Monday, July 07, 2008

The uses of enchantment

This landscape -- the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland -- is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from any other landscape in the Western world. But until very recently it had preserved its rural character, and a residue of the ancient pagan faiths lay lightly on the land. Each pool and grove had its resident spirit, pre-Christian in origin, but often given a Christian guise. The hills and ring forts belonged to the fairies. The megaliths that stand in high places told of gods who at their whim controlled the sun and stars, wind and rain, and the fertility of plants and animals. When we built our cottage on this hill 29 years ago there were old people in the village who called our one-lane, hillside track "the Fairies' Road" and wondered mightily that anyone would choose to live there at night.

Where there is mystery, the mythic mind invented spirits, humanlike, but often immortal, an invisible otherworld, or parallel world, that explained what would otherwise be unexplainable. Every aspect of the natural world, every feature of the landscape, was endowed with some quality of the fairy faith, here in Ireland called the creideamh si. Religion -- the propitiation and mollification of the gods -- endowed the material world with a sacred quality, an integrity worthy of reverence.

The fairies are gone. Our track has been paved and lined with the holiday houses of the urban Irish. The ring forts are plowed up, the sacred wells polluted, the forest groves long since surrendered to the ax. The spirits of earth, air, fire and water have been displaced from the landscape into a supernatural heaven, wholly other. The priests and preachers herd us into churches to offer our obeisance to a consolidated He who is, it would seem, sublimely indifferent to the creation outside the window. We no longer think of the natural world as sacred, no longer experience a sense of mystery. We have been assured that the material creation is all just "stuff," to be used and abused, fodder for conspicuous consumption. We inhabit nature with as little awe as if were the family room of our house.

Can -- or should -- nature be re-enchanted? Can we -- or should we -- recover the sense of ambient mystery that was the wellspring of religion? More tomorrow.