Post-holiday season, it’s tempting to let the winter blues get the best of us. Particularly in the wake of yet another covid winter and yet another sombre New Years. There’s something particularly, poignantly sad about canceling the celebration of a new year, isn’t there? Before the holiday season began, as the days got darker and the weather grew colder, I checked out the audiobook of Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Timesby British writer Katherine May. I listened to it as I walked through a wooded path after the first snowfall of the season.
The UK focus of the book did give me pause, I admit. “Oh, my sweet summer child,” I thought, quoting Old Nan, “what do you know about winter?” But May’s concept of “wintering” transcends the season itself and is also applied to the dark, low “winter” periods of life. Just as winter is an annual, perhaps unwelcome visitor, so too are these low periods. Wintering was written before the pandemic hit, but its timing could not have been better. Published in December 2020, the ongoing pandemic has given the book a striking relevance that May could not have anticipated while writing it.
May’s quest to learn the wintering habits of cultures with harsher climates than that of mild England takes her to neighbouring Nordic countries like Iceland, Norway, and Finland. Countries whose people, while far from rejoicing in the waning light, have found ways to embrace the darkness (the Danes introduced us to the concept of hygge, after all). There are passages dedicated to Christmastime rituals like Sweden’s candlelit Sankta Lucia ceremony, as well as neo-Paganistic rituals closer to home like the Druid celebrations at Stonehenge, ringing in the new year by watching the sun rise over the ancient monument. The chapters are structured according to the calendar, from October to March, with subheadings such as “Metamorphosis”, “Midwinter”, “Epiphany”, and “Thaw” as guideposts. Throughout these chapters, May discusses sometimes her own personal crises (how should one adequately prepare for recurring bouts of depression?) while also taking meandering dips into nature writing, looking to the life cycles of beehives and the hibernation habits of adorable, disappearing dormice for inspiration on how to handle the ups and inevitable downs of our own lives.
In May of 2019, journalist Lili Anolik published a doozy of an article in Esquire chronicling “The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980’s Most Decadent College”. This past September, Anolik turned that juicy piece into a season-long podcast called Once Upon a Time…at Bennington College, utilizing her previous research to explore themes of talent, fame, privilege, and excess more deeply. The piece and the podcast concern Gen-X literary stars like Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and Jonathan Lethem, the Bennington class of 1986 who would go on to shape the face of literature in the 1980s and 90s. To recap: Ellis scandalizedwith Less Than Zeroand American Psycho, two works so vulgar and soulless (on purpose) that they sent older generations into a tizzy with concern for “the youth”. Tartt’s debut novel The Secret Historywas immediately dubbed a classic shortly after its release (and is a current TikTok sensation). Lethem gained fame with his National Book Award winning Motherless Brooklyn, which captivated Hollywood actor Edward Norton so thoroughly that he held the film rights for 20 years, finally releasing an adaptation in 2019.
But more than that, the podcast is about the glittery mystique of literary circles that flourished in the pre-social media age. This was a time when culturally resonant authors were treated like celebrities, scoring invites to the MTV Video Music Awards, for some reason. Reminiscing about Ellis’s launch into stardom as an enfant terrible, Bennington alumni recall the author’s glitzy college graduation party, which was attended by Andy Warhol (Jean-Michel Basquiat would make appearances at later parties as well). While all this glamorous success took place in New York, Bennington College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, is key to these authors’ works, and is memorialized by its most (in)famous students. In Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction, the school is dressed up as “Camden College”, home to a host of despicable, ultra 80s characters. The Bennington of Donna Tartt’s world (this time called Hampden College) is one of old world Romance (capital R), a Brideshead-esque place of philosophy, decaying decadence, and not-so-secret drinking problems (the two might occupy the same universe: Ellis’s work mentions a group of students who “dress like undertakers”; presumably the Classics group in Tartt’s novel).
1.Many trees have pretty shady parenting techniques (literally). Their offspring grow up closeby, under the shadows of their parents, so they can spend hundreds of years under their parents’ thumbs. It’s for their own good, of course, and in tree years, a hundred or so years isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things.
2.Trees can send out messages to one another via airmail (e.g. “DANGER! GIRAFFE ALERT! GIRAFFE ALERT! Inject your leaves with bitter tasting compounds!” or something along those lines – I don’t speak tree.)
3. Humans micromanaging the growth of new forests in order to allow them to become old growth forests in the future does more harm than letting nature do its course, the way we do it. (This appears to me rather obvious.)