Enchanting the Environment: How “Magical Thinking” Might Help Us Better Respond to Environmental Crises

Photo by: Julie Gemuend & Tracy Van Oosten

Contributors: Julie Gemuend & Mitch Goldsmith

Joan Didion, in her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, weaves an account of loss and recovery following the tragedy of her husband’s sudden death. Didion’s form of “magical thinking,” neither flippant nor escapist, forges a shadowy space that touches the dark edge of human experience. In this space, Didion explains how lapses in reason and inclinations to mystery and fantasy provide a source of refuge amidst her personal apocalypse. As Didion rightly observes, cold rationality, which has historically contributed to conceiving ourselves and the world as transparent and demystified, does nothing for the soul in agony. Rather, allowances of magic, mystery, and the mystical enable Didion to process her pain softly, in the corridors of imagination and intuition, which work to dissolve the unthinkable in an affective and deeply intimate cauldron of sorts. This mystical brew of curiosity and creativity transforms her pain into something else, a new narrative by which to live, a new spell to cast. In the aftermath of her abysmal loss, Didion frames magical thinking as a form of self-preservation — a talisman to protect against an increasingly unlivable reality.

Like Didion, many of us feel a growing sense of loss and dismay at the climate crisis and “sixth great extinction” unfolding around us. This feeling has a name: solastalgia. Coined by Glen Albrecht, solastalgia captures the distress produced by environmental changes that impact one’s home — a feeling of homesickness for a place that no longer resembles itself. Many of us are, therefore, looking for a way to make sense of the changing reality of our shared and precarious planet — to understand how best to respond, often in both personal and political ways, recognizing that the personal and political are always connected. In this desire to adequately respond to our growing alarm at a planet threatened with ecological collapse, we ask, what possibilities does a spiritual or even magical response to grief and personal upheaval, like that explored by Didion above, open up for responding to the grief and turmoil of climate change, environmental degradation, and species extinction? What if those of us who are paralyzed or overwhelmed by the magnitude of our ecological problems, were to map the magical thinking from Didion’s personal apocalypse on to our shared eco-apocalypse?

In fact, these two concepts, magical thinking and apocalypse, inhabit common ground. The Latin and Greek terms for apocalypse are synonymous with revelation — an uncovering or disclosure — a revelation into sight, into something that was hidden. Magical thinking draws on intuition, a process that offers us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning; an interior impulse able to penetrate the darkness of the unconscious mind, thus bridging the gap between instinct and reason. Intuition offers the revelation of a different kind of sight — a type of mindful awareness that can discern connections and paths through the anxiety that marks the spectre of our uncertain future. This visceral register, moving below the immediate surface of politics and public life, is one that modern, secular, and analytic responses to environmental crises often distrust, deny, and ignore. In a time when many religious responses to our climate emergency seem to engage in their own type of magical thinking, much of this distrust seems justified.  Yet, what do we miss when we completely dismiss magic or the mysterious from our world? We miss the opportunity to harness the generative aspects of this visceral register and apply them to our social and political realities.

We suggest a reorientation in social and political responses to environmental doom that, rather than dismissing spiritual or magical understandings of grief, loss, and crisis, make space for renewed visceral and visionary insight that engages in acts of resistance against earth-destroying systems and practices. We argue that a magical or mystical response to environmental crises engages productively with non-secular, spiritual questions without the need for religious literalism that so often reinscribes fatalist escapism (e.g., “it’s god’s plan”) and justifies ecological inaction or reactionary politics. A spiritual sensibility, which is responsive to the mystical impulse in many religious and spiritual traditions and practices, exists as a potentially rich storehouse of imaginatively powerful responses to environmental crises.

Spiritual responses to ecological concerns are about cultivating within ourselves and our communities a sensibility that privileges those visceral qualities of care, emotion, imagination, and intuition. These modes of relating to the world around us are part of the daily realities of many people. A spiritual sensibility offers a heightened sensitivity to our relationships with the more-than-human world and the types of ethical and practical responsibilities these entanglements entail. We become what the political theorist William Connolly calls a “seer,” those enduring figures of Greek drama, folktales, animist cosmologies, literature, and film, who cultivate an ability to see future possibilities (opportunities and threats) that encourage responsible responses in the present. In these “forking moments” where an unfolding situation could go either way, the seer seeks to nudge things in the right direction.

Photo by: Julie Gemuend

The seer’s insight-foresight relies on the ability to disengage, however imperfectly, from the everyday. Especially important are attempts to disengage from the systems that benefit from our relentless, earth-destroying, capitalist productivity. And, in the space created between us and these systems, to retreat, at least temporarily, to that shadowy, solitary, internal space where magical thinking swirls. This kind of space fosters a heightened awareness of the world in all of its wonders. This active passivity of retreat shares similarities with what John Keats calls “negative capability,” which is understood as non-doing as a way of doing. In other words, the mind enters a state of mystery and uncertainty, open and receptive to the impulses of our enchanted world, like “a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far” (Didion, 27).

Connolly describes this temporary withdrawal as a form of “dwelling.” Like Keats’ “negative capability,” dwelling is a practice of mindful slowing down and retreat, often accomplished through spiritual practices such as meditation, ritual, or time spent with nature and animals. Connolly argues that  one can more clearly see the visceral forces that animate social and political issues by slowing down or temporarily retreating. Dwelling can highlight unseen connections or operations at play in issues that might have seemed paralyzing or intractable before. Practices such as ritual, meditation, nature walks, prayer, and celebration are tools we can use to make better sense of the current ecological crises and figure out how best to respond.

Dwelling is an enduring practice that takes many shapes and goes by many names. For example, dwelling can take the form of erotic, embodied “corporeal communing,” like that undertaken by the Latina artist Laura Aguilar in her photographic series “Grounded.” “Grounded” is a series of photographs of Aguilar’s body alongside rocks and land formations in the American Southwest. In these images, Aguilar enters the “nonhuman fold” to showcase the potential for a type of mystical alliance that forms when one pays closer attention to the resemblances — to the connections between humans and nature (Luciano and Chen 184). The human-nonhuman relationships expressed in Aguilar’s images offer the viewer a blueprint from which they might draw their own approach to becoming mystical. This type of transformation often requires a change in how we perceive ourselves and others, in order to better attend to the ethical contours of these human-environmental relationships.

Tapping into the mystical helps us think about ourselves and the world differently. Intuition is about making connections and is thus bent on bringing things together. In understanding magic or mysticism as part of our daily reality or way of living, the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle argued for what she called “democratic mysticism,” or mysticism not reserved for the exceptional but something real and lived in the every day and open to each of us as we might see fit. According to Soelle, “Mystics are quite ordinary people: shoemakers, nannies, dyers of wool, home-care workers, or physicists” (18). We agree.

We invite our readers to activate this ability to change shape — to shift perspective, cultivate wonder, and embrace intuition — ultimately, to reorient attention towards an enchanted world. We argue that such a change in perspective holds manifold potential to respond meaningfully to environmental crises, even when we might otherwise feel powerless or overwhelmed.

To engage in this kind of enchanted orientation requires work. In her book The Enchanted Life, psychologist and writer Sharon Blackie shares exercises designed to establish more meaningful and respectful relationships with nonhuman animals and the environments in which they live. We find many of these exercises interesting, helpful, and a potential starting point for a magical or mystical response to environmental crises. We believe that these types of non- or post-secular exercises, which help us reorient ourselves to the more-than-human world, can help to further and sustain more equitable human-environmental relations and enchanted responses to environmental crises.

Exercise 1: Finding a “Sit Spot”

Cultivate the practice of sitting in the same outdoor spot as regularly as possible. According to Blackie, “The aim is simply to notice. To settle down, focus your thoughts on the present moment and notice the flow of life around you” (58).  Through regular “dwelling,” this practice helps one feel more connected to their local landscape and the many beings with whom they live, knowingly or not. Regular sitting allows one to physically and sensorially share space with the more-than-human world and to value it.

Exercise 2: “Knowing Place”

Blackie suggests that one’s human-environmental relationship can be further strengthened through intellectual investigation, what she calls “Knowing Place” (214-216). This investigation includes asking questions about a particular region’s geological and human history, researching current human and non-human inhabitants, a place’s particular folklore, and the types of foods, goods, and services one might procure locally, using local water, power, and other resources. This exercise can take the form of meditative reflection or serious study. This bioregional quiz provides a good foundation from which to work. We suggest choosing one of the questions you can’t answer and making it a priority to learn what that answer is. Move on to a new question once you’ve composed a sufficient answer.

These are just two examples from a wellspring of exercises that can be found in Blackie’s book, which we have found to be helpful in understanding the many complex layers that make up our relationship to the natural world.

Works cited

Blackie, Sharon. The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday. Ambrosia, 2018

Connolly, William. A World of Becoming. Duke University Press, 2010

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2005.

Luciano, Dana and Mel Y. Chen. “Has the Queer Ever Been Human?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2015, pp. 182-207

Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Fortress Press, 2001


Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog