Is magic part of your wellness routine? Katherine May wants to make it so. The best-selling author of Wintering and Enchantment track’s nature's ability to enhance human happiness, then writes lyrical books about everything from meeting bees to getting lost (and ultimately found) in a blizzard. And since we know just 17 minutes in nature can make us feel happier and more connected, we couldn’t wait to get her advice on how to make the most of it.
Here’s the UK writer’s take on overcoming fear of the unknown, combating the seasonal March “mehs,” and the best time for aspiring writers to hit the beach.
Nature provides so much enchantment, but it also requires us to really unplug from a busy world. What's a small, first step that helps?
You can find the natural world by stepping outside your door and feeling the soil is right there waiting for you. And it's no better or worse than going to some romantic canyon somewhere on a flight that takes 5 hours. Nature is always there on our doorstep. You can have an ongoing daily relationship with the nature around you. You can just fall quiet in its presence and observe it. See what you notice; see how it's changing. You can touch it, you can smell it, you can listen for the sounds that it makes. One of the things I did in Enchantment was to walk barefoot in a local field that I [already] knew quite well. But that was such a changed experience for me than walking in my shoes. It made me go through that environment much more carefully, much more cautiously. Everything felt unfamiliar again, so I rebuilt my relationship with it. It’s about knowing nature has something to tell us, and something that we can learn from… And it can take some time to learn how to relate in that way, but we go back and practice it, and that's how we achieve it.
How can we start experiencing the natural world on its terms, instead of ours?
Love that question, because actually, I think that's the key to it—thinking about the terms that the natural world wants to engage with us on, rather than bringing our own ideas to it. We so often do that; we so often enter nature with a project, a plan, or a set of knowledge we want to demonstrate. And in fact, there's a whole different experience that can be had if we learn to listen.
As a writer, it's your job to record your experiences. How do you stay present in a magical moment, even when you know you'll want to write about it later?
We often tell writers they should have a notebook in their hands at all times, and be recording the details of absolutely everything. And I always turn that process on its head. I always make sure I don't bring my notebook to the things I'm trying to experience and live through.We can accidentally create distance between us and the experience by the act of writing. It doesn't always bring us closer in the moment. In fact, I think it takes us into our head rather than experiencing it with our heart and our skin, and maybe even our foot soles, as I said before. So I deliberately leave my notebook behind.
What do you do instead?
I often take loads of photographs, because that does help me to remember when I go to my notebook later and write about it. But writing and living are two separate things. And what I want to capture quite often isn't the exact minute detail of an experience… It's the residue of that experience and what stays with me a couple of hours later when I sit down to record it in my notebook. The distance between the experience and the writing of it is meaning-making, and I want to understand the things that have come up for me in the time after I encountered it. I want to understand the meaning that I've created around the experience. And so, I leave my notebook at home.
How do you incorporate the natural world into your office or writing environment?
I’m sitting next to a bay window, with a wide windowsill. All over the sill are these lovely little natural touchstones that I often reach over and pick up. I've got some really special rocks that feel particularly comfortable in the palm of my hand. I'll often pick them up and just hold them, which I find really, really grounding. I've got a little box of fossils I love to get out, look out, and play with. I've also got quite a few potted plants, but I'm not the greatest plant owner. A few of them are a little bit dead looking at the moment, but actually, part of my thinking and writing process is tending to those plants… My little writing corner feels natural, vibrant, and ever-changing. I also really appreciate writing in daylight. It makes a huge difference to me. One of the things that people always tell me when they listen back to my podcast recordings is that you can hear the seagulls flying past. And I don't hear the seagulls because I'm so used to them, but yeah, I often get feedback that the natural world is very present where I'm working. The final thing I'd say is that I usually write with a lit candle, and that, again, is part of bringing that feeling of naturalness into my environment… It's a lovely ritual to mark out that space when I settle down to do creative work… I think really hard about the space I work in.
What's your advice for anxious people who still want to experience enchantment? Can hiking, swimming, or beekeeping in the natural world feel "safe" to people who aren’t that adventurous, or is the idea of being un-safe part of the point?
I think the point is to do things that feel safe and comfortable to you. But most of all, to do things that you feel drawn to, that evoke your curiosity, that make you feel fascinated. I mean, none of the things listed feel unsafe to me in any way—but on the other hand, I can't handle heights, so you'd never catch me doing a treetop walk or repelling down a rock!... If you’re a sea swimmer, as I am, part of your practice must be an extreme respect for how powerful the ocean is… So no, I don't think there's any benefit in challenging your sense of safety. And I don't think anyone should go out and be unsafe.
But bees can sting!
Maybe beekeeping is quite surprising in that case, but I am not afraid of bees! I'm afraid of an awful lot of things, though—talk to me about how I behave if a spider crawls across my living room floor and you'll see a very different side of me. But actually, bees are pretty peaceful and predictable in the way they behave… Again, it’s about respect. I will not be thrusting my hand, for example, into a wasp nest. I'd feel very differently about that!
We’re in a month when it’s winter, then spring-ish, then winter again. How do we handle the way changing weather can also result in mood swings?
These huge fluctuations in the weather—they do make the world feel really different. It's not just temperature; it's the quality of light. But the way I approach it is I find something I love in every different kind of thing that the weather might throw at me… I’ll walk in the rain, for instance, and bundle up so I can experience a sunny day in the cold. I let my sleep patterns adapt to the seasons… But for me, the weather I find most challenging is hot sun. I’m really uncomfortable in the heat! So in the summer, you'll find me walking on the beach early in the morning and late in the evening, and getting out for those sunrises and sunsets. I particularly love to swim in the sea when the sun is setting over it. That's really magical. It feels like you're merging with that line that the sun makes on the sea.