One afternoon a few weeks back, sunny, crisp, below freezing, I was on the edge of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, about a mile from home. It felt like the first time I’d been out in the sun in days, after it snowed, and snowed, and snowed again. The frozen piles on the city sidewalks were grey with dirt and yellow with dog pee, but the path leading into the park was clear and lined with white.
I put in my earbuds and pressed play.
“It’s cold, so let’s go outside,” I heard Josie Holtzman say. “Find somewhere you can walk uninterrupted for about seven minutes — anywhere that you can just walk and think. So bundle up and I’ll wait for you outside.”
I was bundled: warm socks, winter boots, poofy Patagonia vest under wool coat, hat, mittens, and a scarf (or, really, almost a blanket) that’s made from llama wool and is so, so warm. Minus the vest, which was an extra concession to the cold, this has been my get-up almost every day this winter. It’s been a cold one here.
“Outside?” Holtzman asked. “Good.”
This was “The Walk,” one of the “soundwalks” of Winters Past, an audio project that can make you hear and remember that winter is changing. That this season has been cold — but not so cold that in years past it would have been anything remarkable. That we’re already forgetting what winter was.
Holtzman, an audio producer and sound artist, created the series with her husband, Isaac Kestenbaum, who is the production manager at StoryCorps. The project is funded by Invoking the Pause, a small grants program that supports creative climate projects. They’ve been releasing it in installments this winter. You can hear two short “Everywhere” pieces that, like this one, ask you to listen while you’re out walking, or at a pond, wherever you are. Then there are two longer ones that are pinned to particular places. “The River” is designed to be listened to while walking on a pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River with one end in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It’s about ice yachting — riding what are, essentially, sailboats on skates. In the 19th century, ice yachts moved faster than any other vehicle — faster than horses, faster than a car, faster than a train. “The Lake” tours Connecticut’s Bantam Lake, where there was once a thriving ice harvest operation, back before there were refrigerators.
Later that night, in their cozy apartment, Kestenbaum told me that the series is meant to document “a disappearing season.” They came up with the idea last winter. “It was so warm,” he says. “I think it was a January night, it was rainy, it was thundering, and that’s when it hit for both of us that winter was changing.”
“If you’re out there in a warm winter, listening to stories of a cold winter or the frozen Hudson River, it becomes that much more immediate and visceral,” Holtzman added. “We wanted people to get out into the world, and into nature.”
In all of the Winters Past soundwalks, Holtzman and Kestenbaum find their listeners companions. In “The Pond,” you hear from three different people about their memories of ice skating. In “The Walk,” Holtzman introduces you to a naturalist, Ann Guenther, and instructs: “Try to experience winter the way she does. See what she sees. Hear what she hears.”
In Prospect Park, although I saw just a few other people, there were footprints everywhere. I walked in the track of a sled dragged through the snow. About halfway through the walk, Holtzman’s voice told me to pay attention just to that: “Look down. What story is etched in the ground?” And I was pleased that I was already paying enough attention to have noticed.
When “The Walk” ended, the park felt very still. I noticed the wind rustling through the dried leaves still on trees.
There’s a tension in the series between, on the one hand, the inherent melancholy of winter (and the deep sadness of its impending disappearance) and, on the other, the joy that winter can bring. In the “Pond,” which I listened to next, there’s this lovely moment where one of the interviewees talks about a group of women spilling out of a sauna and ice skating naked on a pond. And when Holtzman’s voice told me “Now, take off your clothes and run around,” in the split second before she said, “just kidding,” it seemed like it might be a good idea — if not now, in a public park, then on some other cold night, with friends.
“The thing that became very clear through interviewing people is, there’s this child-like way of being in the world that the winter brings out in people,” Holtzman told me, later. “It invigorates people. Like playing in the snow.”
At the pond in Prospect Park, a single set of footprints went out, past the barriers, toward the center of the frozen expanse and back. Someone had tried out the ice. I started thinking, as I looked at the footprints, how a few weeks before, my mom had told me about skating when she was a kid in northern New Jersey, on a pond right by her house. Pond skating had always felt like something kids in the books I read did, not real people, not people who I knew, and definitely not my mom. And I felt the distance between her childhood and mine, the cold of those winters and the cold of this one.
This is part of how Winters Past works.
“Listening to other people’s memories does evoke your own memories and your own feelings,” Holtzman said. She and Kestenbaum asked the people in their life for stories, and they’d hear, as often as not, “Oh, I don’t have any good stories. I don’t remember.” But once they had some stories on tape, more started flowing. They found that once-storyless people started listening to their series, they’d all of a sudden be reminded of one of their own memories.
And once your own memories are flowing, you start to notice more clearly what was then and what isn’t now. Most of the time we don’t notice this. Our baselines shift, and we notice only how much colder this winter is than the last — and not that it’s warmer than that really cold winter decades back. It’s only once we start thinking about the past that the problems of the present become real.
Get Grist in your inbox