Recently, my wife and I drove to a favorite small-town eatery for supper. The restaurant is located near the Indiana border, an hour or so northwest.
It’s a place where neighbors gather and everyone knows everyone. Decor is unpretentious, the atmosphere relaxed and friendly. Greetings and conversations take place between tables—often across the room—and regularly include both staff and customers.
I go for their heaping helpings of chicken and dumplings. And I like to polish off my meal with a fat wedge of gooseberry pie. It’s probably a disguised blessing such dietary indifference requires a 150-mile round trip drive!
You may not be a fan of winter. Most people aren’t. But regardless of whether it’s a season you enjoy or one simply endured, winter is worth admiring, if for no other reason than the unique quality of its light.
There’s something enchanting about the later-afternoon light of a midwinter day. This waning light can sometimes be flat and milky, or almost alive, charged with icy scintillation suggesting powdered diamonds.
Our route took us along mostly straight roads through mostly flat country. Sprawling farmland, given to corn and soybeans during the growing season. Only a few houses—plus accompanying barns, outbuildings, and now and then a nearby woodlot—interrupted the miles-away-horizon views. Nothing like the Ohio landscape I typically encounter.
Instead, amid winter’s barrenness, I saw a land decidedly stark and windswept. The sort of countryside you’d suppose I would find bleak and unappealing.
Surprisingly, the exact opposite is true. I enjoy these scenes immensely and always look forward to making the drive.
There’s something about midwinter’s late-day light that I purely love. Whether there’s snow cover on the ground or not, winter’s magical light can turn the most mundane landscape into a scene of wonder.
I often take long afternoon drives just to admire the countryside under this wondrous illumination. And when the land is wide open—empty of all clutter, including so much as a tangled fencerow, for great distances—there’s nothing to confuse the eye, or impede the sweep of a scene. Earth and sky can each reveal their grandeur.
The setting sun was slowly sinking in the west. The sky above had developed a marbleized pattern of indigo and salmon, fading to feathery streaks of lavender and gold.
A field, its temporarily fallow earth, dark and rich, moist from rains earlier in the day, stretched away for miles and reflected a pale overwash of the colors overhead. Way off in the distance, lights from a little village twinkled and the spire of a church rose up on the horizon like a ray of hope.
All told, a muted and incredibly lovely Midwestern landscape worthy of any painter’s talents.
This time of year, it’s almost as if my eyes and vision need a break—something different and soothing. There’s a sweep to this part of the country that I appreciate, a ragged emptiness, a sense of space and dimension, of singular temperament tinged with a hint of loneliness. Vistas are extended, uninterrupted. Different than the wall of trees I see every day from the great-room’s window…and oddly soothing.
Evening’s sky color comes early during winter—pastel shades, like smears of sherbet above the western horizon. Tangerine, lemon, opalescent green, and turquoise intermingle with streaks of lavender, cerulean and pink.
As the light begins to fade the colors darken, intensify—hues of gold, purple, crimson and cobalt. Colors which swirl and melt, pool into one another in blends that are achingly beautiful and impossible to describe.
It’s not unusual to spot a V-string of Canada geese cleaving this painted sky.
You can look across the vast reach of cut cornfields, lines of last fall’s stubble punctuating the snow, and see the old furrows glowing like swathes of neon. It’s like driving into a dream.
I treasure these scenes, and have come to believe I need regular doses of such quiet beauty just as much as I do another breath of oxygen. The chicken-and-dumplings and gooseberry pie are merely tasty excuses—reason and reward—an ostensible destination and purpose to legitimize my urge to ramble the backroads.
In truth, I drive amid winter’s wondrous light to feed my soul.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.