1-Sentence-Summary: Enchantment is a personal exploration of the four elements and their power to reconnect us to the planet, other people, and ourselves as we re-emerge from a global health crisis feeling busier than ever before.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
Warning us of the impending fireworks lit by business and politics to restart the engines of capitalism post-pandemic, Julio Vincent Gambuto wrote: “From one citizen to another, I beg of you: take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life.”
It’s true. The pandemic was a giant pause, and though it came with its own challenges, it did free us from our usual hamster wheels. Go to work, buy takeout, watch TV, order a cream to fix a pimple, go to sleep, rinse, and repeat. What a privilege to be able to reset all cycles and start over!
But, like many of us, once the virus subsided, Katherine May found herself right back where she began: tired, distracted, and confused. She needed a new way of connecting with life. Of recharging her batteries. She found it in the four elements of nature. In her book Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age, she shares with us what she has learned.
Here are 3 lessons from the book to help you regain your sense of appreciation for the magic of life and the wellbeing benefits that come with it:
- Earth and water have the power to literally ground us and soothe our anxious minds.
- Fire is dangerous but beneficial if we respect it, and air symbolizes never-ending change.
- Ancient scientists believed in aether, a fifth element, which, while not real, gets to the core of enchantment.
Let’s rediscover our powers of enchantment!
Lesson 1: The first two elements that can enchant us are earth and water, reconnecting us to the planet and calming us down.
May describes enchantment as “the ability to sense magic in the everyday, to channel it through our minds and bodies, to be sustained by it.”
The first time May rediscovered this ability was when, tired from endless Twitter scrolling, she decided to take a walk. She discovered a small stone circle on a nearby hill in the English countryside where she lived. It felt so natural and soothing, she made the walk a daily pilgrimage.
She found other ways of using earth to calm her anxious mind, too. Walking barefoot is a moving meditation, May claims. So is keeping a pebble in your pocket. I have one on my desk. It feels great in my hand. I can imagine myself walking in a forest when the smooth surface touches my skin. Tiny triggers can have a big effect!
Next to earth, May also found comfort in water. If you’ve ever spend time at the ocean, watching waves form, build, crash, and subside, you know how calming it can feel. The saltiness of the air, the sound of spray — they are literally refreshing.
May also rediscovered an ancient well, which was once used as a place of healing and worship. Not knowing its exact origins, she made her own ritual of baking bread, walking to the well, thanking it for its water, and then eating a simple meal there.
Lesson 2: Two more enchanting elements are fire and air, one of which is as fascinating as it is dangerous, while the other represents change.
We often think of fire as the most dangerous of elements, but its power to destroy is also a force of cleansing. Where forests burn, the ashes of trees becomes soil for new plants. In some cases, fire’s ferocity even saves us. Take meteor showers, for example: While we’re watching beautiful shooting stars, fire is burning building-sized rocks before they hit our planet.
Fire allows us to cook food, and it is around campfires that we gather, tell stories, and form a sense of belonging and community. It is a great example that how we interpret and respond to enchantment is up to us, May thinks. If we focus on fire’s danger, we’ll always be scared of it. If we respect it and appreciate its benefits, we can harness it as a source of wonder.
Finally, air represents constant change, May believes. She explains the “Brocken specter” phenomenon, named after the highest mountain in the Harz region of Germany. Due to its often misty peak, climbers might see gigantic versions of their own shadow glistening in the clouds. Talk about changing your perspective!
Whether it’s a Fata Morgana in the hot desert air, clouds giving way to sunshine, or the breeze that seems to carry your heavy thoughts away, air reminds us that it’s never too late to try a new direction. Any day can be the day we begin shedding our feelings of disconnectedness and replacing them with fulfilling experiences.
Lesson 3: Aether an imaginary fifth element, best captures what enchantment is truly about.
Closing with a story of how she went on an adventure to see the Lyrid meteor shower, May explains early scientists believed there was a fifth element: aether. Also known as quintessence, aether was invisible and imperceptible. It was the glue that held everything together, including the sky, the stars, and the sun.
Nowadays, we know that’s not true, but the will to believe in novel ideas is what enchantment is all about, May concludes:
“The quest is the point. Our sense of enchantment is not triggered only by grand things; the sublime is not hiding in distant landscapes. The awe-inspiring, the numinous, is all around us, all the time. It is transformed by our deliberate attention. It becomes valuable when we value it.“
The poet John Keats called this “negative capability.” It’s “a mode of thought that allows us to accept – even sink into – mystery, uncertainty, and ineffability without trying to rationalize anything away,” May suggests. Negative capability lets an artist draw what her gut tells her to draw, and it lets a bold entrepreneur make a gut decision they don’t know will work out.
In May’s case, she could not be sure of glimpsing even a single shooting star, but she and her family did see their own shadows created by the moonlight — a rare and special occurrence. It made the 10-hour trip worth it.
Whether you seek it in earth, water, fire, or air, this is what your quest for enchantment will truly depend upon: Your willingness to trust in things you don’t fully understand. If you want to find magic, first, you must believe in it. May you live an enchanted life!
On the outside, Enchantment might look like a “woo-woo” book, but it is actually written in a humorous, down-to-earth style. As in Wintering, May simply narrates her story along with her discoveries. A fun book that will likely get you into nature but definitely out of your own head!
Who would I recommend our Enchantment summary to?
The 44-year-old family father, who’s so busy working he barely has time to look out the window, the 65-year-old grandmother who wants to remember what it was like to be young, and anyone who’s tired of endless doomscrolling.