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21 December 2022

Instead of insulating from winter, I have decided to expose myself to it

Forcing myself outside, and into a new mindset, has altered my way of encountering the world.

By Hannah Rose Woods

I don’t want to hate winter. I’m just rarely at my best at this time of year. Is there such a thing as a deciduous human? I seem to do most of my living between the rough beginning and end of British Summer Time, photosynthesising in long days and light evenings. Well into October I’m still fleeing the house at every chance of sunshine, wandering around amazed by leaves – and will be again, at the first signs of spring. But as soon as the clocks go back, and night time is hauled somewhere into what was recently the middle of the afternoon, it starts to feel outrageous that I can’t actually hibernate.

I’ve always thought of winter as a time of absence, when the world outdoors is characterised by what isn’t there. But two years into living on the edge of open countryside, I’m beginning to think this is as much an indoors problem as an outside one. This year, I’m keeping up my habit of long walks each day in my own company, and starting to notice what is there.

Rosehips are still glistening in hedges, amid great boughs of blood-red hawthorn haws on otherwise bare branches, which on my morning walks shine wet with dew. I look for the soft, dusty blue of sloes on blackthorn, and necklaces of waxy, candy red bryony berries hanging down in tangles. As the last of the leaves fall in the woods, I start to notice smaller things – the mosses and lichens spreading over tree bark, mushrooms like ghostly moons; and stranger things I wasn’t expecting – neon-orange jelly fungus springing up like droplets of sap on dead wood.

I’ve realised you need to look closer in winter. You need to shift perspective. It’s a season for detail. At the edge of a field, I wait, watching a kestrel hover overhead, its sight fixed on some impossibly slight suggestion of movement, before arcing away. As I walk through the gap in the hedgerow, I hear a gang of tits skittering from the second near-miss of the day.

After rain, I watch streams turn fast and brown, swollen with mud running off the hills. I watch familiar footpaths turn to temporary, clear streams running alongside them in miniature; watch the water pool against exposed tree roots as it babbles and slows and merges. There is something about the sound of the water that seems to merge with the cool of the air. I listen to my steps squelch in mud, and splash in puddles of water in grass, and think that when I get home I will google the difference between marsh and mire and bog.

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I’ve always thought that there was something terribly melancholy about the cold, damp air of days like these, on the border between autumn and winter; a sadness that was to be avoided by staying inside. And it is melancholy, but I’m starting to feel that there is something urgent and vital in it, too. I drink it down in lungfuls. I cannot get enough of it. I’ve suddenly decided that it must be experienced.

Is the problem that we insulate ourselves in winter? That we insulate from, instead of expose ourselves to? At home, like everyone else I know, I’ve turned my thermostat down this year, and sit swathed in blankets with a hot water bottle, warming myself with hot coffee, hot tea, and (I am particularly pleased with this purchase) an electric heated gilet. But on my walks, suddenly, I cannot bear to be wrapped up against the elements. I find myself rolling up my sleeves to feel the chill against my skin. I hold out my hand to brush banks of dead grass, crispy under waterdrops. I want to feel everything.

Forcing myself outside, and into this new mindset, has altered my way of encountering the world. I notice how completely different the air feels between early and late morning; how different it is again when darkness falls. How different it is in mist! I am waiting for the first, sparkling shock of frost.

As soon as I resolve to spend more time outdoors and less on Twitter, it seems as if the site might be ruined beyond familiarity. People I follow seem to be leaving in droves, and the mood on my timeline feels, if not last days of Rome, then certainly weird with a sense of an ending. It is desperately unchic to admit this, but I feel almost bereft.

For one thing, I cannot imagine what my career would look like without Twitter and the people I found there. But I can’t imagine what my politics would look like either. I have learned so much about the world beyond my first-hand experience, and I think on so many things it has changed my views for the better. It has been a spectacularly enlightening series of object lessons in the importance of media studies. But this is all very earnest. If it goes, I’ll miss the stupid jokes and the photos of pets, too.

[See also: Why brass music has such a special relationship with Christmas]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince