Wintering by Katherine May

The subtitle of Katherine May’s memoir-meets-nature-writing, Wintering, is ‘The power of rest and retreat in difficult times’. The subtitle might suggest a how-to guide for coping with pandemics but that’s not the case.

Instead, May’s gentle book examines the cues that flora and fauna take from the weather; and the human response to the cold, including winter recreation (saunas and rolling in snow); and rituals and customs.

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through.

May links these topics to her own experiences but the book never feels poorly balanced between memoir and factual information about bees, or reindeer, or the habits of the dormouse. Instead, she expands the definition of ‘winter’ from the strictly seasonal, to include our sense of winter. To this end, there are parallels between feelings of depression, slowing down, retreating or sadness (which contrasts with the broader social push for positivity at all costs) –

…if happiness is a skill, then sadness is too. Perhaps… we are taught to ignore it… and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need… Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.

Perhaps that sounds a little maudlin but this book is far from that. May said that she has learnt to recognise her winterings – ‘…their length and breadth, their heft.’ And adds –

We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.

Without question, my favourite part of this book was about cold-water swimming. If I lived by the sea, I’m certain I’d be having regular plunges regardless of the season. May states –

I’m suddenly certain that the cold has healing powers that I don’t yet come close to understanding. After all, you apply ice to a joint after an awkward fall. Why not do the same to a life?

I also found the sections on spiritual and cultural rituals interesting. Western society has largely lost many rituals and traditions, but their importance – because they mark movement to the next phase – is valuable. May describes the Druid Wheel of the Year, which breaks the year into four solar phases (linked to solstices and equinoxes) and four pastoral phases, which celebrate key moments in the lived experience of the year. My mind immediately turned to the Australian Indigenous understanding of seasons, which also recognises changes in flora and fauna.

Whether it be the Druids or Indigenous Australians, both ‘calendars’ break time into roughly six or eight week blocks, which is manageable (particularly if you are ‘enduring’ something).

There’s a meditative quality to this book. I read it slowly, and also found myself re-reading sections, annotating and underlining. Like any book that has even a whiff of the ‘self-help’ about it, there are usually one or two takeaways. In this case, the description of the annual Festival of Broken Needles in Japan, during which seamstresses give thanks for the tools of their trade, and lay broken needles in slabs of tofu was significant –

The needle breaks the fabric in order to repair it. You can’t have one without the other.

And continuing the theme of repairing (or not), in the section on cold-water swimming, a friend of May’s challenges the concept of ‘broken’. The friend had been medically treated for mental illness for many years. One day she had a new doctor, who said to her that they could continue to adjust her medication, but it would never ‘solve everything’.

“This isn’t about you getting fixed,” he said, “this is about you living the best life you can with the parameters that you have.”

She goes on to describe this as ‘…not a moment of lost hope, but an invitation to finally adapt to what she needed‘. Much like winter.

I frequently ask my clients to lean in to their anxiety, because anxiety invariably points to what is important to us. May presents a similar idea –

…unhappiness has a function: it tells us that something is going wrong. If we don’t allow ourselves the fundamental honesty of our own sadness, then we miss an important cue to adapt.

When everything is broken, everything is also up for grabs. That’s the gift of winter: it’s irresistible. Change will happen in its wake, whether we like it or not. We can come out of it wearing a different coat.

4/5 I will return to Wintering over and over.

…sitting in the nave, the scent of cardamom and cinnamon – those staples of Swedish baking – wafts up from the basement, and along with it the promise of fika – coffee and buns – after the service.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 9): Belfast 13°-21° and Melbourne 7°-14°.

6 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. I added this one to my list after you used it to kick off last month’s Six Degrees. The prospect of winter always fills me with a low level dread although May’s books sounds as if it would be helpful at any time of the year.

  3. I first saw this book referenced in Mslexia and thought it looked interesting then, but your review has definitely inspired me to pick it up. I love the quotes you pulled out, particularly the idea of applying cold water to a life. Your point around anxiety pointing to what is important to us also really struck a chord with me.

  4. I always enjoy the intersection between your reading and your work/life. I guess we already know that we need to let people be sad, but I hadn’t thought about sadness positively.
    But as for cold water swimming, I don’t like it much in summer, let alone winter.
    Krissy Kneen also has a Wintering – a Tasmanian gothic.

  5. I like the notion that we try to live the same life whatever the season, and then get frustrated when we can’t. Personally I find hot days in Summer quite hard going.

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