Return to Winter: Minor Adventures, and Our Limits Transgressed

Winter weather has been back in Wisconsin for a while now! Now that the season has formally become, it feels like time to think about what I feel as I once again have the chance to get out in the cold, snow, and the mysterious architecture that winter offers…

Thoreau writes in Walden that “we need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” Winter provides us with a great opportunity to see these limits transgressed; to challenge our bodies and our minds to deal with what remains, at least in part, beyond us.

So much of what makes winter both frustrating and wonderful are the moments when winter goes beyond the neat boxes we are used to. Drifts that do not stick to property markers. Ice that does not stick to ‘lake’ or ‘shore,’ but covers both. Snow days that insist that people avoid their scheduled plans. Snowstorms, when the ceiling turns white, the air becomes visible, and the ground is constantly transforming. The limits we place on the landscape no longer seem to apply, at least temporarily. We might want to limit weather, to certain parts of the landscape or to certain categories. But it resists our attempts to do so, and winter weather provides our most regular reminders of this in Wisconsin.

The ‘blanket’ metaphor comes to mind often when I look out at an expanse of snow. And yet… how accurate is that metaphor, and for how many places? In most places, trees, brush, grass, rocks, other objects stick above the layer of snow, and/or disrupt the even sheet. It is not so much a blanket as…

I can’t quite come up with an analogy that satisfies me. But I’ll work on it 😉 What coats a majority of a surface, but has many exceptions poking above it? A flood might provide the best parallel, but without the ‘sticking to branches and roofs’ aspect.

The areas which feel most ‘blanketed’ are areas which we have tried to fit within our limits. Lawns, in particular. (Farm fields might appear close to this, particularly when snow is deep, but they tend to have too much stubble to be fully covered.) Park surfaces that are mowed low, and large suburban yards, provide the most striking examples of ‘snow fully covers what is below.’ Ironically, some of the places that look most nature-dominated in winter are that way because they are so tightly human-controlled the rest of the year. But snow transgresses.

From a different angle: some of the least appealing winter scenes – grey slush on the borders of roads – is weather not staying within the bounds we desire. We don’t see that kind of slush away from roads. This is a case where, as I understand it, externalities of roads and technology are made visible in a way they normally aren’t; things we normally can push out of sight stick around. And we don’t like to see that.

As the end of Thoreau’s quote suggests, life does manage to persist out there. Not fully freely, perhaps, since weather challenges and constrains animals, but they do continue on with their ways. We can watch the birds and squirrels and deer who persist outdoors; if we are lucky, we can see foxes and coyotes and others. They remain outdoors in winter, and find ways to survive.

Other limits winter challenges are those of comfort. What makes it irritating to walk outside in winter? In what ways does the weather not allow us to exist within the limits we prefer? My face is cool. Other parts of the body overheat and sweat. This is not the type of body behavior we prefer; but the nature in our bodies, and in the weather, does not follow all our wishes. (For most of us in Wisconsin, we can afford kind of clothing to keep us warm enough – we should not have to face real risk in winter. Not all can afford what they need to stay warm, but this is a challenge provided by our society, not by weather.)

Some might find it irritating to have to dress up to go outdoors. Well, we put a fair amount of effort into dressing for a variety of events, don’t we? Yes, winter outfits are perhaps less likely to show off our ‘style’ – and definitely less likely our figures. We are constrained – weather requires us to focus on function, not form.

On a different note, I am reminded of a phrase Gandalf says to Bilbo in the Hobbit, about what happens if Bilbo transgresses his limits and goes on an adventure: “and if you [return], you will not be the same.” I have a fondness for fictional adventures that involve travelling through a range of places; and overcoming significant obstacles. Where can we find such adventures in our lives? We should travel to different places; learn from diverse ways, learn by encountering what we are familiar. And we should learn new things. In our own places, there is still much we can learn from – different restaurants, stores, cultural events; do not forget those during winter.

My focus, of course, is on going outdoors in winter. Different ice forms appear on the shores – what appears varies. Part of adventure; can be only person who has ever looked at something. Because no one else might have come out yet after a snow. (Or during a snow.) Given how rapidly things can change, you might be the only person ever to see a scene. Particularly if you take trouble to lie down and find odd angles to look at things, like I am known to do…

We can transgress the limits we might place on ourselves – comfort, ease, fashion – to remain outdoorspeople year-round. And then we can see what nature might have to say to us about how it remains a force with something to say outside of our desires.

About MilwaukeeSnow

Dr. Jeffrey Filipiak, Milwaukee's Ambassador of Snow, loves winter, Milwaukee, and environmental history! He has taught college courses on topics including history, writing, environmental ethics, food studies, the Great Lakes, and sustainability. You can contact him at
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