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As I write, it is snowing in Joburg. I can’t stop gazing out of the window, and want to run outside and clap my hands and catch the fat flakes, like a child. I can’t remember when I last had such a sense of pure wonder. In the past decade we have been battered by change. As Katherine May observes, “[T]hose rolling news cycles, the chatter on social media, the way that our families split along partisan lines: it feels as though we’ve undergone a halving, then a quartering, and now we are some kind of rubble.”

And then there was the global pandemic, and the ceaseless fear coursing through us. We are deadened and cynical, our mental hard drives are full to bursting, we are chronically lonely even though we are surrounded by conversation. May, whose previous book, Wintering, advocated retreat and rest when life knocks us down, believes we have become disconnected from meaning and ritual, lost in a flow of materialism.

In Enchantment: Reawakening Wonder in an Exhausted Age, she relates how she used the restorative power of the natural world to reconnect with a part of her that was missing. “There has been a yearning in me, a craving for transcendent experience, for depth, for meaning-making.”

She divides the book into the elements of earth, water, fire, and air and chronicles her determination to find a different way to relate to the world.

This is not a glib self-help book, with bullet points and steps to success. Rather, May invites the reader to notice the numinous around us, to recognise our connection to others, to find beauty in the everyday, the quotidian. She remembers the enchantment of childhood, when we are closely engaged with our surroundings, paying minute attention, but which we leave behind as we march towards adulthood. She identifies play not as the silly, insignificant act of children but as complete absorption in something that has no bearing on the outside world, something that matters completely to you. Play is the disappearance into a space of our choosing, into the deep flow of our own interests. It is vital that we allow ourselves time to play.

Over the course of the book May swims in the ocean and in rivers, walks and hikes, and goes out in the night to watch meteor showers. She studies the science of beekeeping, learns the names of wildflowers, and examines stones and wood with her son.

She introduces the notion of “hierophany”, which is the way the divine reveals itself to us through objects. “When we make a tree or a stone or a wafer of bread the subject of our worshipful attention, we transform it into a hierophany, an object of the sacred.” Our ancestors walked through a landscape that was itself a hierophany, seeing significance in everything they touched. She reinstitutes small rituals in her life, and uses her hands to make, to sew, to plant.

May noticed a shift in her thinking in the process of writing Enchantment. “You fully realise you are part of this much bigger system. You are part of the massive humanity, and you are also part of a landscape and a bigger natural world. Most of us haven’t ever had to engage with that and feel truly part of it. We feel very separate from it. Our dislocation from our bodies is more or less the same as our dislocation from nature. We’ve separated ourselves from this much bigger organism that we’re part of. And I’m in the process of learning to get back into it.”

Though she was raised in a non-religious home, May becomes convinced that “something is there, something vast and wide and beautiful pervades all life. Something that is present, attentive, behind the everyday. A stratum of consciousness waiting to be uncovered.” Pay attention, she tells us, lose yourself in flow, allow yourself to play. Move, touch, watch for traces of magic and the sacred. Form your own rituals. Look for beauty — it isn’t something that’s only found in faraway exotic places. In this country we are blessed with space and access to the natural world. Even in our large cities, our skies are flecked with birds and stars and we’re never far from the sea, a nature reserve or a park. A seedling in a balcony pot is a thing of wonder. The philosopher Alain de Botton believes that for the secular, art galleries and libraries can be sacred places, too.

Enchantment is an invitation to move through the world with curiosity, renewing relationships with ourselves and others, and the world itself, and in so doing regroup from the rubble of our shattered and frightened existence.

• From the August edition of Wanted, 2023.

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