I have never been more acutely aware of winter than in 2021. Forced to socialize outside more than is usual or welcome, it’s become obvious how little urbanites typically expose ourselves to the elements in winter. It’s reassuring that with adequate gear you can definitely make it work, though, let’s be honest, it’s still pretty uncool. And winter walking is a wonderful, unexpected gift—for embracing, and not cowering from, being in the world in winter. It’s no great insight to say the barren landscape has its own unique beauty, but it is a pandemic-style insight that to newly appreciate this beauty in a simplified and slowed-down way. Walking outside may be the only thing you “do” on a given day, the only environment you experience that isn’t your home. With everything stripped away, you can’t help but take notice of the plenitudes of this environment, the seasons changing before your eyes. Coming up on a year in pandemic life, this cycle is never more apparent or profound.
People who choose to live in urban and suburban settings of all sizes make a deal to disconnect from nature in so many ways. Ideally, your apartment remains the same temperature year-round, your diet too, as does how hard you work at your job. Besides brief encounters with weather, consumer holidays marking time, and what may or may not appear at the farmer’s market, globalized urban dwellers have essentially engineered out the realities of nature’s cyclical cadence. In this manufactured timelessness, even placelessness, winter is not understood, for example, as the end of the harvest or the start of a deeply essential darkness and stillness out of which new growth emerges. (To my point, I shamefully had to google what winter is/means in nature to write the previous sentence.) I’m more familiar with the understanding of winter as just the less fun set of months, largely devoid of any utility or benefit unto itself.
Enter Katherine May’s Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. (I have not yet read the book, I learned about it on an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, in which May is interviewed.) She argues for the invaluable importance of winter, both the physical season, and personal, psychological winters—during periods of grief, injury, illness, and other lay-you-low pain. She encourages an alignment with both the seasons of the year and the seasons of our lives, to welcome in the periods of cold and darkness for what they offer in the way of rest, quiet, reflection, and recovery. In a description of physical winter, she writes:
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter. They don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to go on living the same lives they do in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight. That’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.”
I loved this, especially in light of last newsletter’s discussion of softness, feeling feelings, and the Black women-led rest as resistance movement. Productivity culture (aka Capitalism) certainly makes no space for winters of any persuasion; that’s what makes May’s analysis a little radical. The timing for her book is of course meaningful, as the human race weathers a collectively difficult time. In this almost-year winter of pain, deprivation, withdrawal, labor, there is plenty to be gained—on the condition that you accept the reality and transform to meet it. Every year, in their winters, non-human inhabitants of earth do this automatically; why shouldn’t we? It’s a simple and comforting idea, that we cannot always be in full bloom. Invite in rest, renewal, recuperation, and replenishment with predictable regularity, and whenever necessary, just as the birds fly south and the leaves fall down.
Thinking about winter and “maximizing of scant resources,” I’m also thinking about sustainability. What a sad, sad thing that has happened to that well-intentioned word and concept, to be so thoroughly emptied of meaning, only to serve as a buzzword and business imperative. In the most basic sense, sustainability means capable of being continued. It’s a very low bar. And even when we care about “being sustainable,” we don’t live in a society that clears that low bar, whatsoever. Because in any dynamic—an emotional relationship, or with respect to our bodies, and certainly for plants and animals and resource extraction—continuance has to mean not just taking, but giving. It means periods of bounty, and others of survival with “brutal efficiency”—not perennial excess as a way of life. Anything actually sustainable must count on rest and reciprocity in order to function. Like with winter, it means accepting scarcity, or slowness, as a season, not a sin.
These are truths as old as time—"to every thing there is a season…”—and the virtues of living in concert with the seasons is embedded in our language. Rest, renew, reflect, recuperate, replenish, reciprocate, respect—all derive from the prefix re—“back to the original place, again, anew, once more.” All these wondrous words say pay attention to what’s come before—remember into your bones, give back to yourself, be still once more. (BTW, survive, subsist, suffice, sustain have the sub/su prefix, meaning “under, beneath; behind; resulting from further division, in the power of.”) There’s a great reason why the Game of Thronesian “winter is coming” is so doomy, I grant you. Winter came, it’s here, it’s brutal. We’ll do well to aim beyond merely getting through it, but fortifying from within it.
To fill some restful winter hours, enjoy Promising Young Woman (stream anywhere), a long-time-coming “female revenge fantasy” film from Emerald Fennell, the show runner of Killing Eve. I loved it, and that description is in quotes because it’s not as straightforward or pat as that. Here’s a great interview with Fennell too. Even more than that, I was blown away by Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself (Hulu)—I truly can’t say anymore, but just trust me.
Thank you for reading The Culture Diet <3 If you’re new here, a most warm welcome. I’m a curator and writer based in NYC, having spent a decade working in the art world. What you’ll get here is interdisciplinary cultural commentary, personal essays, thoughts on art, things to consume, and whatever else inspires, outrages, and delights me. If you’re enjoying it, please subscribe and tell your friends!