All winter things have been growing, quietly and hidden from view; small things—delicate yet strong, and intensely beautiful. If we live anywhere that is punctuated by seasons, the transitions become meaningful. Last year I spent from one Imbolc to the next (finishing at the end of January this year) charting the shifts of the seasons in the place I’m living using a Japanese system of 72 micro-seasons, each of 3-5 days, grouped in to 24 slightly longer seasons of 9-15 days. I had been living here just three months when I began writing and it was a way of making myself look and listen to an unfamiliar place.
Our environments change constantly. The light shifts. Spring sees a warming of the earth and a lightening of the skies and with it comes growth. The fields along the river here are full of wild daffodils, primroses, lesser celandine and wood anemone. Our neighbour’s goats have taken up residence in our meadow by the river, along with their two new kids and another neighbour has a small flock of brown and black sheep with several lambs who race together up and down her garden.
Everywhere there are signs of abundance, bringing hope as we watch the coast of Australia inundated with lethal floods or read about the ever-growing numbers of refugees from the Ukraine. We live in a world that is terrible, overwhelming, inhumane and fragile. Yet we live also on a planet that is beautiful, responsive, nurturing and enchanting. And as writers we witness to all of this, and perhaps also to the distinctions between enchantments that lull us to sleep and those that energise and enliven us with the abundance of Spring.
Living with enchantment
To sing in French is ‘chanter’. I live surrounded by forest, but the chant of the birds, their song is everywhere—in cities and on rubbish dumps, they sing and we are enchanted. And whether it’s a busy street or a wild heath, there are songs of wind and rain, of trees and plants (even if it’s a lone tree on a bit of waste ground) and, depending on where we dwell, the songs of river or sea, or of children playing, bees collecting pollen, people conversing and creating.
The etymology of ‘enchant’ has a long history of association with casting a spell, betwitchment and charm. But the root ‘cantare’ from ‘kan’ is ‘to sing’ and the origin of spell is to speak or recite. There is a sense of ritual, of story, of singing into the world that can go in two directions—one hypnotic and illusory, the other charming and giving life the glow of ordinary sacredness.
Spell, ritual and enchantment can be life-giving, but it can also be brutal. Think of cultures that have survived on sacrifice, their ‘gods’ insatiable in their hunger for blood. And this is not just a thing of history. Today we have the echo chambers, empty allure and and vicious tribalism of social media, feeding a terrible ‘fear of missing out’ that keeps people locked into the transitory surge of dopamine each time a post is liked or a tweet shared… We have corporations who ‘leverage’ our hunger for these hormonal rewards by selling us more and more stuff with lifestyle promises that never transpire and were never meant to—capitalism can’t survive our contentment or sense of ‘enough’. We have entertainment channels that boast about not only competing against sleep to get our undivided attention, but claiming they are winning.
There is so much illusion in the world to lure and enchant us. So many false stories that whisper to us to be afraid or cynical or not to care about others or the planet. And this is not to say that everything made by humanity or everything tecnhological is a trap. Technology can be an extraordinary gift and tool—for all its pitfalls, life without it during the pandemic would have been many times more unbearable even with the double edge of spreading misinformation. And of course we want entertainment and art in our lives and have relationships with objects as well as with plants and animals and people. Which can make it all the more difficult to discern the illusory enchantments from the life-enhancing. It’s never going to be as simple as drawing a false dichotomy between the ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ (both dubious terms).
And we will all get the discernment wrong from time to time.
Discerning the enchantments
But there are perhaps some guidelines, developed by those who’ve negotiated the lures of their own ages. Folk story offers a rich treasury of learning on ways to see through illusions and writers like James Hillman and Clarissa Pinkola Estes have written at length about avoiding the traps.
An enchantment that numbs us, that aneasthetises us against the plight of the planet or other species or our own, is not likely to be life-giving.
An enchantment that tells us we are always right and everyone outside our circle is wrong and to be dehumanised and demonised is hardly likely to fill us with the sense that all life is sacred.
And an enchantment that leaves us feeling restless, fatigued, craving one more dopamine shot, needing to buy the next thing and the next, awash with fear and judgementalism is likely to be the road to loss rather than to savouring life in all its ordinary wonder.
We know the illusions by their effects on us, but even this can be difficult. The hypnotised are rarely self-aware. So we also need communities of trust to speak truth to the illusions. We need those who will remind us with both honesty and kindness that finding life enchantment is likely to be a demanding path, one that requires deep listening and attention. And then we will notice that in tiny increments our perspective shifts: the world looks different—more precious, more full of possibility—inviting us to spread our wings and savour its glory as well as lamenting its wounds.
By being of a place
We find the everyday enchantments of the place we find ourselves in and live from this energy when we become people who pay attention. The last place I lived in, I was there for 20 years. I was not ‘from’ there, but slowly I was becoming ‘of’ the place. I walked it, sat for hours on the steps of the derelict little cottage facing the lake up in the mountain behind the village, soaking in the atmosphere of a ruined slate mine. I made important and lasting relationships with a group of neighbours, some incomers, some who’d lost count of how many generations of their ancestors now lay in the local soil. And I spent five years writing about slate—about the local mine and its culture and impact and abuses and triumphs.
If I’d stayed the rest of my life I would never have become ‘from’ Tanygrisiau but by the time I left I was of it and it of me in ways that will always be with me. In a world of mass displacement and immigration catalysed by so many forces, political, economic, ecological, personal… belonging (however it is defined) can no longer be an issue of borders.
In his philosophical exploration of rituals, The Disappearance of Ritual (a book I have a lot of issues with but can still find gems within), Byung Chul Han makes the point that whilst human beings are fundamentally ‘creatures of sites’ and that whilst economic forces of globalisation tend to press for homogeneity (to smooth the path of capital), producing a ‘hell of the same’, nontheless, cultures that are not hospitable to the foreginer, ossify and wither.
Healthy sites are those where the culture and its identity is able to include rather than exclude, that are receptive of what is foreign without collapsing into a reductionist sameness that demands that all enriching differences and distinctiveness be abandoned. And he quotes Hegel who noted that the advent of Greek civilisation was dependent on heterogeneity and welcoming the other and that it is:
a superficial and absurd idea that such a beautiful and truly free life can be produced by a process so incomplex as the development of a race keeping within the limits of blood-relationship and friendship.
Leaving aside the questions of how life could possibly have been “beautiful” for enslaved people and many women, Hegel’s point about inclusivity still holds. And it holds particularly where the host site is hospitable and the incoming care about being of this new place, care enough to listen deeply to it.
It’s also the case that when we can come from a place we can be oblivious to it. When we lived in North Wales, my son went on long hikes with two local friends, sometimes with their dad too, who often bemoaned that many of the people who were born in the village never went into the mountains. It’s easy to not see what’s always been in from of us and so not resonate with it.
Being from a place can be a deep bond. My farming neighbour in Tanygrisiau embodied the land that his family had worked with for generations. My Breton neighbours who are almost entirely self-sufficient have a fluency with the local environment that is an inspiration to watch. Those who are from a place hold a particular cultural space that might also include preserving language, music, and rituals that are in danger of extinction in the corporate world’s push to make us bland specimens of humanity, easy to sell to and easy to move around the globe for their own uses. Loss of such culture, like loss of natural habitats makes every human, animal and plant just another product or consumer (or both).
But to be of a place is also vital.
Listening with the attention of prayer
Being of a place demands that we listen to where we find ourselves—over and over and with the quality of attention that Simone Weil defined as ‘prayer’. And when we do we find ourselves slowly able to sing the place back to itself. The more a place is listened to, the more it claims us. The goal is not that we get enough knowledge of a place that we can start to bend it to our will, nor that we start to ‘own’ it, but rather that we let the place take us in and change us.
We get enchanted, not by the illusory and shallow, but by the depths of where we find ourselves or have chosen to be. And then we can become witnesses of that place—not in the same way as those who are from that place might be, but with another perspective to add to the story. This is enchantment and story as redemptive. When we’ve listened deeply and sung back faithfully, the world gets remade a tiny bit. We become writers who attend to the beauty and the terror, the triumphs and the calamities, and stand with that place—creative, protesting, lamenting and hopeful…
Waking in the forest recently, I was struck by the sudden return of the butterfiles—Small Coppers and Clouded Yellows and by the return of birdsong—tits and blackbirds and finches and more, all getting busy with nesting. The forest was alive with song, with chanting to enchant. At home I went back to the hiaku I’d written last year. Each year the microseasons will have things in common, but also shift a little. Maybe in a couple of decades I’ll be of this place. In the meantime I’m listening… dwelling here with wonder and enchantment as a witness to this tiny corner of the world.
Are you from the place where you dwell or of it? Perhaps both or perhaps on a journey to being of it. However you relate to the place where you dwell, as a writer you are one of its witnesses. What are its sorrows and losses? What are its everyday enchantments that can be celebrated in this beautiful and fragile world?)