Postal Reading group
July 2023
Notes on the book Wintering by Katherine May

For this year I have chosen to send round non-fiction, because this particular title stood out in a way that none of the novels that I have read over the course of last year ever did. Where I did find a really good novel, many were, sadly, too large to be practical in this group. For those reasons, and because this is another personal choice, I hope you that you are not too discouraged by an eminently readable and interesting non-fiction title.

Although this book, Wintering by Katherine May, is partly autobiographical, this doesn’t really get in the way of what is an original and compelling book. May’s basic idea is that we need to embrace the inevitable ‘fallow’ periods in life. For the author that begins when her husband is stricken with appendicitis on Folkestone beach, and continues with her falling ill and taking leave from her job. Just as much of the natural world has periods of rest and slumber, so too do people. Increasingly , in the modern world, that can feel like a subversive idea, and May’s suggestion that we should accept those periods as being essential is both original and refreshing.

I read this book last December, just a few months after my father died. Immediately following the funeral I had to return to a busy period in what I increasingly believe to be an unfulfilling job. I doubtless read this book at the right time, but apart from my own experiences, the concept of ‘wintering’ makes sense in its own right. The author, not unsurprisingly, makes comparisons with hibernating mammals and deciduous trees, but it must also have been relevant to hunter-gatherer man who must have faced inevitable periods of relative inactivity and scarcity on a regular basis.

One particularly unusual feature of our lives in the Western world is that we should in some way control our environment so that our lives can carry on regardless of the cycles of the natural world; an idea driven in a large part by a capitalist society which is affecting not only our health, but that of the planet and its many inter-related systems. It currently seems to be the case that our separation from the rhythms of the natural world has left us impoverished in the broadest sense. May’s own example of the almost constant artificial light which bombards us, “living in an overlit age”, is a comparatively recent phenomema and affects us in all sorts of unintended ways. Beyond the impact of humans on the natural environment, we need to accept those natural cycles, and our own personal ‘winters’ for our own wellbeing.

Throughout the book, May seeks out various customs and practices round ‘wintering’ from around the world. Unsurprisingly, given their geographical location the customs from Scandinavian countries feature heavily in this, from the Swedish Christmas service, through the experiences of her Finnish friends, to the sauna culture. While the latter gives us an amusing story (at least in retrospect) about her attempts to import the sauna rituals to Kent, there is perhaps a serious point as the prevalence of saunas has been credited with the more friendly and egalitarian societies for which Scandinavia is renown. Unfortunately, like the author, I would similarly struggle with a sauna, and I doubt that it would offer the same social benefits when imported into another culture.

One of my personal favourites from the book is the story of the Winter Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, which, I believe, also represented one of the more thoughtful. Regardless of one’s personal views on the antics of the druids, this does highlight how our present social customs have become detached from the natural world. Presumably the rituals of early man would have been more aligned with the changing seasons, and intended to ensure, say, a propitious time for hunting or planting, something we lost when ritual and celebration became formalised as religion. Another favourite was the description of winter swimming, which must be familiar to anyone who has tried it; certainly the euphoria following a cold swim is the closest I am ever likely to get to a religious experience these days!

In conclusion, although this was something of a personal choice for me, made all the more poignant at the time, I still believe that the book offers something for everyone. Its message, for example, that we need to re-imagine our relationship with the natural world is scarcely less relevant amid this Summer’s heatwaves in Europe. Perhaps, too, Winter needs to be understood metaphorically, but whatever your views, I hope that you are able to enjoy some of May’s, at times amusing, stories.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler