinoxes as the Earth with its tilted axis is like a crank on a piston that has its lowest and uppermost positions at the solstices. Because of this changing rate of change, these inbetween seasons are really elusive and don’t seem to last more than a fortnight around their core date. Wait until a bit later in the spring, and the world behaves like it’s summer. Be it a bit earlier and it’s still wintry.
Perhaps this affection for the equinox comes from my autumn birthday.
The Entrance of Cold
October 16: This week it began to snow. The sun sets earlier and the shimmering dusk is completely gone. The rate of change accelerates after the doldrums of endless sun. Approaching the pole, the solar sway gets more and more pronounced. Another sure sign that winter is coming is that the arctic air no longer feels like a refreshing blessing, but begins to hum with all of its weight for short times at first, until it stays for long. Foliage falls down, as does snow, but not for too long yet. Western Slavs call the eleventh month “Listopad”, but for us here the fall of the leaf is long past.
We are so used to snow in the northern hemisphere that we forget that snowy winter is mostly a northern hemisphere thing. In a hemisphere opposite, inhabited continents do not stretch too far toward the pole and do not cover such wide swaths to create a continental climate. Anywhere above 50°N and a thousand miles away from the sea it is much colder than it needs to be to give mood to holiday photos.
The Psychology of Cold
Prompted by the change in light, winter usually brings a change in my psyche, both hopeful and painful. This change is like gradually withdrawing from the summer world. Autumn two years ago for me was a challenging time for work and this and the decaying sun out there made me very emotional. By November life felt scarce and barren. So last winter I devoutly went out of the office at lunch for long walks to acquire sky exposure. I unthinkingly stopped doing this in March as the sunlight restored itself. After the sun sets suddenly and frighteningly at 4 pm there is no difference between 8 pm and 1am if you walk around through the darkness. Only there would be fewer people, but even transportation feels more abundant in the winter dark than in autumn. Maybe it’s because winter dark occurs even at 7 pm and there’s a lot of transportation then. Winter also appears to filter only those who need to be outside and it fills you with decency if you are out.
The Physiology of Cold
The crisp sound of snow crushing under your foot in the evening hints that it’s gotten colder. Such sound is usually heard beneath a clear sky. Walking every day in the cold for three months makes you recognize it by gut, with little notice. One winter, I discovered for the first time how human skin adapts to winter – what it never seemed to do in me before. In November my legs used to freeze and become pink but by February I could keep a bare hand in -15°C for 20 minutes as I photographed buildings and in the evening still see my usual tender hand. It probably has something to do with moisture freezing out of the air at less than zero. It makes the air drier and more bearable than a -5°C damp day. Winds are another element. Those who have moved here say that the wind here is baleful but I don’t notice. It’s nowhere near as bad as Saint Petersburg where the wind bites at your kidneys. My friend Kostya who moved there said that after four years you stop noticing.
The Solitude of Cold
What else is there in winter? I love the privacy of my mightily insulated coat and in summer I miss its feeling of a protective spacesuit. Being out is already taking effort and, once you are, cold air is a very hospitable place. I do like the “northern challenge”. Northern latitudes require some patience, planning and management of scarce resources, all of which are virtuous. On the other hand, the wonder of wintry lands making progress is simpler, since no one can survive without complex provisions. Anyone disobedient can be easily converted or as easily discontinued. “To banish into the freeze” is still a widely used Russian saying.
On 18 March 1965 Alexey Leonov was the first human to exit an orbiting spacecraft and perform extravehicular activity (EVA). I recently read of the death of Bruce McCandless, the first American to perform an untethered “spacewalk” in 1985. He remembered it became so cold he was shivering and his teeth were chattering.
Cold air eagerly ventilates my apartment and makes it a very pleasant place to be. In summer I want to smash the open window as I hear the unobstructed screams of 1000-person population of the house converging in the yard over the course of the day.
The Otherworldness of Cold
In a rural place one might see a train swooping across the landscape as essentially a spaceship – a vessel of habitable volume – transcending an inhospitable world. This feeling is most pronounced in the Arctic, of which I only have pictures.
The Colour of Cold
You’d have to see a taiga dusk to decide if you would trade it for a subtropical one. Folks who moved to Moscow all agree that skies there are rubbish compared to ones we get to have here.
The Intelligence of Cold
Blowing into ones hand is a simple example of recycling heat. In this photograph, a warm building exhaust port is veiled so that it keeps the tractor engine warm upon its startup when it sets out to sweep the premises.
Wild ducks converge upon wherever the water is open. The not-quite-frozen water is the warmest thing they can find. Pigeons, devoid of nautical pride, are perfectly fine with roaming around heating and sewage hatches on the ground.
The Meaning of Cold
Learning how to live with cold is learning how to live in one’s surroundings and it doesn’t get more basic than that. I have heard stories of elders in villages who waned and passed away quickly after their children had installed automatic gas boilers in place of furnaces at their village houses. I can understand how people for whom keeping warm is life suffer when they no longer have to make a daily effort to maintain the indoor and body temperature.
The Look of Cold
My local friend Anne who found work in Moscow saw my pictures of Yekaterinburg and said she had forgotten what the cold feels like. She could still see the cold in the images.
The End of Cold
February 17: Sunday this week was the first Sun Day. I had the sun projecting onto my back wall for 5 minutes. Clouds obscured the star though. Sunlight has been back since January but it is only now that one begins to see the difference. This winter bothered me little. Overall, my mood kept on the joyful side of contentment – and it must be the behavioural effect of daylight too. Weirdly, I don’t hang out with anyone on a regular basis since New Year and the craving is gone and I feel balanced. It’s like abandoning sweet products. Not quite though.
This winter my routinely defined life made me blind to the lyrical dimension that lies in plain sight. I had abandoned my noon walks but later rediscovered them. About late February the dark will break and light will be sudden and unstoppable and from February each day will be five minutes longer than the one before. It completes the cycle, which I will continue to observe for I do not know how long.
Last spring I would leave the office at the same time and notice the apartment building opposite. It was a wonder when it finally had a sunny spot on its attic. I remember one March weekend last year, when I drank tea the entire morning, facing the sun and doing some edutainment surfing as the best day I had. Spring is hopeful and it is compelling to watch the sun win back the wall at the rear of my apartment. Then, one April evening I got drunk and walked back home and wept, seeing the twilight with me all the way.
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