I used to roll my eyes at phrases like “seasonal living.” “Here we go,” I’d think, “the latest wellness fad conjured up by people with double-barrelled surnames who display patchwork wall hangings purchased on their gap year with the sort of arrogance akin to mounting a Picasso.” I’ve been somewhat wary of health trends since 2009 when I discovered the ability to cheat at Wii Fit by swinging the remote around with one hand whilst shovelling Doritos into my mouth with the other.
Not that I’m an utter pessimist. I’ve dabbled in my fair share of Pret A Manger charcoal shots, Slendertone belts and Zumba classes. I’ve fantasised about the glowing paragon of my future self as I add polyester-blend yoga leggings to my ASOS basket. Inevitably, however, they always end up in a drawer along with the rest of the “new year, new me” paraphernalia and tangle of fake iPhone chargers from Amazon that do not “support your device.” Simple marketing tricks and the promise of immediate results have meant many of us have entered a similar cycle, seeking instant gratification in often expensive and ineffective shortcut solutions to so-called self-improvement.
With that in mind, “seasonal living” understandably sounds an awful lot like just another catchy phrase bandied about by champagne socialists and yummy mummies. After all, isn’t it stating the obvious? We all live within varying degrees of seasonal change. It’s nature. It’s unavoidable. Or is it? Much like when I believed I’d slipped through the net by cheating Wii Fit, we’ve similarly attempted to outsmart the system. Rapid technological advancements have allowed us to discover crafty ways of dodging the full-force of Mother Nature. Not only has this altered our relationship with the planet, however, but with each other and ourselves.
As a Brit, grey drizzle is as familiar and unwelcome as a wine-drunk uncle who insists on discussing Brexit at Christmas dinner. The predictably gloomy weather that graces us for most days of the year means we have developed a collective fixation with summer, finding sly ways of cheating nature by attempting to maintain our single month of sunshine and pub garden piss-ups all year round. You might easily find a bloke from Newcastle sporting easy breath shorts and Adidas sliders in the depths of winter for instance – just don’t look him in the eye.
Throughout the year we fantasise about warmer climes, taking advantage of cheap EasyJet flights to southern Europe, or failing that, buying the easy applicator version of St.Tropez. We seek the sugary highs of summer when it's pitch black in the afternoon and the smell of antifreeze permeates the air – on many occasions I’ve popped a slice of Costa Rican pineapple in my piña colada to the tune of “Last Christmas.” We’ll greet each other with an obligatory “it’s getting darker earlier every bloody year.” The shock of the clocks annually going back an hour is to be taken as a personal insult. The solution? A blue LED light bath every evening, wiring us until our final Instagram scroll at 1 am. Admittedly, we like a bit of snow, but not more than three days worth. After that it’s pandemonium. Trains are cancelled, cars are skidding about like Tonya Harding and someone’s been shamed in the local paper for stealing the pound coin eyes from a snowman's face.
This seasonal bias is something most of us take for granted now – intruding not only on the personal decisions we make but the very landscape we live in. In cities, our experience with the spectrum of seasonal change has been muted by concrete pavements and towering steel buildings. Living “seasonally” then, has, by human design, become increasingly fucking difficult. There are multiple definitions of what this term actually means, but in my own words, it’s about rejecting the cultural denial of nature's synchronicity. Essentially, it’s learning to let go of summer behaviour outside of summer and welcome every season (even if that means rain), adapting our lifestyle patterns alongside this.
Ironically, before the pandemic my battery levels were low. Like my drawer full of dodgy Amazon chargers that weren’t supporting my device, the overwhelming glut of products and services aimed at delivering ‘optimal’ health and happiness weren’t powering me up 100 percent. I was living in a pattern of long commutes and full-time interning in London – rewarded by hazy nights out, compulsive online shopping and dead-end Hinge dates. I wasn’t unhappy or unhealthy but I knew I wasn’t truly content. I was going through the motions – living out what I imagined to be expected of a modern woman in her early twenties. Eat, sleep, work, Friday night knees-up followed by a £21 brunch and an impulse splurge in Urban Outfitters in anticipation of a date with a self-styled “creative” I judged on the cut of his jeans, repeat.
This frantic yet shallow energy I’d somehow moulded around my life was in conflict with my nature. At heart, I’m a Romantic. A true Keats-reading, bluebell-wood-wandering, Pre-Raphaelite loving, wilting-rose-emoji softgirl. And so, when the pandemic hit, my office closed and life was put on pause, I did what any Romantic would do – I retreated to nature. Rooting myself in an eighteenth-century, timber-beamed cottage on the outskirts of a rural village best known for its dormant windmill and mid-rated pub on TripAdvisor, I temporarily broke up with the city. Now making up my own hours as a freelancer-cum-job-hunter sans daily commute, I found myself with the most free time I’ve had since probably my last school holiday.
However, before I’d even made my first loaf of sourdough, I was delivered the first blow of the pandemic. The strains of lockdown had acted as a catalyst for the somewhat dramatic finale to my parents’ 25-year marriage. Secrets that had been mounting under the rug were finally swept out in a messy heap that was difficult to compute. And so, as a way to feel temporary escape from the unforeseen changes happening in my life, I began to walk. And walk. And walk some more. At first, it was a distracting novelty and more importantly, something I could control when everything else was apparently in the lap of the gods. Slowly, however, the “novelty” aspect, the reaching for my iPhone and spending twenty minutes taking a picture of an ‘aesthetic tree’ for Instagram part, wore off. Instead, it became second nature. Long walks were no longer the reserve of Boxing Day and Easter, they were a normal part of my everyday.
“What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare,” W. H. Davies begins his 1911 poem Leisure. Stopping and staring is albeit socially outlawed in London; to do so on the Underground, for instance, would incur suspicion akin to the witch trials. I’ll admit then, it took a while to unlearn a striding gait that said “I am very busy and important and am about to do many adult business-like things.” As I traversed acres of grazing fields and dense woodland, letting go of the pressure to not look like a clueless tourist, I began to slow down and even, God forbid, stop on occasion. I began to notice seasonal changes more than I had ever done before. Spring, summer, autumn, winter in all their glory and subtleties – Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils,” Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” This natural rhythm was also outside of my control but there was a sense of soothing predictability and stability in the sensation, the feeling that I was part of a bigger picture. I realised that pushing against it as I had habitually done in my pursuit of summer was a fruitless and ultimately unhealthy pursuit. With that, I no longer walked to feel escape, but presence.
“Biologically we're all walking around in bodies that are well adapted to gathering seasonal plants and hunting ancient animals, sleeping deeply during the hours of darkness, and living and working together in a tight-knit tribe— bodies, in other words, that operate on nature's clock and expect cyclical variations in our key lifestyle behaviours,” Dallas Hartwig writes in his New York Times bestseller The Four Season Solution. The health benefits of “seasonal living” have been subject to various discussions over recent years that are rooted in the key understanding that our bodies run on an intrinsic circadian rhythm.
This 24-hour internal clock regulates our body, from our sleep/wake cycles to our temperature, digestion, hormone secretion and blood pressure. These endogenous, self-activating rhythms are also affected by external, time-prompting stimuli like food, sunlight, noise and social interaction. As we’ve slipped into a perpetual summer lifestyle, however, nature's well-meaning prompts have been interfered with. When we binge-watch a Netflix show into the wee hours of a winter's night, for instance, the glow from our unassuming lamps and TVs imitate daylight. This sends a signal to our brains that restricts the production of the sleepiness hormone melatonin (released when we experience darkness). Naturally, in the shorter, darker days of autumn and winter, more melatonin is produced, which leaves us wanting more sleep; this gives our body a chance to recover from the activity of spring and summer, helping to synchronise our immune systems and digestion. When we ignore Mother Nature’s cues, our rhythms fall out of whack. We feel sluggish and tired, which in turn causes us to self-medicate with caffeine, jade rollers and sugary, more carbohydrate-dense foods to boost our energy levels. Mother knows best.
Having ignored natural cues and my own circadian rhythm for years, I am finally beginning to understand the intrinsic correlation between shifts in my body and mind, and the seasonal changes around me.
I’ve always believed my diet to be a healthy one, the food pyramid poster on the wall of my primary school’s home economics classroom having been imprinted on my mind at an early age. Despite my “five a day,” “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” slogan mentality, I’ve also spent my life resisting sugar cravings, typically induced by uncomfortable emotions or sensations. Tired, stressed, upset or bored, a peanut butter KitKat would temporarily patch me up. As I have begun to spend more time in nature however and adjust my sleeping patterns accordingly, I feel significantly less drained. Consequently, I am more awake to my surroundings and have noticed a new pattern emerging in my body as a result.
Walking and exploring for longer in the sunny summer days, as somebody that loves a freebie, I would pick my glut of blackberries, apples and plums from the community orchard, whilst of course imagining myself as an eighteenth-century peasant girl. It was in these blissful, busy spring and summer months that I noticed my sugar cravings were naturally at a peak. Food grows at certain times of the year for a reason – the sugary fruits naturally provided to us in summer, for instance, coincide with the energy boost we need as we expand out into the world, making new connections and exploring. In contrast, when autumn and winter approached and my world contracted as the nights drew in earlier, I began to go on shorter and more familiar walks, no longer craving that sugar boost as fervently. Instead, I’d hanker for a bowl of hot chicken soup or something equally Dickensian. Restaurants have been implementing seasonal menus for some time, but now there’s an increasing public interest in eating seasonally – from the popularity of outdoor markets to the rise of the “self-sufficient” influencer like cook-slash-farmer Julius Roberts AKA @telltalefood. Not only is this a way to nourish our bodies in the way it requires at different times of the year, but also supports sustainable farming practises.
In 1943 Abraham Maslow proposed a psychology theory based on a “hierarchy of needs.” He argued that our most basic physiological needs like eating and sleeping have to be met in order to satisfy our need for nourishing and intimate relationships, which in turn are needed for self-fulfilment. Although devised nearly eighty years ago, Maslow’s theory has certainly resonated with me; simple lifestyle shifts have helped me synchronise better with my natural surroundings, and as a result, I have begun to notice improvements not just physically, but emotionally too.
Under the UK’s sporadic lockdowns and restrictions, my usual social engagements (more hazy nights out in Peckham than a Filofax full of masquerades and state dinners) have been halted. The 10 PM curfew, nightclub closures and “no mingling with anyone outside of your household/table service only” rule have put a temporary halt to meeting new people. The very drive and thrill behind a night out would formerly have been the possibility of who I might meet – exchanging compliments with a coked-up girl in the loos; that initial flirty side-eye contact with the elusive “I’m stood really near the DJ booth so everyone knows how into techno I am” guy; perching on a crowded sofa at an afters hosted by someone your friend just met in the smoking area. Although I didn’t realise it, these niche evening interactions were also a part of my fixation with summertime behaviour.
As I’ve explained, spring and summer is the time when naturally we feel the urge to explore and make new connections. Sometimes these connections are shallow, like when I’d exchange Instagrams with a bloke wearing a nice Carhartt t-shirt and neither of us would message the next day, but we’d watch every one of our respective stories until the end of time itself. These initial interactions are always exciting, but not necessarily fulfilling. It’s during winter when the days are colder, darker and shorter, that I’ve always been more tempted to sack off a night out in exchange for some hygge with close friends, i.e. 2-4-1 merlot and whatever wonderfully appalling, green and red colour-schemed Christmas film Netflix has gifted us this year. Snogging men in gentrified workwear brands becomes trivial.
2020 itself could be defined as a sort of “therapeutic winter” for many of us. I’ve certainly had a lot of time to reflect. As my social world has forcibly contracted, I’ve become more aware of the difference between my “summer” and “winter” style relationships – the people who are fun on a night out and the people I want to stay up till 3 AM with on FaceTime discussing the likelihood that it’s all just a Matrix simulation. And so, like a sort of pre-war Brideshead Revisited aristo, I’ve developed a taste for hosting weekends in the countryside for my nearest and dearest. These are more along the lines of muddy Air Max and supermarket “fizz” than straw boaters and champagne popping with ceremonial swords but are nevertheless a welcome respite from sweaty Red Stripes in even sweatier clubs.
In my rural isolation – this metaphorical winter – I’ve also spent more time alone than ever before. Rather than rattling around in a moth-bitten wedding gown, however, I’ve used the opportunity to introspect.
“A ‘therapeutic winter’ may sound idyllic or romanticised, but often the revelations that arise from these slower, quieter activities, are, in fact, deeply unsettling,” Dallas Hartwig argues. “We are more deeply connected to ourselves, our anchor connections, and a sense of place and purpose during this season, yet we simultaneously feel solemn, discouraged, and might feel a downturn in our mood,” he continues. This period opens up the opportunity to explore the source of these feelings in the absence of frantic summer energy. Yes, sometimes for me, that meant sobbing on a bench whilst listening to something suitably dramatic like the closing song from Gladiator. Alternatively, I’d journal out my frustrations over such matters as “the government” or “that knobhead who ghosted me” in a scrawly stream of consciousness, like a budget Virginia Woolf in tracksuit bottoms. Processing emotions and letting go of old narratives has, I believe, put me in good stead to go out and weather our inevitable post-pandemic “summertime.”
We so often refer to ourselves as a separate entity to nature; indeed, even here I write of getting out into “the natural world.” It’s easy to forget however that we are nature – blooming and withering like all organic matter, no matter how domesticated and good at coding computers we become. Admitting we are only a small cog in our planet and submitting to its synchronicity, rather than exhausting ourselves by attempting to run the whole show, is really the first step to “self-improvement.” Forget the expensive tea-toxes and the 30-step Korean skin routines, if we don’t do the most rudimentary thing by re-adapting to our natural rhythms and cycles, we impact not only our health but also our relationships and sense of self. We need not live in a hermit’s cave or an ashram in the Outer Hebrides to achieve this, all it takes is clueing ourselves up on what our bodies expect naturally at certain times of the year.
I saw a grown man the other day splashing around in a stream. It’s important to note here, he was also wearing yellow wellies. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback and did think about hiding behind some foliage until he went away and it was safe to pass. “Okay babe, I’ll be just a minute” he called as a woman materialised. His girlfriend (?) patiently waited until he’d finished frolicking and they kissed then went about their way hand in hand. The scenario left me so simultaneously confused and bemused, I started laughing; never an appropriate action to take whilst alone in public but sometimes a necessary one. The child-like glee on that 6’ 2,” bearded man’s face left me hankering for an impromptu paddle myself. As odd as it seemed, maybe he had it absolutely right, maybe this is what it’s all about – frolicking in a pair of bright yellow wellies.