On a hill in Seattle, barely hidden in a cluster of trees, there sits a small shrine. You’ll see it: a pillar of wood and fabric ringed by silver bowls bearing offerings of food, dried herbs, and water. Suspended from the branches of nearby maple and oak swing icons and images, glass and metal catching and reflecting the light in sudden bronze, crimson and blue glimmer. A holy site, a place to honor an ancient goddess, the spirits of the animals she adores, the guardian spirits of the place…
…or maybe just a scratch post some wacko set out for feral cats.
From the Breton village of Plouharnel, follow an ancient track past the 12th century chapel of Sainte Barbe towards the sea. Descend the hill, turn as the sun turns towards the fiercely breaking waves, and you’ll find it–a slate-blue stone well to honor the spirits of the springs. Water trickles quietly under alcoves for candles, for gifts, and for prayers. One evening, as day and summer faded, I offered into its clear waters the hope of another, his desire for certainty, his dreams…
…but maybe it was just some nifty place for a Geocache.
Under bower of tree, amongst towering pillar of grey stone, there was once a small village. Brightly-colored canvas and cloth fluttered in light summer breezes as children played, running from dwelling to dwelling as their parents watched and sometimes smiled. At night, stars wheeled above them, shining alongside the moon, celestial light streaming down to meet the warm glow of their cook-fires. Here was once a village and a world…
…or a homeless encampment that got torn down.
We make much of our desire to re-enchant the world, but do we fully understand how we actively disenchant it? It’s easy to talk of a “them” or a “they,” to speak in deeply esoteric or philosophical terms about how we’ve managed to mess up our ability to see the Other in the world. But I’m gonna suggest we maybe should start by noting not only how we experience disenchantment, but also how we actively do it ourselves.
Whether one believes in the real existence of gods and spirits, believes in one well-spring of divine being-ness, believes it’s all beautiful and useful metaphor, or any of the combinations thereof, understanding how we disenchant the earth is vital to understanding our relationship to it. If a forest is just wood, meat, and plants, we’ll treat it as such. If a city is merely crowded dwellings, places to work and to be entertained, we won’t care when whole neighborhoods are gentrified, when cultures and traditions are displaced and destroyed.
Actually, disenchantment is precisely the process which makes forests only full of wood, mountains only full of coal and minerals. It’s what turns minority neighborhoods into re-development opportunities, transmutes sites sacred to people into places more valuable for oil or uranium than for the worlds of meaning that have sprung from the soil. Until we understand how we disenchant the world, I don’t think we’ll understand how to re-enchant it, and I think the key to both is understanding how we world the earth.
There’s an incredibly useful and beautiful concept the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty borrows from phenomenology: worlding
“[D]isenchantment is not the only principle by which we world the earth. The supernatural can inhabit the world in these other modes of worlding, and not always as a problem or result of conscious beliefs or ideas…gods and spirits are not dependent upon human beliefs for their own existence; what brings them to present are our practices.”
Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, p111-112
We inhabit the places we live, but we also weave meaning around them. Whether they be forests, cities, or sacred sites: by inhabiting them as humans, by experiencing them, we world them. And the way we world the earth depends upon whether we choose to disenchant or re-enchant, whether we wish to embrace the Other or to keep it in abeyance.
Worlding is a social process. It’s the stories we tell about the places we encounter, the sum narrative of our experiences of a place. But it’s also a physical practice—the houses we construct, the shrines we raise, and all the myriad activities and ways we relate to place. It can be psychological, dependent upon our internal thoughts, beliefs, and conceptions. And it is also spiritual, for it is through Place (Nature, Sacred sites, our homes) that we either interact with the Other or wall it from our lives.
Disenchantment has become our default mode of worlding, inherited from the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Modernity. We’ve learned this from socialization, from our parents and communities, as well as the stories and histories we tell each other. I don’t think it’s something that merely happened to us, but more what also happens through us, an active process, an active choice to reduce the earth to its mere material existence, its mere usefulness. We strip the places we inhabit not just of its resources, but also of its meaning, its Otherness. And as plenty of people have been pointing out, this is probably killing us.
For my first series of posts here as a new contributor to A Sense of Place, I’ll be exploring the process of worlding. I’ll be recounting stories of place, teasing out how we often disenchant our world. Borrowing from history, theory, and story, I’m hoping to explore with you how we can not only stop disenchanting, but also engage in the radical act of re-enchantment. And since I believe we co-create and world with each other as much as with the earth and the Other, I’m eager to hear your thoughts and stories, too.
Be always well!