Enchantment can be confusing business. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare’s comedy of confused identity and sexual hijinks, the Fairy King Oberon attempts to discipline his rebellious wife Titania by having the mischevious Puck place drops from an aphrodisiacal flower in the eyes of four Athenian lovers who, under the light of a midsummer moon, are soon hopelessly tangled in their passions. Among other things, Queen Titania falls for a donkey-headed actor named Bottom and emotional chaos ensues. It’s only through reversed spells, a triple wedding and frank revelations that all is finally resolved by dawn’s first light, as the lovers retreat to their beds and their rest is blessed by the enchantment of true love.
Hinting at the mayhem of human ego and the folly of ambition, analyzed across the ages for everything from its mystical eroticism to its modern feminist message, the play remains perhaps the Bard’s most popular and enchanting comedy.
These days, even a cursory glance at the daily headlines reveal modern life to be no laughing matter – revealing what a disenchanted world we creatures still inhabit. For the moment at least, a bickering and profoundly dysfunctional government, rampant Wall Street greed, staggering debt, indecision in the face of genocidal despots, and mindless obsession with celebrities all seem to add up to a nation – and world – that appear to have been beaten down by a loss of innocence and holy imagination.
More the reason, some would argue, for a return to a garden of pure enchantment.
“Enchantment is an ascendancy of the soul,” writes priest and psychologist Thomas Moore in his splendid book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, “a condition that allows us to connect, for the most part lovingly and intimately, with the world we inhabit and the people who make up our families and communities.”
Among the leading complaints of modern life, Moore points out, is that American family life is disintegrating before our eyes, eroded by everything from violent video games to a spiraling divorce rate. Nostrums like North Carolina’s recently constitutional “Marriage Amendment” attempt to prop up an ailing institution but really hint at a much deeper problem: a steep decline in our cultural intimacy with our immediate surroundings and respect for the natural world of the senses.
Neighborhood life is vanishing and nature is in retreat. A national poll of American teenagers recently showed that fewer than a third expect to enjoy a life more interesting and fulfilling than those of their parents.
Imagine such a thing? Perhaps our children simply can’t. Imagination requires a desire for personal enchantment — an ability to see beauty where it is most obvious, and create it where it’s not.
“An enchanted life,” adds Moore, “has many moments when the heart is overwhelmed by beauty and the imagination is electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, a place, or a person.”
For this reason and others, when my children were very small, I made up elaborate stories about a pair of roguish bears who inhabited the hemlock forest around our home on the coast of Maine. Their names were Pete and Charlie, and they were always up to funny business that resulted in comic mayhem. My logic was that the most valuable thing I could give my children was a vivid imagination — a childhood, if you will, rife with interesting stories.
To this end, their mom and I frequently packed up baskets and hauled them to our favorite beach at the end of a sandy peninsula jutting into the magically cold and blue Casco Bay, a gorgeous sandy half-mile ending at the feet of historic Fort Popham, the place where European explorers first set foot on Maine’s fabled shores, ironically the same beach used in the filming of Message in a Bottle a few years back.
Summer is a greatly valued commodity in the Pine Tree State, its warmest days as precious as a fire in winter, and we always savored most the longest days of midsummer when the light lingered until 10 o’clock before melting away into the western hills and Popham’s own fabled waving sea roses — reputed to have been planted in the surrounding dunes by returning captains of the exotic China trade.
Whoever actually planted them, these mystery roses from a faraway empire, they nearly overwhelm the boardwalk now, and we were grateful in a true but unspoken way to those mythic travelers who came before us, half expecting our own cryptic messages in a bottle to wash up at any moment on an incoming tide. One of my favorite photographs of this beach, not surprisingly, taken in the magical light just before sundown on perhaps the longest day of summer, shows the tranquil shimmer of the ocean exactly at dusk, a place hovering between two worlds, with Shell Island rising up in the near distance, a piece of the moon already riding the eastern horizon, and a pair of tiny dots far down the beach — a boy and his older sister taking a final barefoot stroll hand-in-hand before heading home to bed. Predictably, half our team of adventurers would be asleep in the back seat before we were halfway home, undoubtedly dreaming of rose-tangled empires beyond the sea.
Even as our children grew into teenage beachcombers, that old beach held an irresistible enchantment to each and every one of us. At low tide you can actually wade out to the Shell Island, which is essentially what we nicknamed the elongated unnamed dorsal of rock where lovers and lonely beachcombers and kids of all shape and size invariably migrate, though when the tide is coming in it can be a bit of a challenge to reach, requiring careful footing and legs stout enough to handle the current. Sometimes the water is as gentle as a summer bath, other times a tempest worthy of the magician Prospero. We still go back to admire its enchanting moods — and remember.
In his 2005 groundbreaking book The Last Child in the Woods, journalist Richard Louv introduced the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to illuminate the growing gap between modern children and the vital lessons of nature. Louv’s argument was that as childhood exposure to the natural world steadily declines, owing to modern lifestyles and growing technology, the very future of civilization itself may hang in the balance.
As a potential means of heading off this dire fate, Louv makes a persuasive case in his latest book, The Nature Principal, that the simple restorative power of nature — submitting our children and selves to the enchantment of nature, to cultivated gardens and wild fields, to the soulful quiet of forests and cleansing magic of rushing streams and starry plateaus where our ancestors once stood in awe of the vast dome of the world — can not only restore vital mental, physical and family bonds, but will ultimately redeem the planet for future generations. “Today,” he writes, “the long-held belief that nature has a direct positive impact on human health is making the transition from theory to evidence and from evidence to action.” Nature therapy, he notes, is among the fastest growing medical practices designed to treat a vast range of human illness, an ancient cure for what ails the modern world. “True fitness,” Louv says, “is radical amazement.”
In other words, a moment that amazes all the senses and stokes the fires of holy imagination, like a beautiful midsummer night when the crickets sing sonnets and lovers spin their tangled webs, may do wonders to stir the heart and heal a broken and disenchanted world around us.
It’s quite possible William Shakespeare had just such natural healing in mind when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a moonlit warning to future generations to keep the fires of imagination well-tended.
Across human time, after all, through countless tumultuous ages of man, the summer solstice has been lavishly celebrated as a festival of community rebirth, a magical fete honoring of the power of enchantment and the liberating spirit of nature found in each of us — reason enough to head for a mythic beach on the longest day of the year, it seems to me, or tell stories of comic bumbling bears in the forest, and give chase to fireflies on a slowly darkening lawn.
Our lives, as poets and sages of every faith have noted, are like passing dreams from which we’ll soon awaken. But luckily, for a lovely moment or two, wonder makes children of us all. PS