Excerpt from The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie
How do we begin to acquire this sense of genuine belonging to our local environment? Well, by determining to love something about our place, wherever it might be. It’s more important than ever when we’re living in places we find difficult or challenging, because it can be all too easy to dissociate ourselves from those places, to pretend we’re not really in them, to hold ourselves back from engaging with them because they’re only temporary, and we’re hoping someday for something better. But the places where we live deserve more from us, because those places literally make our existence possible. And not to fully be in the place where you fully are – it’s a peculiar form of insanity, of which the human animal seems uniquely capable. So don’t hold yourself back from the hurt or broken places, the industrial wastelands, the places which have been wounded by us, or by natural acts such as wildfires and tornadoes. Always look for the small beauties beneath surface ugliness – the seedlings popping up in the hurricane-devastated forest, the butterflies around the landfill sites, the crows holding a colloquium in the middle of a busy, fume-filled traffic island.
And don’t just look for the beauty created by others – make it your life’s work to create some yourself, whether it’s planting seeds in your back garden, feeding the birds on your windowsill, or smiling at a stranger in your local shop. Because your neighbourhood is an extension of your home, and your home is the container for your life. The lanes or streets, the public and private buildings, the fields or the city parks – all of these form part of the ecosystem in which you are enmeshed. Accepting that you are a part of that ecosystem, and learning the ways in which you might be able to make yourself at home in it, are essential preconditions for knowing that you are fully alive in the world. Without which, disenchantment is inevitable.
Sometimes it’s easier to imagine ourselves as part of an ecosystem if we live in the country, or in a wild place. Here, we can more easily identify the non-human others who inhabit it along with us; more clearly see the soil and understand the impact of the geology; more easily piece together the rivers, hills, fields and forests which are the building blocks of a particular, unique landscape. But urban areas are ecosystems too, and although it might not always be quite so clear to us, everything in them is just as interconnected: the weather, the waterways, the soil, the animals, birds and trees. There is a tendency to imagine cities as alive only with the energy of humans, and to see city buildings as dead entities constructed from steel and concrete, possessing none of the ‘soul’ of vernacular architecture which is based on natural materials and local construction methods. And yet, and yet . . . Canadian literature professor Sean Kane, in his 1988 book Wisdom of the Mythtellers, quotes the following anecdote: ‘The Aboriginal teacher Bobby Macleod said to Robert Lawlor, while walking through downtown Sydney, “With your mentality, these tall buildings are the result of the dreams and plans of architects, engineers, and builders. But the Aborigine also sees that the stones and bricks themselves have an inner potential – a dreaming to become a structure.”‘
Whatever the environment from which it springs, local knowledge matters, because enchanted living begins with local living: genuinely understanding, and so living in harmony with the landscape you occupy Enchanted living embraces the wider world, and acknowledges the value of respect and interdependence between rightly different cultures – but it does so from the perspective of a deep grounding in its own locality, and in the unique bioregion which supports it. And this, of course, is more than just the acquisition of environmental knowledge, or awareness of local folk traditions and culture; it is about building communities which are rooted in, respect and take responsibility for the local earth they occupy, and which care about its health and integrity.