A student from Lima tells me that the chief lesson New York has taught him is the change of seasons. "In Lima the weather is always more or less the same, with a difference of maybe ten degrees between summer and winter." Until he came here he had never worn so much clothing; never knew what cold was. A Brazilian girl tells me of her own discovery of the seasons when she came to Europe. Until then she had lived in Río, in a paradise outside time. She only noticed the monotony of that paradise when the color of leaves began to change in the parks of European cities, the softness of sunny days, the surprise of early sunsets in November. Only in Europe, and then in New York, she had learned of the cyclical, orderly return of the seasons.
When the first Europeans came here in 1609 they were surprised at the height of the trees, the thickness of the woods, the rude health of the natives. Most of Europe was already deforested. In the crowded, filthy cities of Europe, epidemics proliferated. After a while, they saw that the healthiness of this land had to do with the cold winters that exterminated parasites and kept plagues under control. But nowadays central heating gives warmth to the cockroaches and rats, and food thrown into the garbage provides a steady source of nourishment.
Winter is the season for drawing: dry textures, patterns of branches defined clear-cut against the gray sky, the cold blue of sunny mornings. Fog favors gray shades. Andrew Wyeth is a winter artist: a better draftsman and watercolorist than painter, because pencil, watercolor and ink impose an austerity of means that curtails his propensity to irrelevant detail and anecdote. Wyeth's feeling for color is precisely that of a winter feeling; of winter in the woods and meadows of the American northeast: the dull browns and grays of tree trunks, the weak yellow of lichens and dry grass, the vitreous transparency of the air.
You will never swim twice in the same river, or see the same snowfall again
You will never swim twice in the same river, or see the same snowfall again. Winter words such as ice and snow have a fixed quality, a suggestion of invariable meaning and visual monotony. But no surface is more changing and less regular than the surface of a pond or river; no phenomenon more unsuspected than snow. In the ponds of Central Park the ice forms white, gray and blue masses, which resemble the cloud systems of the Earth seen from space, the storm fronts, the whorls of cyclones. Snow can seldom be said just to fall: it floats, whirls, crosses the air diagonally, dances like particles of dust or pollen lighted from behind. Then it stays untouched for days, clean on the quadrilateral of a roof, or degraded and besmirched in heaps beside the sidewalk: black with footsteps, soot and gasoline, revealing as it melts a buried archeology of garbage trapped in it - remains of fast food, crushed plastic coffee cups. Once a sudden thaw revealed a toilet brush.
Amid the snow flurry, huddled in hoods and parkas, the bicycle food deliverymen pedal away, trailing spicy odors of hot food - Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican - behind them. Most of those I have met are Latin American. One, who now has a steady indoor job but used to do this on the usual basis (no pay; live on tips) tells me that one of the harder lessons of winter is the steel plates they put over holes in the asphalt. When there is ice on them, a fall is almost inevitable.
The best lesson of this winter in New York comes from another country, from one's other city, where it never gets this cold, indoors or out. With admirable persistence, with rebel fervor and solid practical sense, with the help of courageous citizens, the workers of the public health system of Madrid have managed to stop a privatization that seemed unstoppable. Madrid has held out, as on other occasions in its history. The surest way to lose something is to give it up for lost.