In the Library: ‘Enchantment’ by Katherine May


Florence Robson


Photo courtesy of Alexa Loy Dent

Is it possible to experience wonder even in the midst of chaotic, traumatic, events?

That’s the question Katherine May asks in 'Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age.'

You may already be familiar with May’s work. Her phenomenally successful hybrid memoir, 'Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times', was released in early 2020 and became a New York Times, Sunday Times and Der Spiegel bestseller, was adapted as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week, and was shortlisted for the Porchlight and Barnes and Noble Book of the Year. While ‘Wintering’ focuses inwards on the importance of life’s fallow periods, ‘Enchantment’ looks outwards to ask how we can re-emerge into the world with a sense of wonder.

The book’s context is important: ‘Enchantment’ was written as a response to the Covid pandemic and the sense of restlessness and disconnection May felt in the wake of numerous lockdowns. She describes how she spent her time flicking through social media channels, unable to concentrate on reading or writing and feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the rolling news cycle. It’s a jumble of feelings that many of us will recognise from our own pandemic experiences. In ‘Enchantment’, May attempts to unravel these threads by reflecting on her own past and present experiences and by seeking moments of wonder, joy and meaning in everyday life. 

“How do we worship now?”, she asks. “How do we get past the blunt knowing of our disenchanted age and tap back into the magic that we used to perceive everywhere?”

The book is a personal search rather than a prescriptive self-help guide and is divided into four elements: earth, water, fire and air. The natural world and its restorative properties are at the heart of May’s exploration of enchantment and wonder. With her usual practice of group swimming halted by lockdown, she goes in search of alternative ways of communing with nature, journeying from wild moors to unpredictable seas and trying everything from beekeeping to cultivating a wild garden. “That is what I am searching for,” she says, “the chance to merge into the wild drift of the world, to feel overcome, to enter into its weft so completely that sometimes I can forget myself.”

If ‘Enchantment’ has a central message it is that the awe-inspiring is around us all the time. It’s our deliberate attention that transforms moments from mundane to magical. “It becomes meaningful when we invest it with meaning”, she explains. We can revisit the same woods again and again and find them different each time. The key lies in our own mindset. 

May shares a number of tools we can use to access this “deep terrain”, including meditation. In stillness, she learns to move through discomfort and open herself up to the full spectrum of experience. 

However, ultimately there is no easy answer to be had. May shows us her path back to enchantment but never presents it as a blueprint. Instead, she invites us to discover our own. “Seeking is a kind of work”, she says. “...Committing to a lifetime of engagement, to noticing the world around you, to actively looking for small distillations of beauty, to making time to contemplate and reflect.” 

Following May’s advice, this is not a book to gulp down greedily but one to savour. It deserves our deliberate attention.

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