Participation Mystique

Participation Mystique

Photograph by Angelo Pennetta / Art Partner


words by willow defebaugh

The anthropological concept known as participation mystique invites us to be one with our environment. What better way to practice it than with a walk through the woods?

“We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again—and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before.”

Joanna Macy

It’s summer where I am, and life is flourishing in verdant hues everywhere I look. This morning, I decided to embark on a walk through the woods. All around me, there are trails that weave in and out of the forest, threading through fields and streams, shallow ponds and pools of glistening water. While wandering such paths, I stumbled upon a tree bent over, twisted by time into a perfect arch: a doorway, beckoning me deeper.


I marveled at the elms and maples overhead, the latter’s wide leaves sheltering me from the already sweltering sun. I stepped out of their shade and into a glade, where I bade good morning to the willows wafting over water and surrounding reeds. I smiled as I marched through marshes, passing fields of purple spotted joe-pye weed, forget-me-nots sprouting streamside. In every step I took, with soft ground beneath my feet, I could feel myself sinking further into the earth. I could feel the weight of identity slipping off, breaking the spell of severalty.


Continuing on, I attuned my senses to the symphony of birds and insects, the fairy-like dragon and damselflies fluttering around me, spiderwebs shimmering with dew. A twig snapped beneath my feet, and my heart leapt as I watched a stag and doe do the same. As I came upon my favorite glenn, I found the worn wooden bridge I spent many summers sitting on had been replaced by a new one. I mourned what was lost until I thought, perhaps this is a bridge for those to come.


At some point, I felt the pull of the outside world in my pocket and withdrew my phone—only to accidentally drop it into a bush. As I reached in to retrieve it, I felt the prickle of something sharp against my skin. Taking a closer look, I quickly realized it was a species of nettle that had scratched me. I watched my finger swell slightly and turn pink in the presence of those stinging little spines. Phone back in hand, I thought of the irritants now in my body, and wondered if the effects of those pollutants might merely be a reminder to stay present to my surroundings.


I thought of the anthropological concept participation mystique: a state in which one does not distinguish oneself from surrounding objects and the environment. In World as Lover, World as Self, ecological philosopher Joanna Macy describes this as the first of three movements in the story of our species. The second was when we left the proverbial garden and embarked on the saga of ego, which is to say separation. The third movement, she writes, is the one we must now make: our return home. It is the journey from being one, to believing that we are separate, to understanding that we are both.


Time spent in nature reminds me of this. It makes me feel at once more myself and entirely less so. Not who I am told I need to be, but simply me, a being no more singular or strange than any other creature I happened across this morning. And we are all part of something far more vast than our individual selves. This understanding is critical to the environmental movement, where we can easily fall into the trap of thinking the Earth is something distinct that we are working to save, rather than something that will save us—if only we might surrender our separateness. 


Toward the end of my walk, I came upon a metal fence cutting through the trees. I thought of how silly this wall was and wondered who or what it was meant to isolate. I found comfort as my gaze traced the vine trellises already growing over it. Eventually, the supple ground under me gave way to rigid concrete. As the sun beat down above, I found myself missing the embrace of the forest when another deer darted out in front of me. I looked back at the woods we both came from, that doorway, its leaves rattling in the wind as if to say: it’s always open.

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