Monday, June 30, 2014

Enchanted Forests

In college, I majored in “Saving the Enchanted Forest.” That was the title of my thesis.

It seemed like a good idea when I barreled out of a semester in the woods and created my independent project merging environmental studies, philosophy, and creative writing. My plan was to examine how the history of Western philosophy has landed us with the environmental crises of the present day. I read enough Edward Abbey then to fall in love with wild places, never mind immersing myself in whatever wild place I could find. 

I thought if I could write well enough about how lovely the woods, the mountains, the ocean, the night sky, the world truly is, maybe I could re-work the enchantment of the forest, undo the evil spell of historically mistreating the natural world as our rightful resource, and bring everyone as under its charm as I was and am still—then we could all together protect the wilds of the world for itself and ourselves.

By the end of college, I became embarrassed to admit that I love the world, that I could be so naïve and hopeful as to believe in the power of stories and fables and enchantments. I had bookcases full of reports of environmental statistics and ecosystem degradation and pollution levels and climate change data and Superfund sites and all sorts of mean nasty scary things that seemed more pressing, more urgent than the innocent hope of charming people back into love with the world as a means of salvation. Protectively or snidely, I was the first to laugh at the title, when I wasn’t mortified by the nakedness of my heart those words alone exposed. It wasn’t cool, by the time I was all of twenty-two, to still cling to that. It seemed babyish, like hugging a doll or crying or believing in magic.

These days, I believe in sunlight and love, which amounts to the same thing as believing in magic. But I come by it pretty honestly, and not for lack of putting in the hours of searching for magic, anywhere. 

When I was six, my mother read me The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I’ve been checking the backs of wardrobes ever since, just to see if I could find a way into Narnia. I played dress-up and make-believe and lived out a thousand separate fantasy lives with my sisters growing up. I read nearly every book I could find, and then acted them out, somehow. We set up tents in the backyard, found secret best places in the woods, and I always hoped that I would some how fall through into someplace where good and evil were clear choices, and where the good guys—fawns, hobbits, wizards, pirates, sleuths, elves, mice with swords, boys with hatchets, girls with wolves, dragons and princess-librarians—all found each other and beat back the darkness. 

I’ve been beyond lucky to find—in pockets of this world—enough of those places and people to rekindle what was almost lost—the ability to witness wildness and my core belief in the enchantments of the world. The moments of beauty I have collected, the string of pearlescent memories of light and love and laughter and the faith I trust as much as my own hands that such magical times are not fairy tales to be put away and forgotten. These are ways to live, if you’ve able to look and live parallels between worlds.

We don’t get to fall through rabbit holes or walk through wardrobes or sail to the Undying Lands or cut into other worlds with subtle knives to meet our souls—we can’t live in fictions and fables. But we can live here better, and with more of the lightness that comes from storybook worlds.

I loved what Salman Rushdie wrote in a New York Times Book Review after Gabriel Garcia Marquez died:
“The trouble with the term ‘magical realism,’ el realismo mágico, is that when people say or hear it they are hearing or saying only half of it, ‘magic,’ without paying attention to the other half, ‘realism.’ But if magic realism were just magic, it wouldn’t matter. It would be mere whimsy—writing in which, because anything can happen, nothing has effect. It’s because the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real, because it grows out of real and illuminates it in beautiful and unexpected ways, that it works.”

There are books and worlds I have been so immersed in and enamored of that putting the book down was like drowning. This spring I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and came gasping back to reality, feeling off balance and squinting at piles of burlap beside a farm field as if they would become bedraggled hobo magicians with shifting prophesies on their skins. Not as such, but that burlap is now decomposing in a compost pile, in the wings of another stage of being, of filling something like prophesies. Or at least stomachs. That is the magic of reality. 

I believe we must allow ourselves the grace of enchantment, of stories and fictions and possibilities within this world. 

The other pieces of my studies, the ones that look at how we’ve treated the natural world—and why we divided the world into natural and us, in the first place—leads me to believe that when we strip mine and dissect the woods, the mountains, the oceans, when we tame anything wild, we put everything from our souls on out in great peril.

I don’t know if falling in love with the world, if permitting ourselves and relearning the emotional grace of enchantment, can truly undo the damage centuries of dissection and separation have wrought. I can’t prove that this will work.

That, though, may be the root of the trouble. We’ve become overly reliant on logic and proof, rather than trusting the magic before our eyes.

How can anyone look at the world and not be enchanted? What better proof and reason that our eyes and hearts?

When I look at the light of sunset or the stars, when I smell balsam fir or salt water, or hear white-throated sparrows or hawks or any of it all, I cannot imagine how I could have let myself throw that enchantment even briefly aside.

As an environmentalist with an active heart and informed mind working for the salvation of the world, I am stronger with the hopeful eyes of fiction and magic, than I am without.

I believe we all are.

(colored in drawing of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus from

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