i. There are 11,400 known kinds of grass. That is more than a human would ever be able to encounter in a lifetime. I find this fact wondrous. Such small a thing as grass, so “insignificant” a species, and I will never be able to exhaust it.
ii. The only place I could go to during lockdown was my garden, so I went there every day. I became friends with the willows and the nettles, with the flowering valerian and meadowsweet, water mint and gipsywort. I think of it now as my rewilding. Then, it was a desperate attempt for contact.
iii. For a year, the flora in that garden saw me more than any person. Day after day, they bore witness to me, in every state; they were with me when no other human being could be. I wrote a stray line of poetry in my journal: ‘I do not know the earth by all her names but she knows me by all of mine.’ On one of those days, I plucked a single blade of grass and a voice inside of me said, let it love you. I could not do it. I did not know how. I tried to talk to it, to listen to it, to carry it with me. It became a practice, picking a piece of grass and trying to teach myself to be loved by it.
iv. “Complete attention,” says Simone Weil, “is like unconsciousness.” It is not an action or stance, but a kind of reception: beholding, witnessing, allowing something to penetrate you, to enter your world. Attention is a kind of vision that is more than just seeing; it is a willingness to permit oneself to be seen. Implicated is a presence that demands your vulnerability and wholeness, because it is also a way of facing the reality of who you are, a kind of returning to the realest part of you. It is a way of knowing ourselves, by knowing others and letting ourselves be known by them.
v. I am a being not a doing. In the smallness of a garden, I encountered the enormity of these words.
vi. In her essay, “Against Dryness”, Iris Murdoch calls for a new vocabulary of attention. What I think of is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s grammar of animacy, which recognizes the sacredness of all life forms. This perspective is encoded in the structure of the indigenous Potawatomi language. The Potawatomi’s intimate relationship with the earth permeates into their vocabulary and conjugations, which render the natural world as alive and interbeing as an organism. Words like water, tree, and grass are verbs rather than nouns, removing the barrier that comes between us and other sentient things when we call them ‘it.’ There are only nine fluent speakers of Potawatomi left. Their displacement and forced removal permeates their vocabulary and conjugations. We are losing our language for life, and with it, our sense of the reality of the world. It is in our vocabulary that we must make room for the imaginative recognition of otherness, or as Murdoch put it, the ”difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”
vii. The Weberian account of disenchantment captures a universalized tendency of modernity to redefine reality through rationalistic terms. Weber referred to the secularization of society, but nature too has been stripped of its mystery and magic. Scientific explanation can dispel the wild of its wonder, reducing it to the empirical and the quantifiable. The mechanistic model of the universe, for instance, represents the living world around us as devoid of meaning, purpose, and agency. Water is no longer a force of spirit; it is a lacuna that can be filled with garbage and oil. Trees are no longer creatures; they are materials that can be razed and burned. Cows are no longer living entities; they are burgers. We have separated ourselves from the nonhuman world and been left alone in it. The loss of our capacity to see the world has deprived us also of our ability to relate with it. The new natural forces are our extensions of power and self-interest: it is easy to exploit what is passive, inert matter, what has only functional value—it is ours for the taking. This "de-magic-ation" of our natural environment, which dissolved our instinctual relations with earth, has left us alienated in the world.
viii. Grasses make up nearly 30% of the plant life on earth. They are the world's single most important food source. By taking root in soil, they anchor the loose surface of the earth and keep it from eroding away. The health of the earth's ecosystem depends on grass for food security, nutrients, irrigation, habitats, carbon storage, pollination, cooling, and biodiversity. Our future depends on our grass. If we are what we eat, we are walking grass.
ix. Hannah Arendt’s discussion of loneliness, alienation, and superfluousness in The Origins of Totalitarianism identifies the ideal condition for the emergence of totalitarian regimes: “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.” In a world where we live as “isolated individuals in an atomized society,” she argues, we are still looking for home and will seek it out at any cost, even to destructive ends. This recognition of detachment’s harms harmonizes with Weil’s enumeration of vital human needs, which rests on rootedness, “perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Arendt defines rootedness as having a “place in the world, recognized and guaranteed by others,” and Weil echoes in describing it as a “real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations of the future.” We can think of re-enchantment as a restoration of rootedness, a re-anchoring in time, place, and spirit. It is a reversal of the narrative that severed nature as something external to humanity and a returning of it to a place of relationship, inextricably linked to us. It is a retelling of our stories with attention to the magic, mystery, and meaning in the world. The enchanted life is not fantasy or escapism. It is deeply human, and it requires those things which are innate in us: wonder, wildness, imagination, curiosity, playfulness, creativity, meaning-making, intuition. Re-enchantment is not something we do. It is something we allow ourselves to be again, perhaps by wandering into the gardens inside each of us in search of the ineffable.
x. How do we live in an enchanted world? I wonder if the problem is not a rational one but a relational one, if reenchantment with the world is in fact a product of our orientation to her. Love what is in front of you and let it love you. This is what the grass taught me. Reenchantment requires attention to reality. We ourselves must be reenchanted, and re-enchantment beings with relearning to see. I must sit with the grass and not on it. I must look at this plant being until I see in it the force of life that has decided to take so fragile and fleeting a form. I must allow reality to penetrate my interior world, my own inmost depths. For Weil, attention is a “negative effort,” one that requires being rather than doing, standing still opposed to leaning in. Attention to the real depends on receptiveness, turning our being toward accompanying, attending to. The world is asking us to move beyond our self to be part of the landscape of life as it really is. Weil, Murdoch, and Arendt’s projects point a way forward: to venerate our pasts, to steward our futures, and to participate in our communities of being, human and nonhuman. “If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence,” Rilke wrote, “we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
When I forget, I go back to the grass: my only job, while I am here and whatever I am doing, is to love what is in front of me and let myself be loved by it. Until you see the face of God in a blade of grass, you will not be able to see it in anything else.