mind of Winter

Eric Rennie

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
—Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

In 1934, the pioneering aviator and explorer Richard Byrd spent a winter alone at a remote Antarctic weather station 178 miles inland from his main base at Little America. He lived for four months in a one-room shack buried in the ice, his only companions a supply of books and a windup Victrola. One of his duties at the weather station was to make scientific observations of the aurora australis, or southern lights.

He later related how he went topside one midnight to have a last look at the sky. He left the trap door open and could hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony playing inside on his phonograph. The aurora was only a pale smudge in the northern sky when he first poked his head outside, but then it seemed to brighten in response to the music. “The dull aurora on the horizon pulsed and quickened and draped itself into arches and fanning beams which reached across the sky until at my zenith the display attained its crescendo,” he wrote in his journal. “The music and the night became one, and I told myself that all beauty was akin and sprang from the same substance.” Byrd’s journal was published in his 1938 book Alone (G.P. Putnam’s Sons).

Although Byrd began his sojourn as a scientist, the conditions of his stay more closely resembled those of an ascetic. His long months of complete solitude on the forbidding landscape of the Ross Ice Barrier were spent in almost total silence, except for weekly radio exchanges with his colleagues at Little America. Having shorn himself of worldly distractions, Byrd experienced a palpable quickening of his senses. He later wrote in Alone, “I came to understand what Thoreau meant when he said, ‘My body is all sentient.’”

Living in a world crowded with other people, we tend to think of the self as a fixed entity without appreciating the extent to which our sense of “me” is defined by interaction with others. Under solitary conditions, there is no longer anyone else to hold up a mirror to the self, giving rise to Byrd’s sense of the mind “voyaging through space as smoothly and felicitously as it passes through the objects of its reflections.” Where there is no “you,” in other words, there is no “I.” Byrd was able to see through the self to an underlying reality in which the night sky and the music and his own conscious awareness were all part of the same thing.

image courtesy National Science Foundation by Daniel Luong-Van

image courtesy National Science Foundation by Daniel Luong-Van

In his poem “The Snow Man,” Wallace Stevens uses the metaphor of a winter landscape to convey a sense of unadorned awareness. In notable contrast to the lush and often exotic imagery in many of his other poems, the images here are uniformly stark, cold and clear. To apprehend naked reality, he says, one must have a “mind of winter” that is empty of all content apart from what it beholds:

“…not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place”

A mind that is capable of fully apprehending reality is a mind that has fallen into silence and, in effect, has ceased to have any awareness of itself apart from awareness itself. Consciousness and the objects of consciousness are revealed to be one and the same.

Byrd’s decision to spend a winter alone on the Ross Ice Barrier nearly cost him his life. The original plan had been to establish a three-man weather station inland; however, complications arose and Byrd decided to go it alone rather than abandon the station altogether. As it turned out, the stove used to heat his shack had a faulty flue, and he faced the agonizing choice of freezing to death or succumbing to slow asphyxiation from carbon monoxide poisoning. Desperately ill, Byrd tried as best he could to get his affairs in order, writing letters to family members and leaving final instructions for his crew at Little America, who subsequently risked their own lives to rescue him. Unaware that help was on the way, Byrd scribbled a few final thoughts in his diary:

“The universe is not dead. Therefore, there is an Intelligence there, and it is all pervading.... Though I am cut off from human beings, I am not alone. For untold ages man has felt an awareness of that Intelligence. Belief in it is the one point where all religions agree. It has been called many names. Many call it God.”

 
 

Eric Rennie is a writer and photographer living in Cromwell, Connecticut. He began his career as a political speechwriter and co-authored a book of text and photographs about the American political process. After a 30-year career as a public affairs and government relations executive, he turned to more artistic pursuits. Eric has studied photography at Wesleyan University, the Creative Arts Workshop in Connecticut and at the International Center of Photography in New York. His award-winning photographs have been exhibited throughout the United States. A graduate of Yale University, he is married and has two adult sons and a granddaughter.