“How do we worship now?” a “bone-tired” Katherine May wonders. Over the course of the pandemic she joins an online weekend retreat with the Zen Peacemaker Order, learns beekeeping, throws herself into sea swells, makes pilgrimages to standing stones and “healing” wells, hunts spectres on the Yorkshire moors and chases meteor showers – anything to summon the divine.
If her 2020 bestseller Wintering was about rest and retreat – coincidentally published just before the world shut down – Enchantment is a book for now, written in direct response to the pandemic. Essays are grouped into the four elements, Earth, Water, Fire and Air, each exploring those shaky steps coming out of our collective wintering (read: lockdowns) – those blinking, numb-limbed stumbles into existential limbo: “It feels as though we’ve undergone a halving, then a quartering, and now we are some kind of social rubble.”
In the first unsettling days of the pandemic, May takes her young son into the woods to teach him about the local flora and fauna (“Childhood used to have dirt under its fingernails. Now it has hand sanitiser”). He’s more interested in muddy puddles than her monologues of leaf skeletons before they eventually fall into companionable silence.
“‘Is it nice there, in your head?’ she asks.
‘Sometimes I feel like my mind is growing branches,’ he says.
‘Yes,’ I say, delighted at this point of contact. ‘Yes, I know that feeling exactly!’
‘And every time you talk to me, you cut one of them off.’”
Within days, May too feels dismembered. “Discombobulated,” she writes, losing the will to read novels that persists throughout the pandemic. “We have spent so long anxiously scanning the news that we are now in a fixed state of objectless checking. This is our reading now. The last thing propping up the sky is our eternal vigilance.”
She embarks on a quest to stimulate enchantment by reconnecting with nature, science, folklore, spirituality, ancestry, the numinous in childhood nostalgia; excavating memories of her grandmother’s daily ritual of peeling an orange and her shivering grandfather taking her sea swimming, each beautifully rendered.
Her spot-on comments on self-care favouring the patriarchy might’ve been expanded further, while cultural re-appropriation in western spiritualism is short of interrogation. However, the purpose of this book, like the mysteries of the universe itself, is to ask more questions than it answers. Therein lives enchantment.
Enchantment is an action, a lifetime’s work, she learns. And if this book doesn’t inspire what May was seeking, nothing will.
Enchantment: Reawakening Wonder in an Exhausted Age by Katherine May, Faber & Faber, €18