I’ve written before about the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson and her remarkable collection A Responsibility to Awe, written when she was terminally ill with the blood cancer that killed her at 39. Her poetry is full of hope in the midst of facing her own mortality, but there is nothing romanticised or saccharine. Rather, her immersion in the natural processes of the universe gave her a perspective that kept her from cynicism.
In such a vast universe the chance of any one of us existing is infinitesimally tiny. Yet here we are in this world that, even with all its horrors, is also heart-wrenchingly beautiful and filled with the possibilities of love and simple kindness. Despite the miraculousness of being here, day to day life can rub away the shine. A fear-mongering media, hate crimes, war, escalating living costs, ecological degradation … how do we maintain a sense of wonder and stay enchanted with life?
In his autobiography G K Chesterton wrestled with the issue of how we retain a sense of wonder and concluded:
At the back of our brains… there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he is actually alive, and be happy.
When the sunrise of wonder remains submerged
Of course, in real lives, we have periods when we can’t see the sunrise for the fog. Sometimes life feels dull and muffled, if not outright meaninglessness. Sometimes we feel empty. Life has rhythms and seasons, some of them constricted by a pandemic, or hollowed out by exhaustion, whether from over-work or emotional demands and stress. When these seasons come, what brings enough solace to open us to wonder again?
There is no simplistic prescription and in cases of severe depression or horrific life circumstances there is never cause to preach. This is not the counsel of ‘look on the bright side’. Yet it is also the case that people with real problems, some of more magnitude than I can imagine, do retain a sense of wonder and enchantment, not as escapism but as part of the both/and nature of so much of life in which grief and joy are indivisible.
Expanding to flourish
So often, it seems, that this solace is intimately linked to expansiveness. When we constrict and go inward, we only see the pain. We live and think small. I noticed this powerfully earlier this month when I got severe food poisoning during a trip to Paris. My world imploded rapidly. My focus was only on pain, hydration, and feeling sorry for myself when my oldest, Rowan, had to leave to go back to the UK and I stayed on alone, unable to travel.
We all experienced this kind of constriction under lock downs, and the rise in mental illness and depression attested to how damaging it is when life is severely constricted for whole populations. As much as we need times of retreat, winters to hibernate a little, periods of deep quiet, we don’t do well on one note and we don’t do well when we myopically focus on the self (as much as it’s understandable in acute and critical situations).
We flourish when we are in flow, when we make connections, with other people certainly, but also, and vitally, with the land we live on. We flourish when we unself, to use Iris Murdoch’s wonderful phrase for the ability to slip into a deeper state of consciousness which is not ego-driven.
How we make these connections is wonderfully various. For Rebecca Elson facing her own mortality writign poetry and keeping a journal was an inward practice, while the wonders of the stars, as she led a research team on the nature of dark matter, was an expansive endeavour. I have friends who have taken up wild swimming or ocean swimming, some after major illness, as a way to immerse in an element that takes them out of themselves. Others are serious gardeners or foragers and nearly all who are able to do so simply get out and walk.
Walking to become enchanted
The relationship between writing and walking is an old and tested one and there is something expansive about the way the motion drops us through the layers of ourselves as we breathe more deeply and allow the immersion in our surroundings to shift our perspectives. In an essay in Accepting the Universe, essays in naturalism, John Burroughs put it like this:
Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance… There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants. The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time; you do not have to seek it afar … It is of to-day; it is now and here; it is everywhere. The crickets chirp it, the birds sing it, the breezes chant it, the thunder proclaims it, the streams murmur it, the unaffected man lives it. Its incense rises from the plowed fields, it is on the morning breeze, it is in the forest breath and in the spray of the wave. The frosts write it in exquisite characters, the dews impearl it, and the rainbow paints it on the cloud. It is not an insurance policy … it is not even a faith; it is a love, an enthusiasm, a consecration to natural truth.
Sometimes the insights of walks come after the event because the walk has moved something in us that we might not even realised was stuck. Walking mountain ranges or coastal paths, through deserts or urban parks all help to shake something free, but for me, it’s the forest that opens me to new thoughts more than anywhere else. I concur with Ursula K. Le Guin insight that ‘the word for the world is forest’ and more so as we learn more about how interconnected the life of forests is.
Writing the enchanted stories
All the way back to folk and fairy tales, forests have been seen as both enchanted places and dark places. The paths twist or dip into holloways, are overgrown and can seem mysterious, but they are also places where sunlight on green leaves can be utterly luminous, where the rhythm of our breath changes and where we breathe in chemicals from the trees that are deeply healing. Forests are also places of layers—leaves and mulch, mycelium and networks of animal habitats. All of which contributes to them being places of metaphor and story—which path will you take? How does time operate here? What is the story of this granite grotto that has been here since the last Ice Age? or the story of this Bronze Age bridge that still fords the river? And alongside these ancient questions and stories, every forest is alive with—mammals, fish, insects (crawling and flying)—animals that live for years or days. There’s an extraordinary timeline there from deep geology to the most ephemeral creature and, walking there, we become part of it.
For G K Chesterton the answer to finding the ‘submerged sunrise of wonder’ was to contemplate the humble and beautiful dandelion. Wherever we walk there is always the pulsing heart of the earth telling us that everything is connected.
We know this always, but so much of life fragments us. We need stories reinforce this connection again and again, metaphors that let us understand by increments, ways of making meaning that allow for solace and enchantment; that walk in hope. And these stories don’t have to be blinding epiphanies or exotic visions. There is wonder everywhere. As writers we can capture it in a novel that resists the darkness, a poem that bears witness to a tiny bird. We make the world more enchanted when we share our sorrow honestly and sing despite it, because still there is beauty.