Animism and Magic: Walk in beauty outside and you walk in beauty inside

An ordinary yet magnificent green heron at an ordinary yet life filled city pond

I’ve been thinking about Aleister Crowley’s traditional definition that magic is about change occurring in conformity with will.

I can get behind the idea of change. I absolutely agree with Martin Luther King Jr. when he said,

We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action. April 4, 1967, Riverside Church in New York City

So change can be a good thing — and in some cases necessary. But circling around Crowley’s core idea of “will” I see the twin evils of coercion and hierarchy. I think the world has seen enough of that. Coercion and hierarchy energize colonialism, racism, misogyny and environmental devastation. With apologies to George Lucas, maybe real magic has nothing to do with the force.

Penny Billington’s ideas about magic are a better fit for me. She wrote:

The open secret about magic – why it might work, or why it might not – is that it is experiential, not based on belief. The more you engage with it, the deeper your experience of the world of the imagination, the more likely you are to find that you feel you are experiencing magic in your everyday life … Magic is about flowing with the rhythm of of our lives. Billington, Penny. The Wisdom of Birch, Oak, and Yew.  Llewellyn, 2015

There is magic in connecting with the world, even in tiny mundane moments. I recall a time when after days of suffering, the pain from an injury vanished when I caught a glimpse of sun rays filtering through tree leaves outside my sick room window. I remember feeling wonder at witnessing a father bird deliver apple blossoms to an exhausted mother bird. Each morning I am gifted with love when my cat says thank you for her breakfast by delicately touching my leg with her tail. The more I open myself to bearing witness to the details of life around me, the more magic seems to enter my life. These are the small examples. There is also magic in moments of synchronicity, major coincidences and statistically improbable events. This type of magic is disinterested in capitalist or patriarchal goals. I don’t want more loot from the planet. I don’t need to make someone to fall in love with me. Magic happens when joy or wonder visit.

I think Crowley’s Edwardian assumptions about magic, how to do it & what it is for, are so musty with patriarchy that it is time to give them a good airing. What is the worst thing that could happen if we packed up all those manuals and materials picked up at the new age shop and sent them off to be recycled?

“A lot of magical systems actually take you away from a direct contact with nature, because you’re not dealing with nature, you’re dealing with an idealized picture of it.”   — Phil Hine

Magic is potentially all around me all of the time. I don’t think I need someone else to tell me how to live authentically. I don’t need to buy dust collectors to accomplish magic. The exchange system in the land of magic is radically different. Magic wants me to pay attention rather than to pay money.

What might happen if each of us started making this stuff up ourselves? I predict that the more we make it new, the more genuine and powerful it could become. Am I wrong in thinking that creative awareness ignites peak life experiences and moments of genuine transformation? History offers so many examples. William Blake, who could “see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” John Paul Sartre who was schooled by a chestnut tree. Alan Ginsberg who met the flower of the World growing in the litter of a railway yard.

I think it is possible to cultivate these moments of integration. And I think these moments are powerful magic. The more we recognize that our environment is replete with magic, the more likely magic will be able to reach us. Here’s how Dudley Patterson explained how a connection with landscape teaches wisdom:

“Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive. Don’t you? Well. You also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will see danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you.”

Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. University of New Mexico Press, 1996
Canyon de Chelly image provided by Ulrich Egert under the GNU free documentation license

Once, while on a tour of Canyon de Chelly my guide described how virtually every aspect of his landscape told him a story. Generously, he shared some of his family’s stories. After spending a day with him and seeing how stories lived everywhere I imagined that as he set out each morning he walked through two worlds: a land of myth and a land of the real. And that actually, both existed at the same time.

This way of walking through magic time simultaneously with the real reminds me of a poem/prayer that never fails to touch my heart. If I am feeling disconnected I’ll pick up my camera, go for walk and try to remember these words:

Unless you think, there is no word.
Unless you speak, there is no world.
Unless you move, there is no life.
Walk in beauty outside and you walk in beauty inside.
Earth’s feet have become my feet.
By means of these I shall live on.
Earth’s legs have become my legs,
By means of these I shall live on.

Billy Yellow

Could everyone live in a magical landscape?

I think so. Even urban nomads live in a place of myths and heroes. Magic inhabits urban environments as densely as it exists in awe inspiring wildernesses.

Every city contains hundreds of stories of people and events that are literally re-forming the world we live in today. For better or for worse. Our choice.

A landscape feature might take the form of a monument such as Haymarket Square in Chicago where after an age of resistance a blood sacrifice finally limited our work days to eight hours. Maybe you live in Cleveland near the Republic Steel site. After the river caught fire one too many times people cried out as one to demand an environmental protection agency. The people of Austin, TX loved a particular tree so much they wrote a law to protect all their heritage trees. The idea went viral and hundreds of cities around the world passed laws to protect the most venerable among us.

Some of the stories of places will not have happy endings and exist as cautionary tales. Maybe you live near the site of a massacre. Tragedies are just as valuable as the stories that fill us with thanksgiving and joy.

Some story places are intimate yet no less significant: the tree planted when your child was born; a street lamp where you had your first kiss; a pond that makes you think of how your life resembles a certain fairy tale.

We live in epic times. Climate change is happening in real time. The forests are disappearing. Fascism creeps through our backyards. War is in perpetual motion. A catastrophic extinction event has already begun. The life around us needs energized people. Maybe that can happen through the magic of paying attention and the magic of sharing stories — the stories that remind us of past mistakes, tell us how we are most powerful and help us discover what makes life worth living.

Anyone can learn about their place in the world. Everyone can unite with the landscape to co-craft meaningful stories. After all, every story you’ve ever heard came from some other ordinary living and breathing person once upon a time. Stories that are any good tend to stick around. What could be more magical than to create a mythic universe that exists parallel to your ordinary reality? I can’t help but wonder: what would happen if we all inhabited a magical world filled with story and meaning? What if … we formed a consensus that we care about this place and that it cares for us?

green heron in flight

mitsubachi spends a lot of time with bees and flowers

12 thoughts on “Animism and Magic: Walk in beauty outside and you walk in beauty inside

  1. A wonderful essay. It reminds me of the last lines from Alice Walkerʻs short story “Everyday Use” that I read last night. “After we watched the car dust settle I asked Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff. And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.”
    Also thanks for the link to the Basso article!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this, and it mirrors many of my own thoughts of late. I especially like your take on the magic of being present with nature and tossing the dusty patriarchal structures.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. yes toss the old idea of magic bending the world to a self will – if we want examples of this ego mania it is plainly visible. It seems to me that we walk in many dimensions simultaneously- the capacity for magic is when we tune into this and read the poetry in the bark of the tree, hear the bird song remind us of something, feel a burst of love/creativity with a rainbow or sunrise.It is about milking the ordinary to reveal the extraordinary which packs down again as ordinary. The more we acknowledge this who we are ness the more magic appears to be visible to us…I love – drink from the place .I would also say drink deeply from the moment…


  4. Brilliant piece, thank you. you have articulated the discomfort I feel about classical ideas of magic as will which I was unable to put into words. Magic should be about connection and relationship, not bending nature to your human desires. I love the idea of magic happening when joy or wonder visit. In these frightening times, we need those moments of simple joy and wonder even more.


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