A Journey Into Deep Terrain: Katherine May’s Enchantment

Reviewed By

These are times of watching: our phones, each other, ourselves. Our modern age of anxiety stems from known sources: the great deal of information, both digital and physical, we must ingest, decipher, and make meaning of—gun violence, police brutality, racial attacks, climate change. Though we are paradoxically the most connected that we have ever been, there is a growing sense of the impossibility of meaning-making.

It is in this setting that Katherine May’s latest book, Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age, arrives. Almost a sister book to her 2020 Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times—published on the eve of the pandemic—Enchantment deals with the dawn of a post-lockdown world still grappling with the effects of a global pandemic and a collective feeling of emptiness, disembodiment, constant vigilance. In this state of being, how do we awaken ourselves? What do we reach for?

For May, the answer is both the act of knowing and an unknowing. It is the space between forgetting one way of being and remembering another, a way of being that is intrinsic. To embody this space, though, is the challenge, and it requires a turn towards and an exchange with the natural world. Enchantment helps us journey through that work. Split into four sections— “Earth,” “Water,” “Fire,” and “Air”—May weaves together personal pilgrimages, philosophy, and encounters with each element to present a multitude of pathways to re-enchantment.

At the beginning of “Earth,” May describes what she has been doing lately: fidgeting between Twitter and Instagram, struggling to finish a full page of a book, awakening in the night unable to locate herself. She recognizes that “something has been lost here, vanished beyond living memory: a fluency in the experiences that have patterned humanity since we began.” That something she labels as “the forgotten seam in our geology, the elusive particle that binds our unstable matter: the ability to sense magic in the everyday”—the very state of enchantment. May brings us along on a series of vignettes to search for that elusive particle, actions and reflections all bound by the element in question. She visits standing stones—eight large boulders—in Whitstable, England, where she lives. Later, in a chair in her garden, she takes off her shoes and lets her bare feet make contact with the earth.

May swims, explores consciousness, and considers religion and God in “Water.” In “Fire,” May tells the first human accounts of the Leonid meteor showers and introduces the idea of “deep play,” in which play is serious, absorbing. May travels to Dungeness, England, to visit large concrete ears, manmade acoustic mirrors that once sent the sounds of incoming planes to an operator; searches for her Brocken Spectre, a natural phenomenon of sunlight and clouds that causes a massive expansion of one’s own shadow; and finds “a galaxy of stories from one garden weed” in “Air.” Like Wintering, the book’s energy comes from May’s contemplation—this is a book of rigorous, symbolic thinking—but instead of drifting in deep consciousness to rest, in Enchantment, May is actively moving into higher levels of consciousness to make meaning.

In each of May’s interactions with the natural world, there is magic to be found, though the elements require a deep engagement for the magic to be felt. Indeed, in Enchantment, May is paying close attention. Of her grandmother, she writes, “she would start to massage the orange, working it between her bunched knuckles until the skin was lifted from the fruit, before piercing it with a thumbnail and pulling it methodically away.” May’s language is deliberate, alert, each movement given ample consideration as if time itself were slowed to experience the moment more fully. May’s sentences, incisive and compact, serve almost as her grandmother’s methodical fingers: “the water endures, sublimating between states, becoming brackish, being cleansed, infiltrating into the soil. Between water and our bodies there is effortless communication, both engaged in an endless saturated exchange.” The abundance permeating May’s descriptions comes from her careful unpeeling of each layer of perception, her reaching for words to name the unnamed: the brackishness, the cleansing, the infiltration.

In May’s telling, this deliberate way of seeing transforms the watching propelled by modern anxiety into witnessing. For May, witnessing is a gentle, attentive noticing; often, witnessing is done in tandem. In May’s first encounters with the moon as a child, when enchantment came more easily, she “felt as though the moon needed me to notice her, too…When I stepped outside at night, we witnessed each other.” The act of receptive witnessing, however, requires humility: an openness and release of preconceptions, a tabula rasa. In “Water,” when May visits the sea at its lowest tide, she makes herself small as she walks along the exposed shore: she imagines “the sea far above my head” and remembers that “I am really watching the pull of the moon…There are two giant waves travelling endlessly around the earth…We barely sense the scale of what is really happening, because we only ever witness it locally.” The awe that is apparent here is drawn from humility, a question of scale: seeing one’s place as a droplet in a sea, and grasping—witnessing—the presence of the sea.

Awe can be felt in the everyday, but is most potent in places of metaphor. Two days before the lockdowns began in England, May and her son Bert travel to a nearby wood to “inhabit deep terrains.” These terrains—here, the forest—are spaces of “unending variance and subtle meaning,” opposing the “shallow terrain” that we know so well, the “shiny plastic surfaces of soft play centres and toys whose purpose is so specific that they run out of joy after a few minutes.” In the forest, May applies her close attention to trees in bud, the toothmarks of squirrels in pinecones, the networks of mycelia. In turn, the forest offers up “multiplicity, forked paths, symbolic meaning.” Symbolic meaning—the idea, for instance, that the moon is also witnessing us—stirs our senses, ignites our bodies and beings, offering a “repository of understanding that can be triggered by the everyday, and which comes in a format that goes straight to the bloodstream.”

May’s turning toward the natural world to find enchantment is strikingly Romantic. With what May calls “worshipful attention,” transcendence, sacredness and ancestry can be read into “a tree or a stone or a wafer of bread,” an act she labels “hierophany.” Of stream water, May writes, “When I drink it, I feel like I’m imbibing the deep layers of rock beneath my feet and the clouds above. But I am also swallowing those times, long past, when I could inhabit the same sea as my grandad. It is the same water, then and now.” The sentiment echoes Walt Whitman’s first verses in “Song of Myself”: “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, / Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.” The elements of the earth offer a connective point across generations, understood and passed down through what May calls “living memory,” or “the extent of contact we have with each passing era.” Enchantment is also this same contact with living memory—both between two living family members as well as with the earth, which remembers all things, making something as simple as taking off one’s shoes to make contact with the ground a sacred gesture, a hierophany.

As we move through Enchantment, May transforms reciprocal witnessing—this mutual and deliberate way of seeing—into a fusion of self and universe, an act of tremendous imagination and creative thought. In his memoir of religious conversion, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis engages a similar mechanism for higher consciousness; instead of enchantment, he calls it joy. When describing a stage of his conversion to Christianity, he writes: “We mortals, seen as the sciences see us and as we commonly see one another, are mere ‘appearances.’ But appearances of the Absolute…we have, so to speak, a root in the Absolute, which is the utter reality. And that is why we experience Joy: we yearn, rightly, for that unity which we can never reach.” In May’s view, everything is already in union, and enchantment can be found in us remembering: “It reminds me a lot of om, the single syllable from which the universe is created…The alchemy comes in understanding the truth that seems so easily hidden: that everything is interconnected.”

The reference to om nods to the Hindu religious text the Bhagavad Gita, where the truest essence of the self is the eternal, universal “atman.” In the Gita, a conversation takes place between a warrior, Arjuna, and his god, Vishnu, incarnated through his charioteer, Krishna. May builds on Wintering, in which she explores themes of nature and animism—in Enchantment, she seeks this kind of conversation with God outright. Her god, however, is unlike any traditional religion. Rather, May tends to think that “God is not a person, but the sum total of all of us, across time.” This thought aligns much more with the Gita than with Lewis’ Christianity, yet all three ideas spring from the same source: the potential for human beings to find symbolic meaning in higher consciousness, a source for enchantment.

As a result, the congregation May feels most aligned with is the Zen Peacemaker Order, a global organization whose purpose is not to worship a god but to contend with events of extreme suffering, the “darkest moments in human life.” Often gathering at retreats and sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Zen Peacemakers engage in a three-step process of enquiry, to which May is first drawn. “Not-Knowing,” a state of openness, and “Bearing Witness,” noticing the world with curiosity and compassion, are the first and second steps of this process, putting words to the actions May has been taking thus far in her seeking. May partakes in this process in a series of Zoom sessions, listening to voices speaking on the history of lynchings and police brutality, “acts of devastating violence that could not do anything but ricochet through generations.” The anxiety and violence of our age—the bedrock on which Enchantment is built—surfaces starkly here. Enchantment is not the avoidance of the suffering that is sewn into the earth and all elements of our world; the Zen Peacemakers offer a way to witness these events to create meaning out of them, to integrate “the full spectrum of human feeling.”

This way of understanding human experience returns us to a Romantic poet who was drawn to a similar mode of thinking: John Keats, whose father, mother, and brother had died by the time he was in his early twenties. His theory of “negative capability,” referenced at the beginning of Enchantment, is the “intuitive mode of thought that allows us to reside in ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’” This mode of thought makes up much of May’s book. Indeed, Enchantment can be seen as an active practice of negative capability: the existence in mysteries, deep terrains of possibilities and paths—what May calls “the flow of unknowing across the centuries”—to which there is no certain answer. The keepers of such thinking are the stories woven into our land, into one garden weed, into the names of our rivers and natural springs. By learning such stories, we can embody negative capability and make imaginative leaps: May writes, “If you know your stories—if you understand the mythologies of your land—then you can leap from a sunlit stroll with your dog into the ancient, chthonic wood.”

One such story for May is a Japanese fairy tale she had read as a child, “The Boy Who Drew Cats,” which had embedded itself into her own self-mythology. The fairy tale tells the story of a boy who had an elemental need to paint cats, but who was told not to. In May’s version, the boy is cast out of a monastery. He enters an abandoned temple haunted by a nocturnal, monstrous rat, and spends the evening drawing cats on the walls. Remembering old words of advice from an abbot to avoid “large places,” the boy folds himself inside a cabinet to sleep. At night, he hears the terrible sounds of the rat outside his cabinet; in the morning, he finds the rat’s corpse and the cats on the walls smeared with blood. Perhaps the deepest act of humility in Enchantment is the boy’s surrender to his own cats, his release of his “necessary fire” that “burgeons out…like a spring” and that in the end saves his life. For May, the boy’s surrender is what she aspires to: this “gentle defiance,” the unyielding “flow towards the acts we love.” It is telling, here, that May repeats the word “flow,” nodding to the same flow of unknowing across centuries.

Indeed, in pandemic-era literature, May is not the only one drawn to this story in the wake of large-scale suffering. In Celeste Ng’s latest book, Our Missing Hearts—a story of an anti-Chinese regime rising to power in the United States—“The Boy Who Drew Cats” is the tale that reconnects a boy with his mother, whose poetry sparked an underground rebellion. Our mythologies, these stories that we tell ourselves and that we pass down, are the elusive particle that binds us still, a tribute to the power collective imagination has to save us during times of crisis. It is something intrinsic that lives inside us, this ability to imagine, to find hope, even amidst the darkest sides of human life. This is the promise of Enchantment: we seek not to discover any one external thing, but to retrieve an ancient, imperishable way of being that has existed within us all this time.

In the Zen Peacemaker Order, there is a third tenet on which their organization is built: “Taking Action.” It is the least defined step of the process and inspired by the rigorous thinking that precedes it; in fact, “Not-Knowing” and “Bearing Witness” can be enough in certain circumstances. While Enchantment is a book of noticing, of exchange, it is also an act of inquiry. May takes her readers through deep encounters with the world to re-engage our senses and higher consciousness, to learn our ancient histories, to carry and keep them, to converse with God in the collective scope and scale of those stories. At the book’s close, it is left up to the reader to re-emerge. To consider what actions must be taken, or if the thinking itself—the witnessing—was enough to make our “most familiar places…become maps of myth and wisdom.”





Erin Winseman is a writer currently based in Houston, Texas. She has an M.A. in Cultural Reporting & Criticism from New York University, and her work appears or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Litro Magazine, and elsewhere. More from this author →