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Jane Ahlin, Published January 26 2013

Ahlin: As poet said of winter: ‘a certain Slant of light …’

On a brutally cold afternoon, ground blizzard greets my husband and me on our drive in from the lake – gauzy, scudding snow-clouds, wind-propelled and unending although not quite hypnotic. The bright sun sees to that. Penetrating the blustery snowscape at winter’s angle, the sun keeps road edges and centerlines visible, even as it affects our mood. Unwittingly, we grow quiet – conversation unnecessary and unwanted – as if the snowy, sun-tilted world pulls us inward toward our contemplative selves.

The slant of light casts its spell. We couldn’t fight the feeling if we tried.

Far from a newly realized phenomenon, winter slant of light is perhaps best described by the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. And yet, the fact that human beings have had the same reaction for centuries doesn’t seem to matter. The meditative twinge brought on by angled sun rays strikes us with the power of newness. It may not be unique, but it feels unique to us – at least entirely different from the kind of winter thoughtfulness we experience when we’re cozied-up in front of a roaring fire, content, warm and protected. There’s no comfort in the musing that invades us with the light.

As Dickinson put in verse:

There’s a certain Slant of light

Winter afternoons –

That oppresses, like the heft

Of Cathedral Tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;

We can find no scar,

But internal difference

Where the meanings are.

We’re surprised by the gravity of winter light that comes at us obliquely but sinks in bone-deep. Call it angst or ache, it commands us physically and spiritually. (Heaven knows, it is “heavenly hurt.”) Would we be as affected if we didn’t live our winters where, as the old hymn puts it, “Earth is hard as iron, water like a stone”?

Probably not. As much as summer animates us, we’re creatures of winter on the Northern Plains. Our heritage is bound up in subzero survival on wide-open prairie. Indoors, modern conveniences make us as comfortable as we’d be in Florida or California, but outdoors, there’s no denying the physical and mental challenges harsh winter brings. If it’s 15 below zero outdoors and wind chill makes the temperature feel twice as cold, illusions about life drop away. More specifically, if slanted light across snowy, icy bleakness lends beauty – but no warmth – we instinctively find ourselves soul-searching. Suddenly, the irreducible part of being human confronts us. We’re pierced by it.

The other two verses that complete Emily Dickinson’s poem join the slant of winter light to the inescapability of death. (It occurs to me that riding in a car through ground blizzard has an ethereal, ghost-like feel.) And yet, self-awareness is more than recognition of mortality. We confront whatever is basic and means the most in our own lives. That’s why my favorite part of the poem is the “internal difference/Where the meanings are.”

A college professor of mine at the University of North Dakota, who had spent his entire life in the South before taking the job in Grand Forks, claimed he survived his first winter north by driving out to the edge of town and watching prairie sunsets. I understood what he meant because our sunsets are expansive – spirit stretching – as if we can see all the way to the end of the earth. Like slant of light, a gift, but one that pulls us outward rather than inward. In winter (and life?) we need them both.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.