Flourishing in the winter of our discontent

Finding wisdom in Katherine May's Wintering

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

What I’m reading

In a very ill-timed move on my part (Sydney is forecast an energy-sapping 37 degrees tomorrow) I’ve been reading Wintering by Katherine May.

Wintering by Katherine May, styled on the little cliff in our back yard whose crevices we planted with succulents. (Apologies for supporting Amazon’s evil empire - my shelves are overflowing so I have to limit physical book buying.)

This book isn’t so much about the season of winter, though, as it is about its metaphorical equivalent in our lives. Stop! Wait! If you hate self-help books (I mostly do, too), please don’t let that put you off. This is NOT self-help (or if it does slip into that genre, it’s one of the best, most honest examples of it). It’s a sweet, sensitive, smart memoir charting a period in May’s life when she had just resigned from her stressful job, her husband needed emergency surgery, her son’s desperate unhappiness at school came to a crisis, and she herself was dealing with a debilitating and unexplained health problem. To add to all this - or perhaps because of all this - she could feel herself sliding into a depression.

“There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else… I fell through as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards. I was surprised to find I felt at home there.

Winter had begun.”

A post shared by Katherine May (@katherinemay_)

May defines wintering as a period of depression, loss, transition, or simply of lying fallow, and notes that such periods are entirely inevitable, although we pretend they are “an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored”. Her own teenage depression resulted in a wintering from which she emerged feeling strangely optimistic:

“Winter had blanked me, blasted me wide open. In all that whiteness, I saw the chance to make myself new again.”

So she embarks on an exploration of what winter means in nature, in children’s books, in folktales, and in practice: for example, in Nordic countries like Finland where her friend Hanne tells her they start preparing for winter in… wait for it… July.

She experiments with icy activities like winter swimming, reasoning that if you apply ice to a twisted ankle, why not apply it to a life? To her, once she has overcome the “vast, bitter wall” of the sea’s cold, “so absolute, so vicious”, it is invigorating.

A post shared by Katherine May (@katherinemay_)

Her sea swimming in her UK home town of Whitstable provides some of the loveliest, most observant nature writing in the book.

“The sea offered us an endless number of gifts to observe. It was different every day, sometimes ridged with waves, sometimes mill-pond-flat. It turned pewter under pale skies, and craggy grey under storm clouds. Still days left it clear and blue as the Mediterranean. Sometimes blackheaded gulls or herring gulls bobbed alongside us; sometimes a cormorant would swoop past; sometimes a flock of sanderlings would flit by, low over the water, chirping as they went… There were days when the water felt silky, and days when it was thick at the edges, nearly slush. We began to feel how the sea would fall slack at the height of the tide, as if pausing to take a breath before it began to flood away again.”

The idea that we can learn from nature isn’t new, and in fact I’m wary of it: it’s too often lazily and inaccurately deployed. But May is very aware of this (“Even as I write about bees, I’m urging myself to be cautious. It’s beguilingly easy to see them as tiny analogies for human beings... In a mere slip of the pen, I could fall into the tired old trope: the bees are models of industry. Be more like the bees”). Instead, she is exploring perhaps the deepest truth nature provides:

“Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

A post shared by Katherine May (@katherinemay_)

To find solace and understanding in the rhythm of the seasons, to remember that “Sometimes, everything breaks”, that “winter is part of the job”, is one of the oldest, truest comforts nature can provide.

I don’t want to state the obvious, but of course 2020 has been a long winter, a time of painful resetting, and it’s not over yet. “Wisdom resides in those of us who have wintered,” says May, and the understanding, generosity and grace she has found in her darkest times means her book is a beautiful guide to just this moment.

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Wintering was book #110 for 2020. I’ve also been reading:

  1. Nicholas Shakespeare, In Tasmania

  2. Annabel Crabb, Men at Work

  3. Hannelore Cayre, The Inheritors

  4. Alice Hoffman, Magic Lessons

  5. Katherine May, Wintering

  6. Diana Wynn Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle

  7. Tim Flannery, Country

What I’ve been reading online

One of my favourite writers, Jay Griffiths, on how rituals can protect life with a petal and a prayer (from 2019; I discovered this because May quotes it in Wintering. I really wish Griffiths was More Online, for my own selfish reasons; I own all her books but never seem to find out about her new stuff, like this essay, and would love her to publicise it).

Where are the UK’s nature writers of colour?

Attitudes to nature are changing for the better.

Connecting to nature is good for kids - but they may need help coping with a planet in peril.


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