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Just after lunchtime, when I was a child, my grandmother would sit down to eat an orange, and peace would fall over the house.

In a life without ritual, this was the closest we had: she would settle into her green chesterfield armchair, its seat cushion long ago recovered with fraying brocade, and lay a square of kitchen paper across her lap. Then she would start to massage the orange, working it between her bunched knuckles until the skin was lifted from the fruit, before piercing it with her thumbnail and pulling it methodically away.

It was the nearest I ever saw her get to prayer, sitting reverent in the afternoon light while she eased off the yellow silks of pith and ate, spitting out the occasional pip. Sometimes she would offer me a segment, but not always: this was her time, her pleasure, and anyway I never really understood. Oranges were commonplace to me, an ordinary thing that I had to be cajoled into eating with an accompanying saucer of sugar. Lychees excited me in their blush armour, and strawberries, too, when they were ripe enough. But oranges were mundane, the stuff of the weekly shop. Unlike my grandmother, I never read their ubiquity as abundance. I had never lived through a time when they were scarce.

Yet now, in my memory, those moments seem heightened to me, a sacred space. I see the relative darkness of the room, the spritz of orange oil rising against the light of the window; I smell the citrus tang as it fills the quiet air between us. I like to return there in my mind, to imagine that I am back again in that room. Sometimes I push my thumb into an orange just for the scent of it, and it takes me there: the peace, the spaciousness of an unhurried afternoon, the quality of attention to small things.

‘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.’

The historian of religion Mircea Eliade coined the term hierophany to describe the way that the divine reveals itself to us, transforming the objects through which it works. 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. For the believer, this means that absolute reality has been uncovered, rather than anything fantastical projected upon it. Hierophany is the experience of perceiving all the layers of existence, not just seeing its surface appearance. The person who believes, be it in an ancient animism or a complex modern religion, lives in an enhanced world, having been given a kind of supernatural key to see wonder in the everyday. ‘For those who have a religious experience,’ said Eliade, ‘all nature is capable of revealing itself as a cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.’

Writing in 1957, Eliade argued that the world we live in had lost its hierophanies – that all things were part of the same flat reality. The numinous had given the world ‘a fixed point, a centre’, and without it we are left with a broken place, a ‘shattered universe, an amorphous mass consisting only of an infinite number of more or less neutral places’. Meaning had seeped away, leaving us with nothing more than the demands of industrial society in the place of profundity.

And yet humans – tragic figures in Eliade’s imagination, wandering aimlessly through a landscape that they have chosen to obliterate – still cannot help but retain an urge to sanctify certain parts of life. A kind of atavistic urge lives inside us, an impulse to imbue places with magical meaning, to make them into hallowed ground. Perhaps the place where we were born, the house where we grew up, the café where we met our partner. These places become thin imitations of the holy wells or consecrated precincts that would once have unlocked great wellsprings of meaning.

I don’t entirely agree with Eliade on this point. I don’t believe that we are now so degraded in our acts of making meaning, nor that the religiosity of previous generations – so often obedient and perfunctory – was necessarily more true. But I’ll admit that I’m compelled by his vision of our ancestors walking through a landscape that was in itself a hierophany and seeing depths of significance in everything they touched. It seems to me that this was a very different way of knowing, one that was embedded in the body rather than hived off into the mind, and which was fundamentally more complex than our current habits of thought. Imagine moving through a place where each landmark unpacks its own mythology, grand stories unfolding around you as you go about your daily business, transcendence happening in real time. Even in the day-to-day, you could not avoid reflecting on the big moral and ethical questions of life, because they would be present, unavoidable. Over a lifetime, you would approach these ideas in a million different ways. Our most familiar places would become maps of myth and wisdom, blooming around us like fractals, inviting us into an ever more nuanced engagement with meaning.

Two days before England went into lockdown, I kept Bert home. He had developed a dry cough, and although it was clearly nothing significant, I wanted to do the right thing.

But there was more than that. The pandemic was still a fever dream. The whole thing felt like gossip, and I was worried that the unsteadiness of the moment would unsettle him. I wanted to talk to him before he heard about it on the news, to try to frame it in a way that wouldn’t make him afraid. I wanted to say that this was bigger than any one of us, and that though it was scary, it was a chance to give service – to be useful in a way that is so often denied to children. He could save lives, just by skipping school. Even that seemed like a lot to put on his shoulders. More than anything, I worried that he’d suffer from a deficit of pleasure in the weeks to come, and I wanted to provide a corrective. I thought maybe he could charge up with wonderful things and store them like a battery.

The day has a particular clarity in my mind, the final gasp of lucidity before months of fog. We drive to the nearest wood where I hope to show him the trees in bud, the toothmarks that squirrels leave on their discarded pine- cone cores. I want to skirt close to an abandoned train tunnel, where I will tell him that bats are still hibernating. I want him to know that the world will still be rich enough for him without all the structures that humans made, to learn to be moved and comforted by the ancient woodland that he’s so fortunate to have at his doorstep. One day he will come to crave its embrace when life begins to chafe. I want to give him that. I found it the hard way, and I want to hand it down to him like an heirloom, along with the names of the plants that gather at the edge of the path, and the sense of how the land was formed.

But Bert has no interest in the buds and cones, and invisible sleeping bats. Instead, he immerses himself – quite literally – in a series of deep puddles near the car park, splashing about until the brown water surges over the top of his wellington boots. As an unknowable season yawns open before him, he clings to the pleasures he can take in the present moment, oblivious to the constraints that would come only too soon. And I, as I so often have, hover beside him, flustered, urging him to keep his clothes clean enough to get back into the car later.

A version of this scenario repeats itself over and over between us.

I will turn up at the nature reserve with crayons and paper to take bark rubbings, and he’ll ignore them in favour of darting between the trees pretending he’s catching Pokémon. I will try to name the different types of seaweed, and he will whip them around his head and send them spiralling into the sea. Worst of all, I will want to spend a day walking somewhere beautiful, and he will want to spend an afternoon in a noisy trampolining centre, with flashing disco lights and rave music, and the perpetual threat of heads bashed together.

Childhood used to have dirt under its fingernails. Now it has hand sanitiser. So much of what we give to our children is shallow terrain: the shiny plastic surfaces of soft-play centres and toys whose purpose is so specific that they run out of joy after a few minutes. Shallow terrain has nothing under its surface. It is the same primary colour all the way through. It has nothing to explore or investigate, nothing to modify or fix. It permits only fun, and excludes all the untidier human feelings. It is clamorous and loud, emitting beeps and simulated explosions, the noise ricocheting off its shiny finishes. It is sticky with sugary residue from tiny hands. It is the business of childhood only, unable to travel with you into adult life. Sooner or later it must be set aside, an embarrassing artefact of your past.

The forest, I believe, will stay with Bert as he ages. It is a deep terrain, a place of unending variance and subtle meaning. It is in itself a complete sensory environment, whispering with sounds that nourish rather than enervate, with scents that carry information more significant than ‘nasty’ or ‘nice’. It is different each time you meet it, changing with the seasons, the weather, the life cycles of its inhabitants. It is marked by history and mythologies; stories effortlessly spin from its depths. It is safe from the spite of suburban playgrounds, and dangerous in a way that insurance won’t indemnify. Dig beneath its soil, and you will uncover layers of life: the frail networks of mycelia, the burrows of animals, the roots of trees.

Bring questions into this space, and you will receive a reply, though not an answer. Deep terrain offers up multiplicity, forked paths, symbolic meaning. It schools you in compromise, in shifting interpretation. It will mute your rationality and make you believe in magic. It removes time from the clock face and reveals the greater truth of its operation, its circularity and its vastness. It will show you rocks of unfathomable age and bursts of life so ephemeral that they are barely there. It will show you the crawl of geological ages, the gradual change of the seasons, and the countless micro-seasons that happen across the year. It will demand your knowledge: the kind of knowledge that’s experiential, the kind of knowledge that comes with study. Know it – name it – and it will reward you only with more layers of detail, more frustrating revelations of your own ignorance. A deep terrain is a life’s work. It will beguile, nourish and sustain you through decades, only to finally prove that you, too, are ephemeral compared to the rocks and the trees.

I want my son to inhabit deep terrains as his birthright. I want him to learn early to tread lightly through them without trying to own or enclose them, to revel in the bounty of these shared spaces, their place in our collective practice and communal imagination. I want him to feel dissatisfied in shallow terrains, to crave complexity. This is why I take him back to those places again and again. This is why I insist. It is urgent that he learns this. It is essential.

We carry on walking, skirting the early spring mud. We talk awkwardly about leaf skeletons and trees in bud, the banked-up radfall paths that form an ancient network across the county. We hop across the swollen stream that has surged over our path, and I ask if he remembers how, in the summer, there is no stream here at all. He’s not sure, which I take to mean it doesn’t matter.

After a while, I stop trying to teach and just try to share my perspective instead. ‘There are certain trees,’ I tell him, ‘that I can’t walk past without saying hello. Look at this one!’ I approach a thick silver birch whose trunk seems almost plaited and run my hands over the bark. ‘He’s so handsome. I feel like it would be rude to just ignore him.’ Bert looks at me askance, but there’s humour in his eyes, and at that moment I feel it: the pull of silence in him that is overriding everything else.

I know it so well in myself, but it usually takes me longer to find it. When I walk, I fall through three layers of experience. The first is all about the surface of my skin, the immediate feedback of my senses. It is often twitchy and uncomfortable: my boots are too tight; there’s a twig in my sock. My backpack won’t sit square on my shoulders. My walking is stop-start in that phase, curtailed by an endless series of adjustments. I am never sure if I really want to go the distance. But if I walk on through that, those sensations eventually fade, and they’re replaced by bubbling thought, a burgeoning of ideas and insights, a sense of joyous chatter in the mind. This is the point in a walk when the interior of my mind feels luxuriant, a place so pleasurable to inhabit that I never want my legs to stop. It’s a creative space, a place where problems are solved in unfathomable ways, the answers arriving like truths known all along.

If I carry on walking, eventually that fades, too. Perhaps it is low blood sugar, or perhaps the popcorn brain burns itself out eventually, but at some point I reach a very different state of mind, a place beyond words in which I feel quiet and empty. This is my favourite phase of all, an open space in which I am nothing for a while, just an existence with moving parts and a map in my hand, whose feet know the route and do not need my interference. Nothing happens here, or so it seems. But in its aftermath, I find my most profound insights, whole shifts in the meanings and understandings that underpin who I am. In this state, I am an open door.

Do I see this in Bert now? Not quite. Not yet. But I can recognise how the walk leads him deeper into quiet. I quieten, too. He is absorbed completely in the quality of his own attention, his peace like a cloud around him, tangible, contagious. As is so often the case, he got there before I did, more directly and with less angst. He has a route map to this place and never needed my assistance to get there.

After a while, because I can’t resist it, I say, ‘Is it nice there, in your head?’

A pause. He turns to me slowly, his eyes blinking as he surfaces. ‘Sometimes I feel like my mind is growing branches,’ he says.

‘Yes,’ I say, delighted at this point of contact. ‘Yes! I know that feeling exactly.’

‘And every time you talk to me, you cut one of them off.’

In Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit shares the Etruscan word saeculum, which describes ‘the span of time lived by the oldest person present, sometimes calculated to be about a hundred years’. This can be understood as living memory, the extent of contact we have with each passing era. ‘Every event has its saeculum,’ says Solnit, ‘and then its sunset.’

Between my grandmother’s life and my life now, I already know the span of a hundred years, my saeculum. I imagine it as a circle drawn around me, marking out my connections to the past and the things I am offering to the future. I often feel like I need to bridge this space for Bert, laying a path between past times he can hardly imagine and a brave new world in which all things are possible. It seems to be my duty to tell him that we lived without all the electronic accoutrements that crowd around him, that we played without digital assistance, that we frequently got bored and did nothing, and that we always lived with one fear or another, and that we were always kept apart, and that school was always a hardship, probably much, much more. I want him to know that my grandma, who struggled with handwriting as much as he does, used to have her knuckles rapped with a ruler for failing to be legible. And yet still I came to love that writing in birth- day cards and on shopping lists, which were the things that mattered. I came to cherish those knuckles as they eased the peel off oranges.

But that would be cutting off his branches. My son must make his own holy ground. He must find his own hierophanies, in his own way, without my interference. Sacred places are no longer given to us, and they are rarely shared between whole communities. They are now containers for our own knowing, our own meanings. They don’t translate across minds. It falls on us to keep them.

Enchantment: Reawakening Wonder in an Exhausted Age is out how in paperback, audio and ebook.
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Katherine May
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From the internationally bestselling author of Wintering comes this balm for anxious times and an invitation to rediscover the feelings of awe and wonder available to us all.

Read an extract from the book on the Faber Journal.

About the Author

Katherine May is an internationally bestselling author and podcaster living in Whitstable, UK. Her hybrid memoir Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times 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 & Noble Book of the Year.

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About the Author
Portrait of author Katherine May