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Early winter: brilliant cold at the end of the year

December 10, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Nora Sullivan Horner

We were far up the tree, so far above the ground and so quiet. The two of us had started to scale that tree—a massive birch that overlooks the garden plots. I had tapped out fifteen feet off the ground, but my climbing companion clambered up another twenty feet over my head. So we stayed and we listened. Up there, a lightning strike could not have been more dazzling than the early winter sky we saw. A brilliant pale yellow color, nearly as lustrous as sunlight on snow, shone off the cumulus clouds that were sailing off to the northwest. I had a front-row seat to the sunset. I could only imagine the sky-cities seen from further up. The air was cold and little was to be heard. At that point, it was November turning into December. Now, it’s December proper and the semester is setting like the final hours of a very long day.

The garden is cold and bundled up for the winter. I’m out there at night taking a walk just after dinner. I was once told that winter is when the farmer sleeps. I know our resident garden manager is not hibernating through the winter, but instead steadily planning for the springtime again, just as squirrels make their stashes for the colder times and scheme for how to steal students’ food in the summer. The chorus of visitors to the garden is quieter, but with faith they will return too. So winter is the time of faith, or the time of rest. How opposite that is to the student experience! How strange to reconcile the thousand errands of college life with the relenting pace of early winter.

As if the heat from our firing neurons sets the tone of the weather, the atmosphere now seems worn and anxious, like it is unable to shut itself down for the end of the year. There’s lingering energy in the air. There are still rainy days instead of snowy ones. This is not normal. We are facing an improbable winter for Midcoast Maine, perhaps a short one, where days of intense cold are interrupted by pleasant days far above freezing. When your last final is complete, maybe you have the luxury of going home for a long winter’s nap. I hope you do have that luxury. The air masses above us, though, are tossing and turning, unable to settle down as they previously could, unable to send us off into a deep, steady freeze. Because we live in the same place and because  our bodies are constantly immersed in a swirling ocean of air, we should be unsettled when we feel the warm December days. We should check in with the sky like we check on a friend—“you doing okay up there?”

I am leaving the College for good, and I want to leave on this note: it is okay to stop, but it is not okay to give up. Perhaps my biggest regret during my four and a half years at Bowdoin is that it has taken me until my last semester to find any courage to act on what I believe in. My strengths lie in the written word, not in the protest or the action-planning, but I wish I had attended those meetings, made more alliances across groups and done more to push back. If you are dissatisfied with parts of the world, others are too. There are those at this school with privilege and voice and will to calmly ask for change, and then to ask for change with anger if the calm voice fails to be heard. It should be believed that if Staley hadn’t stepped down under pressure from above, the students would have pushed him out. It should be believed that the living wage movement came from students and the cleaning staff banding together, not just the macroeconomic reasoning from the top. It should be believed that student activism is welcome, that it is an expression of our intellect when we are able to imagine our anger and our anxieties coming out like wildfire to make a better world.

I’ve been an employee of the Office of Sustainability for all of my time here, and in that spirit, I’d like to propose a few sustainability goals for the President’s Office. Number 1: understand how much of student well-being is not institutionalized. While Counseling and Wellness Services provide great resources, so much of mental health relies on small check-ins from other students, professors and staff. There is no way to formalize this (let alone account for it), but there are ways to promote tighter support networks. Do that instead. Number 2: Decarbonize everything. If the school can spend millions of dollars on COVID tests and still come out just fine, there is no reason why decarbonization of our school’s housing and vehicles, including buses (that always idle in the parking lot right outside of Harpswell apartments), cannot happen over the next ten years. Give lots of money to the offices doing this work. Number 3: provide students the language to talk about climate change. Do not make it a required workshop, one and done. Do not spend millions on a new building. Instead, promote and incentivize classes that examine combined social and environmental issues: there is no easy distinction between the two. The future leaders are those who will be able to negotiate the charged debates around justice and health for everyone, including our land and oceans and air. If you do not institutionalize this mindset, Bowdoin College, you are setting your own students up for failure.

Last week, a dozen of us who work in the garden gathered to plan for the next season. We paged through seed catalogues and imagined delicious eggplants and tomatoes and mushrooms sprouting up next season. It was bittersweet to be watching the planting season start and know that I will not get to see these seeds arrive, plant them in the ground or taste the harvest. I am so thankful for the time I have spent here. I will remember the time that we climbed the big birch tree next to the garden and looked west into the sunset and saw that brilliant cold of winter on the horizon. I will dream of being higher and higher in the branches, feeling the light off the clouds cause a trembling inside of me.

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