Ecological Complexes:
Wounded Places, Wounded People

by Craig Chalquist

Beach spiral

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
— John Muir
(Adams and Muir, 2002, p. 20)
To trace the history of a river, or a raindrop, as John Muir would have done, is also to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body.
In both, we constantly seek and stumble on divinity, which, like the cornice feeding the lake and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself over and over again.
— Gretel Ehrlich
(Ehrlich, 1992, p. 29)

Complexes haunt troubled people and cultures. Is it possible they also haunt the troubled land as well? How would we detect them? What could they want from us?

Although naturalists and deep ecologists often speak about restoring our inner ties to a world ensouled, a world alive out there beyond the clever solipsisms that derealize and depreciate it, the perspective I work from, which focuses on the animated presence or “soul” of places and things, assumes that these ties, now culturally unconscious, already bind us. They bind us more rigidly to the extent that we deny them and thereby fall into unconscious identification with them.

After offering a brief analysis of a common character syndrome that raises walls against our awareness of these ties, I will discuss what results from such a chronically dissociated relationship with place, namely an ecological complex: a geographically localized syndrome of repeating historical motifs and radiating environmental injury. I will then touch on questions we are learning to ask about the psychology we share with the myth-drenched land. For what we do to the land, we do to ourselves as well.

Diagnoses being abbreviated stories, let’s story the character syndrome Conquest Disorder.

A Prelude to Ecological Complexes: Conquest Disorder

Conquest is nothing new, of course. After succumbing to its ruddy lure, ancient Sumer crumbled into ruin as salt accumulated in the used-up soils. Much American religious and political symbolism derives from the Roman Empire, whose economy crashed after overused silver mines flooded. Heading the conquerors reaching out from Europe, Columbus wrote this in his journal shortly after arriving in the New World:

A couple of lombard shots off land the water is so deep around all these islands that it cannot be sounded. They are all very green and fertile and subject to gentle breezes. They may contain things of which I do not know because I did not care to land and explore them, being anxious to find gold; and since these lands show signs of it—for the natives wear it round their arms and legs, and it is certainly gold, because I showed them some pieces which I have—I cannot fail, with God’s help, to find out where it comes from (Columbus and Cohen, 1992, p. 62).

Fed by this gold, the machineries of the Industrial Revolution clanked and hammered into the character traits of Conquest Disorder: group narcissism, inner deadness and necrophilia (Fromm, 1973), automaton conformity, an obsession with control, an unwarranted sense of specialness, an oral fixation on consuming, bingeing, and using things up (as Columbus succumbed to overt madness, he described Earth not as round, but mounded like a woman’s breast), fear and hatred of what is wild and earthy, unbearable isolation, reductive cynicism about human nature, misuse of symbols degenerated into icons and emblems (i.e., flagolatry), chronic denial under a mask of manic optimism, and lack of social and ecological responsibility.

Craig Chalquist, PhD is a faculty member and former Chair of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is co-editor with Linda Buzzell of the anthology Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, founding editor of Immanence: The Journal of Applied Myth, Story, and Folklore, and author of several books studying the intersection of psyche, nature, place, and myth. He is a certified Master Gardener through the University of California Cooperative Extension.  Visit his website at

Unlike Conduct Disorder, Conquest Disorder has spread so widely that too many of us suffer from it for it to be considered abnormal. For that reason its introduction here is somewhat facetious rather than a bid for inclusion in any diagnostic manual. The reifications of diagnostic manuals are themselves forms of social and intellectual conquest.

At bottom Conquest Disorder rises like a tattered banner over a tragic failure to belong and to relate. As Jung pointed out in his paper on the Mother archetype, eros kept unconscious manifests instead as will to power (Jung, 1968). Whether military, financial, religious, or intellectual, conquest fights to overcome the pain of exclusion from the living world by dominating it, rearranging it, parceling it up, paving it down, and replacing it with abstractions, including materialist abstractions well-known to fascism and “factism” (Bortoft, 1996). As a result, centralized power accumulates as minds lift resolutely heavenward and the vivid sense of place inexorably gives way to the concept of space (Casey, 1993).

Armed with trade mandates, bulldozers, and the rhetoric of improvement, conquerors who feel at home nowhere pave a trail of broken treaties while inflicting their wounds of displacement wherever they rove. The conqueror’s fencing away of aliens, for example, betrays projected alienation. Captain Ahab spoke for all of them by judging himself irrevocably damned in the midst of Paradise. “We ruin the lands that are already cleared,” notes a letter written in 1779, “and either cut down more wood, if we have it or emigrate into the western country… A half, a third or even a fourth of what land we mangle, well wrought and properly dressed, would produce more than the whole under our system of management….” (Berry and Jackson, 1980, p. 40).

The author of this letter was George Washington, who feared that to the victor belonged despoliation. Lynda Sexson writes that “Europeans celebrated the continent as Paradise regained, although this time around they were going to have their way with it. Eden as terrarium” (in Olson and Cairns, 1999, p. 139). The ultimate results of this destructive mania include a worldwide mass extinction of plant and animal life.

Even as the aggressive mentality described by “Conquest Disorder” silences, ridicules, or assimilates stories and legends that connected the depth of people with the depths of earth and sky, it turns those depths upside down as the imported stories degenerate into self-fulfilling prophecies. Pluto may have been demoted in the heavens, but down here vast plutocracies convert Earth’s surface into a literalized underworld of hellish internal combustion as nuclear families and nuclear nations fission from within. Is discounted Saturn yet above us, or has the fabled consumer of children reappeared in education under the nickname SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test)? (Imagine what “No Child Left Behind” must mean from his point of view!) Is photographed Mars still to be found overhead, or has the most reckless and impulsive son of Zeus sat in the White House wearing a ten-gallon helmet and joking with his frightful companions Phobos and Deimos (Fear and Terror) and their wrathfully grinning sister Eris (Strife)? Left unchecked, conquest is a King Erysichthon, who for cutting down the sacred groves was doomed to devour his kingdom, his family, and finally himself: going in as going away.

Yet for many decades now, the collective psychic depths have been busy birthing two responses to Conquest Disorder: depth psychology and environmentalism, fields destined to be joined in our day. In a remarkable paper on individuation and colonialism, Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman point out that depth psychology was born as movements of national liberation rose and the colonial era came to an end (Shulman and Watkins, 2007). In fact, Eugen Bleuler coined the term “depth psychology” in 1910, a year of revolutions in Mexico, Portugal, and China. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was established, and Lucien Levy-Bruhl introduced the term “participation mystique.” William James had been riding the leading edge of this liberatory wave from 1902 by protesting what he identified as “the spirit of corporate dominion” in religion, politics, and psychology (James, 1929, p. 337). Modern psychotherapy began in 1851 in Holland (Van der Hart and Van der Velden, 1987), the “nether land,” with attempts to tend what “hysteria” was trying to announce one symptom at a time. The very word means “suffering in the womb,” as in a birth so difficult that its pangs made unexpected movements at the periphery of the colonized body and the de-centered mind.

With these forces of political and psychological liberation rose up those of environmental liberation. Jacques Cousteau was born in 1910, the year the U.S. Bureau of Labor issued its first list of industrial poisons and the Public Health Service began to study industrial diseases. The First National Conference on this topic was held in Chicago that year, site of the nation’s first skyscrapers, buildings named from the topsails converging on a once-brave New World. Slowly but inevitably, the inside story of deepening psychology and deepening environmentalism began to meet and merge.

Sufferings rather than psychology had taught Janet, James, Freud, and Jung about the shadowy depths of the psyche. Is the growing pain of the suffering Earth trying to inform us about the psychic depths of our connection to it?

Ecological Complexes: Sufferings We Share with Place

We know from a large and expanding body of research, much of it from environmental psychology and human ecology, that the integrity of our surroundings directly impacts our mental health (for examples see Buzzell and Chalquist, 2009). We know from common sense as well that living near a dump is liable to be depressing. What remains in the shadows is the strange persistence of a deeper kind of resonance: a resonance that reaches back and forth from place to self along bridges of symbol and metaphor and dream. A few examples of this will help explain the need for the concept of an ecological complex.

In Wyoming stands the Devil’s Tower climbed by enthusiasts intent on close encounters of the juvenile kind, despite the courteous but frustrated requests of Native Americans for whom the place is sacred. A local Native tale shared by six tribes tells of six flower-gathering girls chased to the top by bears whose claw marks remain visible on the Tower’s flanks. This would never occur to the climbers who ascend with claw hammers, pitons, and mountaineering boots, but is it possible that they stand in for the bears in a mountain-draping myth unconsciously repeated?

One of my graduate students, Sarah Rankin, was investigating cultural and geographical borders and splits in Petaluma, California, when she noticed herself struggling to unite two very different styles of writing in her master’s thesis. Upon further reflection the place connection surfaced: one style was anecdotal and historical like the city’s carefully preserved downtown, the other straight and structured and expansive like the subdivisions going up to the north. A river divides these parts of town (Rankin, 2007).

A brief glance at the history of Memphis, named after Egypt’s capital, reveals a profusion of kings, including B. B. King, Martin Luther King Jr. (who died there), Elvis Presley, Royal Court of Carnival, Johnny Cash (“king of country”), King Curtis…

What these, a few examples of many, share in common is that they demonstrate the operation of an ecological complex: a geographically localized syndrome of recurring historical motifs and radiating environmental injuries that repeat themselves symbolically in the psychic life and relationships of local inhabitants and visitors.

Why a complex?

In the early 1900s, Jung observed that when he asked test participants to come up with a word in response to a word Jung gave them, they sometimes hesitated or uttered an atypical reply: for example, “crisis” in reply to the test word “marriage.” Investigating further, Jung discovered that these unusual responses indicated partially unconscious points of intensity in the psyche of the respondent. These “complexes” bend images, feelings, memories, and other psychic material around them like rocks on the bottom of a tumultuous stream or magnets pulling iron filings into unusual shapes. Many leave lasting psychic “dents” after arising from past or present trauma. This durability long after the original stimulus is gone can prove quite crippling psychologically unless healed.

Other indicators besides pauses or odd words can reveal an operating complex. For instance, each complex tends to exhibit a particular theme, and to organize perceived reality to conform to that theme, as when a patient suffering from a mother complex reacts emotionally to an analyst as though to a critical mother. The core issue in a complex carries a high emotional charge easily triggered by outer events, as when an abuse survivor panics at receiving a flirtatious wink. Triggering can also result in compulsive attempts to avoid the risk of re-injury by whatever inflicted the complex, as we see in much of the defensiveness surfacing between arguing romantic partners who both feel silenced (again). A triggered complex brings disorientation and dissociation of the ego, and often a rather obvious loss of control, especially of one’s emotions. In the core of the complex sits an unmetabolized memory waiting to be reexperienced and memorialized, and, permeating the complex, an archetypal image, often a myth, waiting to be consciously worked from the inside out. Until that work is carried through, the story held within the complex, a story part traumatic and part mythic, arranges troubling reenactments of itself in the outer world.

A basic working assumption of Terrapsychological Inquiry, the methodology used to detect ecological complexes, is that the geographical site being explored can be interpreted much like a symptom, slip, myth, or dream.

Ecological complexes demonstrate all these characteristic features.

For my doctoral work in depth psychology I went looking for locally repeating motifs in coastal California, land of my birth and current residence. To detect them I read up extensively on the history, geography, ecology, and colonization of the fourteen counties and twenty-one cities I examined. I then asked: “If California were one of my therapy clients, what sort of recurring thematic material would I look for? What complexes could I identify?” From San Diegan borderline defensiveness to Sonoma County “bear-flagging” episodes of theft of land and law, I ran into one complex after another, some of them nested inside each other, as I monitored my dreams and moods and bodily states out on El Camino Real, the old Mission Trail running along our colonized coast.

A basic working assumption of Terrapsychological Inquiry (Chalquist, 2007), the methodology used to detect ecological complexes, is that the geographical site being explored can be interpreted much like a symptom, slip, myth, or dream. A dead hunk of matter would display no evidence of its being a psychic entity: no patterns of recurrences in its history, no impulsion to reenact that history, no persistent feeling tones, no dissociation of the ego: none of the indicators of an operative complex. By contrast, the sites we investigate by taking a “place history” and screening their ecology, infrastructure, and other prominent features through what we know about complexes betray a psychic reactivity of such astonishing transgressive power and consistency that occupants and visitors alike come under its spell.

For example, Spring Street in Los Angeles used to be named Primavera: “First View.” By itself, this fact means no more than a single nod or smile would. A closer look, however, reveals a long streak of firsts, making this a dominant motif. The uncanny repetitions of Southern Californian firsts along this “Wall Street of the West” include: first public school in LA, first multi-story building, first four-story hotel housing the first mechanical elevator, first brewery and beer garden, first swank café, first nightclub, first café to introduce an orchestra at Rathkeller, which was also the first place where motion picture contracts were signed, first ice skating rink on a stage at Fred Harlow’s place, first terminus for transcontinental stage coach lines, first City Hall, first city jail house, first jukebox, first fire station…The street runs from Sunset Boulevard to the Cahuenga Pass where John Fremont entered the city as its first American conqueror, making Spring Street into the first primary artery to the outside world. Three noir films have been shot there, one with the title The Postman Always Rings Twice.

When an ecological complex is active, its dominant motif reveals itself in local human doings like a symbol repeating from dream to dream. When I mentioned these firsts to a new acquaintance who had just arrived from Los Angeles, he and his wife exchanged startled glances. They had first met on Spring Street! And this had come up in the first of my meetings with them. To substantiate this motif of firsts would require observing it across many domains of experience to verify it as a viable link between human minds and the psyche of the place and to study its relationship to other local motifs. The sum of these gives an indication of what in a human would constitute an enduring character structure: the active inner being of a place made visible through depth tools of observation and interpretation.

As the number of researchers doing this kind of verification slowly grew, we also noticed that the psychic intensity of these repetitions—their frequency, their persistence, the human pain and dissociation they bring—coincided with the depth of ecological devastation in the places where they originated. We also saw that they often infused us with heavy, ego-disturbing doses of “ecological (counter-)transference”: disturbed feelings and fantasies that symbolically paralleled the feeling-toned disturbances thematically playing out around us: depressed and hair-trigger moods in paranoid San Diego, borderline city of the fortified border, for example, or ups and downs in hilly San Francisco. Matthew Cochran, a doctoral student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, was forced by ecotransference to make more than one trip out to a site near Trinity, where the first atomic bomb had been detonated, because the pain of that place radiated so severely into his dreams and his relationship. Centuries ago, Native people had inscribed petroglyphs shaped eerily like bombs and jets in the rocks of what was now a gunnery range. The mythic core of this place’s complex resembles the Thunderbird inhabiting local lore, just as Hekate haunts San Diego, Coyote Marin, Hades Monterey, and Dionysus San Francisco, whose bridges reach outward from the peninsula like vines from the body of the bisexual god of ecstacy and drama.

Of course, mythological images are normally thought to have more to do with local culture than with local geography or ecology. Our impression is that certain myths favor certain terrains. For example, motifs out of Egyptian mythology pop up all over Bakersfield, California, including an Eye of Horus symbol looking back at the observer out of street configurations on maps, stylized pupils above the doors of local psychics, and even arcs of oil pipe twisted into the recognizable orb. How did Egyptian mythology get imported into the Great Central Valley of the Golden State? It didn’t. The land in and around Bakersfield resembles desert in Egypt, with the agriculturally vital Kern River standing in for the Nile. If this idea of a land-myth connection is correct, then the original inhabitants of this region would have constructed a similar mythology. Instead of “Saint Barbara,” a variant of Sophia, the Chumash, native inhabitants of Central California, tell stories about beautiful Hutash, the goddess who wove rainbows over the Channel. The place is the common factor.

The complex, then, lives “in between” the place and its inhabitants rather than being causally traceable to one or the other. When the two get along, the images and motifs that comprise the depth dimension of the relationship live harmoniously in the space between, as when native Hawaiians make ceremonial offerings to Pele, whose fiery energies shape and reshape the islands. When the relationship is disturbed from the human side, as when conquest and exploitation disfigure a landscape, the complex arises to similarly disfigure the souls of alienated occupiers. To say it figuratively, the land raises its voice until we realize we cannot separate ourselves psychically from where we live. Our dualism drives the dynamic forward until it hurts.

When a place has been damaged—conquered, paved over, ground up, torn down—the damage leave a psychic imprint in the inhabitants: the point of intensity around which grows an ecological complex shared with the wounded land.


As Murray Stein points out, in the absence of healing, a complex tends to be stable over time, with the same patterns of emotional reaction and discharge, the same mistakes, the same unfortunate choices made over and over again (Stein, 1998, p. 49). It contains an archetypal core which can wear a mythic face like those mentioned above. Prometheus lives in Switzerland, land of alchemical innovation and home of Jung, who as he aged believed the spirits of the land and the anima mundi to be less a matter of projection than of psychic realities abroad in the world.

Complexes of place, referred to as “placefield syndromes” in Terrapsychology (2007, p. 58), can inflict repetitions of their central motifs for hundreds of years, forcing everyone in range to reenact the stories that wounded the restless land. During the Mexican War, General William Worth irrationally believed himself to be outnumbered by enemy forces dug in around Mexico City. He moved from residence to residence, staying first near the plaza where the Aztec nobility had once lived, then switching to the western entrance, and then to the east, retracing in reverse the march of outnumbered Cortés into town. General Winfield was caught by a different piece of the same story: he recreated the fall of the Aztec capital by attacking Mexico’s interior with a relatively small and handy force independent of any fixed base of operations. Before his final victory, Cortés had been driven up a gangway by Aztec warriors at whom he fired, retreating in such haste that his men left behind their bags of pillaged gold; in the mid-1800s, Alonzo Horton, future developer of San Diego, found himself retreating up a gangway as a mob attacked the Panama hotel in which he left his gold behind. Firing his revolver to cover his band’s retreat, he and his fellow passengers reached the safety of their cruise ship, which, curiously enough, happened to be named Cortez. In this case the repetition did not confine itself to the neighborhood, but radiated across an entire conquered region.

Ecological complexes also demonstrate the reactivity of their human counterparts. Repressing them triggers them, as I learned when the militarized paranoia I tried to ignore in post-911 San Diego personified itself in dreams as an angry bronze-skinned woman who frowned at me until I acknowledged her to be the soul or spirit of my home town (Chalquist, 2007).

Where do such complexes originate? In the West, where self and nature are split from each other psychologically, we automatically assign psychic troubles a purely human origin. But if ecological complexes were primarily social, a psychic legacy handed down locally, why would they cleave so strongly to the environmental features that symbolically recur in them? At one time Manhattan Island was covered with forests and hills; they are gone, but skyscrapers continue to replace them.

My impression is that we speak and act in the style or “discourse” of place all the time, but when a place has been damaged—conquered, paved over, ground up, torn down—the damage leaves a psychic imprint in the inhabitants: the point of intensity around which grows an ecological complex shared with the wounded land. For the complex lives in both, occupying the imaginal space between self and place, dweller and territory. That is why studying this resonance must be less a matter of “proof” (which would require two separate entities joined by a causal relation) than of becoming sensitized to common patterns stirred into repetitive action. We do not hunt these patterns with a microscope, we read them as though place were a work of art or literature packed with recurring symbols.

Having studied these placefield effects all over California and traced their operation in a dozen capital cities around the world, I find myself inclined to accept Jung’s late-life belief that everything is animate: objects, places, the world itself. Everything possesses a subjectivity, a “within,” and through our own, which ultimately evolved from the ground below, locations without nervous systems participate in their own self-reflection…if we are willing.

As with cultural complexes, ecological complexes can interlock with personal ones, painfully. Yet personal sufferings can open a door to greater empathy for a conflicted place whose features and history symbolically recur in its sufferings, and therefore in ours.

As with cultural complexes, ecological complexes can interlock with personal ones, painfully. Yet personal sufferings can open a door to greater empathy for a conflicted place whose features and history symbolically recur in its sufferings, and therefore in ours. I grew up in the county of San Diego, named to commemorate an ancient border defense in Spain before a border split California from Mexico. A fortified border is not just a very tall fence: it also aches as a psychic division, a cleavage of the heart, a spiritual dam, a cultural barrier, a split within the self, a political regression, an ecological absurdity, and a demonstration of how the matter we would master enters into us at will through openings of metaphor and painful reenactment. The symbolic presence of an environmentally damaged or damaging feature like a border is what distinguishes an ecological complex from a cultural or personal one. The wounded terrain shows up as the feeling-toned motif that organizes and permeates this kind of complex.

And so it is wherever people live among places that act like magnets attracting mythologies, pathologies, stories, and lore. Whether the revolving hub motif in Moscow, warrior hierarchies in volcanic Rome, where excavated Bronze Age urns resemble soldiers’ helmets, native jimson-weed visions and messages projected within and above the City of Angels, fallen fortifications in New York City, the drama god at large in mood-swinging San Francisco, singing the blues in emotionally and geologically depressed New Orleans, Left Bank-Right Bank cultural-intellectual separations in Cartesian Paris, or shifting fault lines in quaking Jerusalem, what the Greeks and Romans knew as the genius loci, the spirit or soul of a place, speaks in a persistent and intelligible voice. Features of the landscape cross through the frontiers of consciousness to image themselves as psychic beings without relinquishing their environmental qualities. What the conscious mind is trained to see as nonliving places and things, the unconscious reacts to as animated presences and symbols—and signals of Terra trying to get our attention in a language far more ancient than our own.

How do we know that we don’t simply project our own complexes onto local landscapes? To some extent the very question implies a clean Cartesian division between self and world. As Richard Tarnas and others have pointed out, the accusation of anthropocentrism very often turns out to be a form of covert anthropomorphism directed by the modernist assumption that the world possesses only such animation as we bestow upon it (Tarnas, 2006).

Picking up on an ecological complex is similar to picking up on the operation of an archetype. How do we know whether an archetype is really being constellated, especially since the very act of looking changes the image it presents to us? The task becomes one of comparison combined with substantiation: the more that Trickster imagery surfaces urgently in dreams, fantasies, and synchronicities, the greater the likelihood that the fabled agent of chaos is knocking on our door. A former classmate of mine going through such a series of Trickster manifestations, from nightmares to symptoms to bizarre events, kept walking into local banks only to realize they had just been robbed. At one point do we admit to ourselves that something extra-human is addressing us? That we are target rather than source?

Beach art

By contrast, an unhelpful dualism does come up when inner turmoil clouds our sense of a place. We can take steps to minimize our projections through self-inventory of the shadow, use of a peer group outside the field, careful study of the history of a place. A key indicator of a projection onto the site we investigate is that the relationship immediately goes dead. It lights up again when we are on the right track. Place personifications in dreams are generous with their feedback—as when Orange County corrected my misperceptions by appearing in a dream as a woman who handed me back a document I had typed awash in red corrections. I had entirely missed the presence of the local god: the blacksmith Hephaestus, whose constructions sprout as giant cathedrals and malls and whose metal hammers pound the ground for oil in Huntington Beach. Excavated Native artifacts of stone were once carved into shapes like cogwheels. It would be interesting to know what their version of the blacksmith of Olympus was like. Evidently he had been busy there.

Reconciling Ourselves with Place and World

As imperial pretensions crumble under the weight of their own shameless excesses, knowings we thought we left behind resurface as redemptive wisdom, whether lore dismissed as superstition, the “public homeplaces” of bell hooks and Mary Belenky (Belenky, Bond, and Weinstock, 1997, p. 164), ancient farming systems that feed the land, tribal forms of symbolic reparation restoring harmony to split communities. That we share psychology with Terra requires adding her voice to this list of percolating outcast knowings.

Fortunately, we need not reinvent what turns out to be a long, rich history of taking the psychic presence of Earth seriously. For example:

  • Many indigenous cultures experience the world as the living abode of a deity like Changing Woman, the Diné (Navajo) personification of the Earth.
  • For the Western Apache, locales are aware of the human activity that takes place on them and deserve great respect, which is reflected in their elaborately situational namings (Basso, 1996).
  • Aristotle believed things to be actuated by their own telos or inbuilt purpose. Steering a course between the atomistic materialism of Democritus and the otherworldliness of Plato, he thought of matter and even the universe itself as a vast unfolding from potentiality to actuality.
  • The Greeks and Romans of old experienced each stream, grove, forest, mountain, and city as inhabited by its resident spirit, its genius loci. Every pre-industrial culture knows similar figures. A handful of examples from Europe include the Yarthings and Hyter Sprites out of Anglican folklore, the Doire well guardians of Celtic mythology, and the following pairings: dryads with trees, naiads with springs, oreads with hills and rocks, nereids, mermaids, sirens, and oceanids with the sea, and trolls and gnomes with caves.
  • Neoplatonic writings mention an anima mundi or World Soul, an idea brought back to life by Jung and elaborated in the work of James Hillman and Robert Sardello.
  • The alchemists who sweated to transmute base metals like lead into silver and gold were also reimagining and enlivening the human relationship to living matter.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used “exact sensorial imagination,” an observational discipline akin to what would eventually be called “phenomenology,” to experience an “archetype” (his word) operating behind the plants he studied (Seamon and Zajonc, 1998, p. 133).
  • The school of Naturphilosophie burgeoned with German Romanticism, Idealism, and the philosophical musings of Friedrich von Schelling mixed with those of Georg Hegel. One of its goals was the reweaving of natural-world roots in human thought and aspiration. Schelling in particular intuited what he saw as comparisons between the evolution of human thought and nature’s continuing creativity. For him, the natural and the spiritual were different ways of observing the same unitary process ultimately inaccessible to reduction as an object of intellectual knowledge.
  • Jesuit scientist and scholar Teilhard de Chardin proposed a “within” of things, arguing that everything–a hillside, a stone, a piece of paper–has an objective face and a subjective face, an outer side and an inner (Teilhard de Chardin, 2008, p. 53). The more complex the nervous system it possesses, the more conscious the subjectivity or interiority can be of itself.
  • In some sects of Buddhism, things considered in the West to be inanimate, such as minerals, are seen as endowed with a living “Buddha nature,” an attitude that has worked its way into the field of deep ecology and its goal of Self-realization.
  • Shinto offers imagistically elaborate descriptions of local kami (gods).
  • Nineteenth-century proponents of panpsychism, the belief that qualities of mindfulness do not restrict themselves to human brains, include Gustav Fechner, William James, Wilhelm Wundt, Rudolf Hermann Lotze, William Clifford, Friedrich Paulsen, Morton Prince, Ferdinand Schiller, Josiah Royce, Ernst Häckel, who coined the term “ecology,” and Eduard von Hartmann, among the first to write about the unconscious. Spinoza and Schopenhauer could be included as honorary father figures in this long tradition.
  • Extending the findings of the Gestaltists (Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler) of the 1920s, social psychologist Kurt Lewin applied their field orientation to human relationships, demonstrating how features of the immediate environment acquire psychologically symbolic values that interact dynamically within the psychological field. This field, which Lewin called the “life space,” organized inner and outer interactions into a unified psychological whole of the kind described by later psychoanalysts and Gestalt psychotherapists.
  • The depth psychology tradition rooted in these ancient philosophies and inaugurated by Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, and C. G. Jung and further extended by James Hillman and Robert Sardello imagines consciousness as situated upon a primary process or substrate of fantasy, image, and myth that informs every realm of human experience. Irreducible to neurochemistry and resistant to literalization or centralized ego control, this polycentric language or layer of being can only be approached, like the presence of place, in terms of its own mythopoetic movements—movements which exist prior to thought and reflection, like a shimmer of myth already at work under everything we perceive and categorize.
  • The practice of discerning the consistency and order structuring these symbolisms as they unfold in the animated world is as old as art, ritual, sacred dance, and dream interpretation. The intuitively felt “aha!” connection valued by all the deep psychologies—psychoanalytic, humanistic, existential, Jungian—represents a valid and highly reliable internal shift in understanding, not a calculable proof.
  • More recently, Val Plumwood describes an “intentional panpsychism“ that escapes the on-off, “it is or it isn’t” mode of thinking about consciousness:
  • The rich intentionality the reductive stance would deny to the world is the ground of the enchantment it retains in many indigenous cultures and in some of the past of our own, the butterfly wing-dust of wonder that modernity stole from us and replaced with the drive for power (Plumwood, 2002, p. 117).
  • Along with adepts at geomancy and practitioners of the Chinese art of feng shui, examples of contemporary artists who take the presence of place seriously include landscape designer Lawrence Halprin and sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.

    The world is in a state of breakdown: “…by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality.”—James Hillman

Jung wrote often about the psychic presence of matter. His view of the relationship between psyche and nature moved from a dualistic one in which humans project our aliveness onto the world to a recognition that things are enspirited and ensouled (see Jung and Sabini, 2002, for many examples of this). In Aion, where Jung describes vegetal and mineral aspects of the Self, he insists that matter and spirit partake of each other in an identity of inner and outer (Jung, 1969). The recently published Red Book (2009) contains many psychic images described in the language of natural processes, as does Memories, Dreams, Reflections, in which Jung writes of his identification with stone, of his work as an outpouring of crystallizing magma, and of alchemy as having awakened him to the nature and importance of archetypes (Jung, 1965).

Since Jung, work on understanding the deep ties between nature, place, and self has continued within analytical psychology as well as at its edges. Marie-Louise von Franz did a study on psyche and matter in which she stated, “A great part of what we recognize today as being psyche belonged, in the view of the old Greeks, to a superindividual, objective world soul” (von Franz, 1992, p. 6). James Hillman, not only a founder of Archetypal Psychology but also an early ecopsychologist, states unequivocally that .”..I can no longer distinguish clearly between neurosis of self and neurosis of world, psychopathology of self and psychopathology of world,” for pathology can no longer be framed as purely personal (Hillman, 1992, p. 93). The world is in a state of breakdown: .”…by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality” (Hillman, 1992, p. 97). Marco Heleno Barreto uses case material to illustrate an “eco-logical form of consciousness” in which destructive acting out of the paradigm of human domination of nature gives way to a strengthened sense of the human place in nature (Barreto, 2006, p. 257). Calling for language, modes of thinking, and an “ecological imagination” more consistent with the natural order and viable earth-human relationships, art therapist Laura Mitchell also believes that “the articulation of deep-seated primary place relationships is essential to the practice of community resiliency and advocacy” (Mitchell, 2006, p. 112). One form of such a practice, suggests Meredith Sabini, is a cultural dreaming practice in which dreamers listen in on what “big dreams,” a natural resource, have to say about Earth and our troubled relationship with it (Sabini, 2009, p. 212).

For a terrapsychological perspective attuned to the voice of place, continuing to extend depth psychology’s exploratory focus outward—from the intrapsychic to the intrafamilial to the intergenerational, cultural (Singer and Kimbles, 2004), and political (Samuels, 1993)—eventually must hone in on the psychic presence of disturbed places we try to feel at home in.

One way to sharpen this focus is to become more aware of the stories and symbols we share with the land. Story is the weave that holds together not only inner with outer and theory with practice, but mind and body and people and place. Radiant and gifted, Saint Barbara was locked up in a tower to prevent her from mingling with the villagers below. She received the finest of private educations, but such was her yearning to work as a teacher and healer in the world that she ordered a window cut in the tower so she could gaze down at the people she finally succeeded in joining one day after freeing herself of confinement. Is it possible that the people of Santa Barbara partake of these local motifs, perhaps even to playing out old roles on local stages? An attractive friend I helped move to Santa Barbara cut a hole in her fence so she could gaze down at the Channel from the Riviera. She had come there to enter a school of psychological healing. Does something of the place’s spirit shine through the ancient tale? In Santa Barbara, where the Santa Ynez Mountains look down on the people below, those who live on high refer to their abodes as “castles.” Yet its heights also look far into the depths of the south from here at continent’s edge. The site was named by padres who entered the area on the saint’s feast day and thereby walked fable into locale.

John Steinbeck suspected that places participate somehow in their own namings. Their inhabitants can participate in post-Conquest Disorder healing by getting to know the storied places where they live and bringing their earthy motifs and plots to fuller consciousness. Complexes then mutate into contexts and contacts.

Tending the presence of place on its own terms includes holding, hearing, and making room for its untold histories, much as a psychotherapist provides a living receptacle for taking in the client’s intolerable emotional states, digesting them, and giving them back in manageable portions. Such ongoing dialogs could inform the social and ecological structuring of sustainable human communities in which people learn how to experience themselves not merely as autonomous egos, but as indigenous openings or nodes of deep communication with each other and the environment. This would be heartsteading rather than homesteading, with personal stories transparently embedded in those of community, region, continent, Earth.

Questions Raised by Terrapsychology

Questions raised by a terrapsychological depth perspective include:

Under what conditions does repression of the sense of place or commodification of a landscape by turning it into an ideology lead to projections of darkness or earthiness onto people regarded as Other: those seen as animalistic, bestial, “children of nature,” primitive, savage, or otherwise subhuman?

How much of what we interpret as personal or archetypal material also bears an ecological face?

How do certain myths and legends—Prometheus, for example—come to prefer certain landscapes (Switzerland)? Near Verona, the setting of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” two 5,000-year-old skeletons were recently unearthed. They were locked in a timeless and apparently passionate embrace of love doomed to end prematurely, for both had died before their time. Or think about ritualistic London, home of so many altars—such that the land itself is a kind of altar—and where the Public Cleansing Department occupies the site of an old public privy, a sauna on Endell Street recalls an ancient bath, and a Small Pox and Vaccination Hospital, now Whittington Hospital, was built over the healing wells at Barnet. “At All Hallows, Barking,” notes Peter Ackroyd about the London Underground, “a buried undercroft and arch of a Christian church were constructed with Roman materials; a cross of sandstone was also found, with the inscription WERHERE of Saxon date; it is somehow strangely evocative of WE ARE HERE” (2000, p. 40).

How much of what we interpret as personal or archetypal material also bears an ecological face? According to E. A. Bennett, the famous house with a Roman cellar and underlying cave of bones which Jung dreamed about in 1909 corresponded to his uncle’s house in Basel, an old structure that included a cave-like lower cellar built on Roman remains. House and cave as psyche, as collective unconscious, yes; but what does the tangible house announce about itself? Was it trying to get Jung’s attention? Who better to mentor him about the value of tracking the archaic than an old family home built on ancient foundations?

Do our personal stories always interlock with those of the places we occupy? When I moved to Sebastopol in Sonoma County, I did not know what to make of a dream figure named Evie calling me Cain instead of Craig. It made no sense until I grasped the local Garden of Eden motif, from uninterrupted highways crossing like flowing rivers, to unknowingly renting a cottage from the local butcher, to winged sculptures at the town’s southern entrance, one bearing a plaque identifying it as the Guardian of the Gate. Overlooked by a clock whose constant inaccuracy evokes a sense of timelessness, the sculptures were recently replaced with two pole-shaped works of art, one with grasping hands entwined upon it like branches, the other with small figures holding disks the color of apples: a Tree of Knowledge and a Tree of Life witnessed and recorded by a terrapsychologist whose right forearm bears a large circular birthmark.

What if we reimagined personality disorders as ecocultural disorders: narcissism as a mirroring of elitism, borders protested against by borderline permeability, perfectionism as personalized imperialism, avoidant disorder as collective fear writ large?

Do animals too express the sentient power of place? From the standpoint of a consciously applied animism, animal behavior seems alarmingly symbolic, from skunks in their black-and-white coats invading a black tie party in San Francisco, to monkeys making off with the cameras of tourist-spectators, to tricksterish Coyote patrolling the suburbs at night. The fire that recently burned, pruned and locked up Montecito roared out of control on Coyote Lane. Seen from without, these are random occurrences causally explained. Seen from within, they look more like gestures, bids for our attention, even symptoms troubling Terra’s psychology.

Do events like storms and earthquakes seem to gesture at us, parody us, or react metaphorically—like Katrina invading one oil-rich gulf while American troops attempted to seize another? Is it just an accident that the name of Wilma, given to the record-breaking storm whose immense eye looked down at the rain-washed path formerly taken by incoming conquistadors, means “Determined Protector”? Can we hold this idea of symbolic signaling without splitting Terra into good mommy and bad, or falling into the punishment paradigm of divine vengeance?

What can we do toward fashioning imaginative and holistic research that takes place seriously before climate change and other perils destroy civilization and perhaps the human species? “When a large tree hits the ground, the earth trembles,” notes farmer Gene Logsdon.

I can feel it in my bones and my soul trembles in response, like a tuning fork….In a few more generations, no one in this place will know the sounds that a two-hundred-year-old tree makes when it falls. Should a philosopher ask in those days whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise if there is no one to hear, the answer will be: “Not anymore” (Logsdon, 1993, p. 200).

Five decades ago writer and reporter Sterling North wrote, “Every time you see a dust cloud, or a muddy stream, a field scarred by erosion or a channel choked with silt, you are witnessing the passing of American democracy” (Berry and Jackson, 1980, p. 47). But with Earth we comprise one psychic system of immense adaptability. Psyche’s natural polycentricity reasserts itself over and over, washing like the tide against the monolithic structures of conquest. A core observation of terrapsychological work that offers some hope builds on an insight of Jung’s about the unconscious: Nature turns toward us the face that we turn toward it. The natural forces that surround and sustain or maim and kill us seem to reflect the collective attitude we take up toward them.

Nature turns toward us the face that we turn toward it.


Encounters with places felt to be sacred offer polychromatic glimpses of possible futures whose numinous outlines breach the borders of religion, ideology, and Time itself, showing us not only how it could be here on Earth, but how it already is for some. They also suggest that where we practice our craft is at least as important as what we practice. Here is Thomas Berry, philosopher and priest:

The field was covered with lilies rising above the thick grass…This early experience, it seems, has become normative for me throughout the entire range of my thinking. Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good, what is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple. It is also that pervasive. It applies in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion….(McLuhan, 1996, p. 221).

George William Russell, poet and theosophist:

This world of Tir-na-nogue, the heaven of the ancient Celt, lay all about them. It lies about us still. Ah, dear land, where the divine ever glimmers brotherly upon us, where the heavens droop nearer in tenderness, and the stones of the field seem more at league with us…(McLuhan, 1996, p. 189).

Sufi philosopher Lex Hixon suggests in one beautiful image that the prayers of Muslims facing the Ka’aba in Mecca transform the entire planet into a sacred mosque. Carmelite nun Tessa Bielecki says about Mount Carmel, where John of the Cross ascended:

Carmelites are mountain climbers, who go by way of the straight path. Thus Mount Carmel is the homeland of the heart for every Carmelite…. We are called to meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, unless engaged in some other just occupation. ‘Law’ in this case does not merely mean the Ten Commandments, but also the law that is written in the universe: the law in our hearts, the natural law, the cosmic law (McLuhan, 1996, p. 205-6).

Lama Anagarika Govinda of Tibet speaks of “the soul of the landscape” into which we are woven, and “in which the rhythm of the universe is condensed into a melody of irresistible charm. Imagination here becomes an adequate expression of reality on the plane of human consciousness…” (McLuhan, 1996, p. 218).

From Nobel laureate George Seferis:

I know a pine tree that leans over near a sea. At mid-day it bestows upon the tired body a shade measured like our life, and in the evening the wind blowing through its needles begins a curious song as though of souls that made an end of death, just at the moment when they begin to become skin and lips again. Once I stayed awake all night under this tree. At dawn I was new, as though I had been freshly quarried (McLuhan, 1996, p. 33).

And to bring us back home, this last from scientist Gustav Fechner, a founder of physiological psychology:

One spring morning I went out early: the fields were greening, the birds were singing, the dew glistening; smoke was rising here and there, and here and there appeared a man; there fell upon everything a transfiguring light; it was only a tiny fraction of the earth, only a tiny moment of its existence, and yet, as I comprised more and more in the range of my vision, it seemed to me not only so beautiful but so true and evident that it is an angel, so rich and fresh and blooming, and at the same time so stable and unified, moving in the heavens, turning wholly towards heaven its animated face, and bearing me with it to that same heaven—so beautiful and true that I wondered how men’s notions could be so perverted as to see in the earth only a dry clod, and to seek for angels apart from earth and stars or above them in the vacant heaven, only to find them nowhere…. (Fechner and Lowrie, 1946, p. 153).

Photos by Gary Newman


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