by Edward M. Gómez

It’s done. He did it. The fix is in.

On Thursday morning, February 2 — Groundhog Day in the United States — Punxsutawney Phil, that peculiar, furry force of nature who serves as the nation’s unofficial diviner of the whims of even more potent forces of nature — those of the weather, that is — crept out of his burrow and saw his shadow, an act of treachery so reprehensible it can only be rewarded with six more weeks of winter harshness.

In fact, as the folklore associated with Phil’s big day proposes, that’s exactly what his shadow-spotting now portends; now, six more weeks of winter weather are due to unfold.

Bill Westmoreland, “Pennsylvania Snow,” 2022, color photograph. Courtesy of the artist

Baby, it’s cold outside. To beat the chill, let’s ditch the meteorologically challenged groundhog and cuddle up with a warm puppy or kitty cat, or with a bottle of good Bordeaux, or with a properly functioning electric blanket instead. Who can even begin to consider consorting with one’s muses, cultivating the most profound philosophical pensées, or whipping up masterpieces when paint in the studio is freezing in its tubes, and the strings of our guitars and pianos and Grandma’s old ukelele with the “Aloha” sticker on its neck are so cold they’re sure to snap and break at the first pluck?

Frigid it may be in some parts of the world, but life goes stubbornly, defiantly on, with visitors piling into an ice hotel in Sweden and, on the island of Hokkaidō, in the far north of Japan, ice-sculpture artists, merchants, and the hospitality industry all getting ready to welcome the can’t-get-enough-of-the-cold crowd to the 73rd annual Sapporo Snow Festival (February 4 – 11). Kanpai!

Bill Westmoreland, “Central Park, Winter” 2022, color photograph. Courtesy of the artist

The British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) famously mused, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” For someone who was educated at Eton and Oxford University, he should have known the answer to such a Romper Room question, but awarding that venerable versifier a few points for enduring quaintness, our urgent concern is this: How can we artists and creative types get anything done when our fingers and brains are freezing?

Then, too, for some there are what feel like even bigger, more daunting philosophical questions and concerns regarding our troubled, unsettling times: How, for example, can or should anyone even contemplate making art of any kind when wars are raging on in the cold — and in the heat — in Ukraine, Yemen, many parts of Africa, and other places around the globe?

Meanwhile, courageous activists continue struggling to fight injustice in many forms and to build a better, healthier world, never mind the season — and often with the very characters of our climate-change-affected seasons and ever more irregular weather in mind. In regions in which it’s supposed to be cold, winters have become too damned hot; in Europe, alpine glaciers are melting at ever-faster rates, as are polar ice caps in the Arctic.

Bill Westmoreland, “New York, Winter,” 2022, color photograph. Courtesy of the artist

The poetic notion of winter as a time for slowing down, withdrawing, and making like a hibernating bear seems more than a little decadent at a time when, around the world, many people must choose between spending their limited incomes on food or heating. The same governments that always seem eager to reward destructive, polluting industries with generous tax breaks and favors appear to be unwilling to or incapable of helping ordinary citizens survive the winter and, in general, of helping them live safe, productive, meaningful lives.

With its cold, its short days, its dreary darkness, and its strong winds, snow, and icy rain, winter in those places where it can feel like a brutal ordeal can also present a pageant of inspiring natural beauty. In the sight of glistening icicles, the spectacle of a dramatic storm, or the unwitting sculptural presence of a monumental mound of snow, there are lessons to be gleaned — aesthetic, philosophical, maybe even spiritual — about coping not just with a fleeting season of the year but also with a broader sense of helplessness in the face of all that is challenging to which a few months of tough weather may call special attention.

That lesson, as humble as a snowflake and as powerful as a blizzard, can be expressed in a single word taken, perhaps ironically, from the lexicon of the season itself.

It’s that wise, single word of advice the groundhog was heard muttering as he crawled back into his hole.

“Chill,” he said to all the boots and overcoats surrounding the entrance to his home.

“Just chill.”