Craig Chalquist, MS PhD - Quotations on Psychology, Ecology, and Place


What's difficult to forgive about the places where we live, the soils, the moisture or dryness, shifting shadows, the curious animals, is how easily they can crack open our inner defenses. Perhaps this explains some of the anger directed at environmentalists and nature people in general: the already broken open and open-hearted, those among us who can still resound like ringing bells to the joyful claps of natural inspirations.

Amazing, how present we find the natural world in scenes of revelation: Jesus in the Garden, Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, Moses on the shoulder of Sinai, Muhammad in the mountainous womb of Paran. Sermons treat such locales as backgrounds, but perhaps they were also participants, even uncredited mentors in the naturalistic arts of enlightenment.

A therapist I once saw liked to talk about psychological hydraulics: drives and their derivatives, libido, desire, death; yet we never discussed any possible meaning in where she maintained her office: a few miles from the outlet of the state's longest aqueduct, a product of the ceaseless California water wars and their civic strategy of hydraulic despotism.

I went to the beach troubled last week, my mood as stormy as the passing rains, and unexpectedly beheld an arc of rainbow shining above the ocean. My grimness subsided into gratitude. Had that magnificent bow been hung there as a signal of reassurance for one perplexed watcher? Certainly not. But it's possible I had arrived there in order to witness it for a moment or two.

Without discounting the work of projects like SETI, which listen in for aliens sending radio signals from space, we might wonder if such imaginative endeavors bear along the faint imprint of a cultural and ecological symptom. After all, isn't it odd that as we search the sky above for extraterrestrials, we are being addressed through our moods, nightmares, and romantic problems by the alienated terrestrial below us?

"What should we make of this landscape?"--the chief question of real estate, urban planning, and monocrop agriculture. But what does the landscape make of us?

An inability to learn from experiences no matter how often they repeat, an obsession with control that unbalances whatever it interferes with, a fear of dirt and disorder, a resort to "manic" defenses that seek to transcend some messy state of emotion: although these have been correctly diagnosed in individuals as signs of mental illness, governments and corporations continue to irrigate fragile fields into salt encrustations, as the Sumerians did until their civilization fell; interfere in natural cycles that have managed themselves since long before we arrived; bandy programs and philosophies and doctrines of ascension even as we scrub the good soil from our anxious hands. This is why aboriginal spokespeople keep talking about states of derangement still absent from our diagnostic manuals--except in the tree fiber on which they are so recklessly printed.

How many of us really feel at home where we live, or at least make our way home to some beloved somewhere? Isn't this the same as asking how many of us feel alive?

Placard-waving madmen who scream insults at Earth Day celebrants are not the only ones among us to secretly feel aborted from the primal womb. To feel at home here is a rarity in nations bulging with freeways crammed with moving vans. To regard our “true” home as elsewhere--heaven, nirvana, the Pleides, the spirit world--is practically a defining characteristic of modernism, whose slogan, coined in the cannonfire and plunder of the Age of Exploration, ought by rights to be Anywhere But Here. (Postmodernism differs mainly in that Home is nonexistent. It’s floating signifiers all the way down.)

The difference between terrapsychology and ecopsychology (the latter involving the psychological study of the human-nature relationship) is that the researcher can do ecopsychology without assuming that places exhibit an imaginal face, voice, or presence. Terrapsychology is what happens when we make that assumption and follow it up. As the study of the presence of our surroundings, terrapsychology allies itself with the unapologetic "animism" of natural ecologists and indigenous healers who insist that things exhibit their own kind of subtle aliveness.

There was a time when philosophers like Descartes believed that people were machines and animals had no feelings. The result in our day? Animal mass extinctions and machines that simulate feelings. Ridden too far, made too slick, the road to Progress is like the road to Hell: paved over with good intentions.

In a real education worthy of the name, students would be allowed to wonder whether cybernetic scientist Allen Turing's deliberate bite into a poisoned apple unconsciously reprised the expulsion from Eden.

If we come to a problematic future where we cannot tell a human intelligence from an artificial one, we have merely to ask the subject in question to name any place experienced as personally sacred. Unlike the machine, the human will be able to answer meaningfully, and why not: "human" and "humus" share much common ground.

Who are we, we inquisitive Homo sapiens? Nothing less than the hands, the frontal lobes, the vocal chords of Gaia.

To treat land, air, and water as mere "resources" demonstrates how little we feel a part of the planet rounding itself beneath our feet. Yet civilizations depend on such embodied intimacy; those without it perish. I believe it was farmer-researcher Wes Jackson who pointed out how strange it is that our universities offer no degree in Homecoming.

A fence around a lot offers a subtle reassurance: "This, at least, is under our control"--but only until the fence wears down, and the leaves, snouts, and whiskers begin to poke through.

Barriers around wild places, barriers around people we would keep fenced in or out, and barriers around the heart are all cut from the same thoughtless conceptual steel.

"Not enough studies have shown that such-and-such harms the environment." What has made common sense so uncommon, that acid rain and dying fish, desertification and spreading drought require "objective" validation before we can see them before our eyes and be more careful? A BP oil refinery just blew up in Texas. Will we wait for another study before believing that fifteen workers are really dead?

Ours is the only civilization that has regarded the land as lifeless. It is also the only civilization whose ever-expanding industries and economies depend on that particular prejudice. To expect its leaders to come to their senses and prize the Earth is like expecting a corrupt bureau to investigate itself fairly. Our environmental idealism could stand a touch more night vision.

Every market is a buyer's market. Driving a used diesel car that runs on spent cooking oil means that much less profit for the auto makers and petroleum dealers, none of whom demonstrate any real concern for the environment. Food purchased from local farmers makes flying it in from elsewhere unnecessary. Even an hour getting warm by the fire of a wood-burning stove is an hour off the coal- or oil-eating power grid. You may not be able to get enough people thinking and acting this way--time will tell--but you do have the power to limit the support you give to ecologically reckless financial empires by doing without those products that harm the planet's health.

Ideology is the antithesis of genuine spirituality. In the end, it might also prove the antithesis of human survival.

Thinking that reactionaries favor censorship, unchecked industrialization, corporate greed, repression of women's rights, and a pistol in every pot because of their Christian beliefs is like thinking that McDonald's uses up the world's rainforests because Ronald believes he's a clown. We should never ignore the emotional cash value in beliefs held primarily for their utility as justifications. The politician who advocates drilling up Alaska for a paltry few months' supply of oil does not make his pitch because Genesis says to wield dominion over the earth, but because he hates and fears whatever he cannot control, including nature (whether inner or outer); the beliefs are merely bent to the service of his rationalized destructiveness.

It is no historical coincidence that overemphasis on the supernatural, on meaning and value relocated to another world, marched staunchly in step with the rise of centralized power in this world.

How different the world would look if once we stopped to realize that the styrofoam cup thrown carelessly into the gutter casts its shadow on the human soul.

After a hundred years of psychotherapy, therapists are only now discovering the semi-autonomous reality of the psyche. Will it take them another hundred years to discern the outlines of the world behind the mind?

Technically speaking, ecopsychology emerged from, and as a result of, psychology. Nevertheless, one could argue that psychology, so determined to see the person without the surround, represents a fallen form of ecopsychology, a healing-in-context deprived of context. It would seem that psychology will not learn its place until it learns about the presence of place.

"The unconscious": in actuality the individualized, personalized face of the breathing world's "unconscious."

Without denigrating psychotherapy, so useful and so healing in so many situations, we might well doubt at this point whether deep inner wounds are worked through so much as outgrown. How is that done? By putting them in the service of our calling. "Inner" wounds are never entirely inner or even personal, however deeply felt; they are words spoken pulse by pulse by the blustery winds of change. Whether these winds buoy us up or tear at us is not the question, and in the long run they probably do both. The trick is to sail them home.

Who knows? Perhaps the date on which you were born in a certain geographic locale gives a hint about the problem ("thrown forward") you were born to address, the hanging phrase or question mark waiting for you to punctuate.

Let us consider another definition of "pathological" than "having baggage," a traveler metaphor if ever there was one, not to mention hinting at a perfectionistic standard of purity (as in, "cleaning up one's baggage"). True pathology lurks not in being addressed by past pain, but in each desperate attempt (conscious or unconscious) to infuse new life into a hopelessly dead past in lieu of taking up the possibilities of a future that awaits what we can give to it. Pathology is always a regression somehow, whereas vocation takes up the past into itself as an instrument of a more encompassing movement of creative realization.

I have come to wonder if the onflowing stream of holy images sacred to humanity work somehow to beckon us back to the world. Think about all those sprites, naiads, and spirits of grove and hill known to our pagan ancestors. Or of Turquoise Woman, Sun, Coyote, Bear, and Spider Woman. Today we call them complexes, personifications, and god-images when they don't show up as symptoms or bark like dogmas charged with spiritual fervor; yet they always seem to harken back to their surroundings. Follow them far enough, and we find ourselves led outside, from the heights of Zeus and Olympus to the wild places of Artemis and the Persephonic depths of Hades. The world speaks to us in the language of the divine, with psyche as intermediary, not as source.