An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of July 7, 2002
written in the woods not far from Natchez, Mississippi, USA

THOUGHTS ABOUT MAGIC

I gathered the clay and fired the cup spoken of earlier last Sunday. All week I've been thinking about the experience and now I have an insight to share.

The Natchez Indians living around the mound next to Second Creek one mile east of my camp, along present-day US 61, surely cherished the clay deposits I visited at the back of the plantation. Maybe those deposits explain why the Natchez placed their village where it was and not closer to the main Natchez settlement 10 miles north of here, or closer to the wildlife-rich Homochitto River a few miles to our south.

Some years ago I wrote about a Tzotzil-speaking village of Indians in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas. Nearly the entire village survived by producing unglazed pottery like my cup, though of course their work was much more artful. You can read about my experience with a native pottery maker in that village at http://www.backyardnature.net/m/people/pot1.htm.

One day the Indian lady pictured on the above page told me where she got her clay. She motioned toward the west and in broken Spanish said "It's about two hours of walking away. There are two or three men there who dig out the clay, and it's good, clean clay... " I remember vividly that she spoke these words about "good, clean clay" with a profound sense of pride and respect.

I'm currently reading an old ethnological classic, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, by Bronislaw Malinowski, about a group of ocean-going people on small islands off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea back in the early 1900s. A central theme of the book is the overwhelming influence of magic in the natives' lives. Every outstanding feature of the landscape came about because of magic worked on it. This rock emerging from the ocean was an ancient hero turned to stone. This cliff was once the wall of an enchanted fortress. Magic made the gardens produce, and magic called forth wind and rain. Everything important in life was a manifestation of good or bad magic, magic handled adroitly, or magic bungled. The reason why good, clean clay was available at only one spot on one island in the region was explained in terms of magic worked by the two cultural heroes Torosipupu and Tolikilaki.

The "Argonauts'" conception of their landscape must have been similar to that of the ancestors of my Mexican Tzotzil-speakers, before the Europeans extinguished their native culture. And I suspect that the Natchez Indians before their culture was exterminated thought of this land the same way. In fact, from what I have read, whenever "primitive" people traveled across their native landscapes, it was a passage through a world buzzing with magic. Those worlds must have been so alive, so threatening and so full of unimaginable possibilities, that just being alive in that time and place was surely more exhilarating and exciting than we "moderns" can imagine.

Since magic was so important to ancient people and in our culture we recognize no magic, last Sunday I began wondering whether we of today have lost something.

I've decided that we have indeed lost something, but it's something we needed to lose. After all, the "Argonauts'" magic was based on pure fantasy, just like all formalized religions. I further decided that since the human species evolved during times when magic was an overwhelming influence in everyday life, probably even today we are genetically programmed to live in worlds where magic stirs our souls. Since we have lost our magic, maybe we need to replace it with something. Maybe this loss of the sense of the presence of the supernatural in our everyday lives explains why so many of us are disoriented, feel empty, or are just plain unhappy.

I believe that the thing with which we should replace our lost magic is the magic of real things -- things that, while real, are still too majestic and too mind-boggling for the human mind to grasp. I would say that the sky is magic, the forest, the behavior of subatomic particles, the drive behind evolution... There's plenty in this world that's as majestic and mind-boggling as, say, a ceremony to make rain, or a priest's forgiving of a perceived sin.

Last Sunday, as I was returning from the bluff with my clay, gradually it dawned on me that I had become a magician engaged in a magical ceremony. It wasn't the old kind of magic controlled by priests or sanctioned by sacred legends or holy books, but rather magic of a stronger kind. It was magic nascent in the Earth itself, magic free to anyone able to detect it and possess it. The flash of recognition informing me that my clay outcrop was special and offered certain potentials was the Earth itself saying that I had discovered one of its sacred places.

Later as I worked the clay, imparting to it form and function, and remembering what I knew of clay, how it looked under electron microscopy, how it behaved as a colloid in the soil solution, what minerals caused some of it to be gray, and some orange and some red, and just how long ago 700,000 years was, I was brewing magic. As my handsome, useful little cup came into being, crystallizing before me out of mere clay, my awe of the Creator and Her creation blossomed in a sacred manner.

And all week it has been thrilling to pass through this landscape where at any moment enchanted places might speak to me of magical possibilities. Facebook Icon.