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What Is Terrapsychology?

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Definition:

Terrapsychology is a gradually growing field of imaginative studies, ideas, and practices for reenchanting our relations with the world, and therefore with each other and with ourselves. It is a deep psychology not only of humans, but of everything we interact with. It aspires to be a truly planetary psychology; for now, it is a psychology of reenchantment for living in an animate world

As such, terrapsychology explores how terrain, place, element, and natural process show up in human psychology, endeavor, and story, including myth and folklore. It begins with the premise that we are not really separate from the sites where we live and work. Understanding what we do and who we are requires understanding where we are, and when. What emerges when we listen, imagine, and feel into rich intersections of psyche, story, symbol, body, mood, and place? When we put the presence of world at the center of psychology?

Terra means "earth" or "ground" and was known in antiquity as a goddess. In our work we take "terra" to mean emplaced, located, grounded: in other words, here, whether local, regional, or farther out. Immanent rather than transcendent or otherworldly.

Terrapsychology is the discipline name for the experiential approach called earthdreaming: a body of imaginative Earth-honoring practices for enriching our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the natural world.

In terms of its academic roots, terrapsychology owes an appreciative debt to the following:

  • Depth psychology, Jungian in particular as well as Hillman's project of remythologizing; but TP insists that we are formed by where we geographically come from, detects archetypes (primary more-than-human patterns/motifs) outside as well as inside us, resists archetypal reductionism, and opens up Jung's psychologizing of Gnostic image and terminology by identifying and describing a Silver Tradition of gnosis throughout human history.

  • Ecopsychology and its application as ecotherapy; but TP takes seriously indigenous stories and accounts of the animation of the natural world.

  • Systems Theory and some aspects of Complexity Theory, while insisting on the importance of both subjectivity and personal responsibility.

  • Organismic psychological approaches (humanistic, existential, transpersonal), aligning them with ecopsychology's linking of personal with planetary health.

  • The Humanities, especially storytelling and folklore. TP looks at which tales arise in particular locales.

  • Dilthey's emphasis on human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) being more applicable to some complex studies than positivist approaches viewing things only from outside.

  • Goethean phenomenology guided by sensorial imagination.

  • The literary Romantic notion of evolving gods.


Terrapsychological work can be and is being done in academic circles but can also be used professionally or as a method of personal inquiry and self-exploration. Self-knowledge remains fragmentary if we do not explore our deep linkages to the here, where, and when of who we are.

How It Started: Listening to Place

Have you ever noticed how different you feel in the desert, in a forest, and on the open sea? How some cities and towns seem to welcome and call to you—and others to grate on you to the point of impelling you to move elsewhere? Not because of noise or smog or some other definable irritant, but because of something harder to pin down: the feel of the place, or its style, or its “mood” or “personality.” And the same with places that seem to enliven and strengthen us.

It has been difficult to understand this uncanny sense of place because of a long-standing belief that the world and its elements and locations are mute, uninvolved, and unintelligent: mere resources for human use and backdrops to our activities. We are having to relearn, however, that our indigenous ancestors who regarded the land, the sea, and the sky as living beings might have picked up on something we’ve forgotten about.

We are having to relearn that a place is more than the sum of its identifiable components.

In part this is because a place is a complex organism that functions as a system: not just a collection of random parts, but a living whole that organizes and maintains itself in ways we only begin to fathom. For instance, if you were to cover a tree in a grove with opaque material that kept its leaves from receiving sunlight, it could not feed itself. We now know that vast networks of soil fungi—networks that stretch across continents—would compensate for this by funneling extra nutrients toward the shaded tree. This fungi also directs soil nutrients into plant roots. Could natural systems like this be one root of the global pre-industrial belief in an all-caring Earth goddess?

We also know from more than a century of deep psychological work and from research by linguists that the mind possesses an amazing faculty for translating outer events into inner ones. A tree in your yard easily translates into a symbol of growth and groundedness, a dolphin into a mental representation of playfulness and spontaneity. Dreams make use of this faculty all the time to express inner states in outer imagery. This makes sense given our long evolution from the natural world. Its features remain closely joined to our inner workings despite our tendency to believe ourselves psychologically separate from nature.

Like small groups and families, human communities also demonstrate a collective togetherness better understood as a whole entity than as an assembly of parts. When this human system joins with those that characterize a place—its ecology, its geology, its plants and animals, its history and architecture, politics and artwork—we face a truly complex “presence of place” we must understand on its own terms instead of reducing it to oversimplified causal explanations.

Terrapsychology began by providing a multidisciplinary set of approaches for exploring and amplifying this local sense of presence. After writing my dissertation on the presence of place in our psychology, I published Terrapsychology: Reengaging the Soul of Place (Spring Journal Books, 2007). In it I called for a new depth approach to explore the largely unconscious (because disregarded) connections between us and our living Earth system of systems. To put it differently, terrapsychology studied how the patterns and shapes and features of the human and nonhuman world sculpted our ideas, our habits, our relationships, and even culture and sense of self. Whether we know it or not, we speak in the discourse of nature, terrain, and place, their jagged places roughening our turns of phrase, rivers carrying our endeavors onward, skyscrapers tempting us to irresponsible heights, polluted bays polluting our moods, corridors of wildlife preserving our pathways of sanity.

Because these sorts of highly complicated interactions and webs of connection could never be isolated and pinned down (no living relationship can!), researching them requires tools more suited to preliminary descriptions than to nailing down causes and effects. Terrapsychological Inquiry is a research method designed to offer such tools as we look behind facts and numbers for the Earth-connective symbols and motifs at work behind them. A description of Terrapsychological Inquiry appears in the anthology Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled (World Soul Books, 2010).

Rebearths defined terrapsychology as a multidisciplinary set of approaches for investigating the deep connections between us and the presence of our animate, responsive, and reactive Earth.

Terrapsychological approaches represent:

1. A call to conscious re-emplacement: coming home to where we live in a deep way by discovering how the places where we live function as facets of our own psychological life and well-being.

2. A methodology (Terrapsychological Inquiry) for demonstrating the mutuality between human wholeness and planetary health. Terrapsychology started as the study of mostly unconscious interactions between the deep human psyche and the psychologically animated presence, or “soul,” of place and the things within it. The orienting root is Story: Story as a weave connecting people to place. The story of a locale includes how its empirical, ecological, cultural, personal, and even folkloric dimensions gather into a meaningful narrative anchored in its unique geography.

3. A program of healing the cultural split between self and world that underlies the environmental crisis through education on a variety of perspectives that bring psychology into the ecological crisis discussion, diagnose the crisis, and offer enchanting Earth-honoring alternatives. Dry talk of sustainability and environmental this or that gives way to themes of restoration, regeneration, and repair of the world.

4. A practice of understanding a place’s sufferings and health from inside its stories while experiencing one’s own story as part of the place’s (“heartsteading”). This includes training and practice in researching the details of particular places—terrain, history, ecology, lore—so that people who live there bond with them strongly and begin cycles of mutual healing. Because these places take on the qualities of the psychological field or “life space” of the inhabitants, heartsteaders treat the land and its features, soils, water, animals, etc. as living things deeply implicated in their psychological life, just as they inhabit the place’s.

5. A genre for writing movingly and even poetically about the living presence of places and things. Here terrapsychology gladly takes its place among the humanities.

6. An invitation to dream up reenchanting “new myths” for the kinds of Earth-based communities that match our needs and deepest desires. These myths involve the collective creation of a truly planetary psychology that offers a meaningful vision of where we belong in the world.

TP is an area of inquiry and a call to reemplacement that seeks to demonstrate, clarify, express, and embody the mutuality between human wholeness and planetary health, and to explore how the cultural split between self and world that underlies global eco-crisis can heal through discovering how the places where we live function as facets of our own psychological life and well-being.

The group of researchers, writers, and depth psychologists who do this kind of work include Annabelle Berrios, Katrina Davenport, Matthew Cochran, Rebecca Elliott, Mike Haber, Maggie Hippman, Karen Jaenke, Aviva Joseph, Lola McCrary, Laura Mitchell, Kali Olivieri, Betsy Perluss, Sarah Rankin, and Rebecca Wyse. 

Beyond the Local Focus

As terrapsychology evolved, it kept its place-based emphasis but broadened its inquiry. This expanded sphere of interest is reflected in this partial chronological ordering of TP works and areas of study:

  • "Locianalysis" (2003): analysis of the presence of place via moods, dreams, somatic states. From Chalquist, C. dissertation In the Shadow of Cross and Sword: Toward a Psychoanalysis of Place.

  • Terrestry (2005): assembling a coherent life depth picture from the study of recurring images and motifs in one's birth story, personal myth, ancestry, and geographical locales. 

  • Terrapsychology: Reengaging the Soul of Place by C. Chalquist. Spring Journal Books, 2007. In this book locianalysis is renamed terrapsychology.

  • Rankin, S. (2007): A Terrapsychological Study of the Psyche of Petaluma. Master's thesis, Sonoma State University.

  • C. Chalquist. Book Review: Howard Clinebell’s Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth. Santa Barbara Therapy News (CAMFT), September 2007.

  • Filocamo, K., 2008: The Alluring Universe: Exploring an Erotic Relationship with the World, master's thesis, JFK University.

  • Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, edited by Linda Buzzell and C. Chalquist. Sierra Club Books, 2009.

  • C. Chalquist. “Sustainasanity: Planting and Harvesting Health and Community.” Contra Costa Times (July 2, 2009).

  • C. Chalquist, The Tears of Llorona, vol. 1 of the Animate California Trilogy (2009). Vol. 2: Ventral Depths (2011). Vol. 3: Edges, Peaks, and Vales (2012).

  • C. Chalquist, “Tracking the City’s Psyche: Terrapsychologizing in San Francisco.” Ecopsychology 4(3), September 2012.

  • Intersubjective animism (2003, 2010, 2013): interpretive work with "inanimate" matter and objects and elements; animal behavior. See In the Thick of Things: Brief Musings on Living in an Animate World (C. Chalquist, 2013).

  • “‘Hidden in What Is Visible’: Deliteralizing the Gnostic Worldview.” C. Chalquist, in Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche 4(4), October 2010.

  • The first terrapsychology anthology is Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled (2010). Contains an article by C. Chalquist and S. Rankin on Terrapsychological Inquiry as a research methodology.

  • Eradigmatics (2010, 2018): an ecoarchetypal approach to historical and collective worldview changes.

  • C. Chalquist, “Ecotherapy: Ecopsychology Applied for Healing Our Relationship with Nature and Self.” The California Psychologist (July 2010).

  • Davenport, K. (2010): "TerraPlaces: Enlivening Relationship with Place."

  • The world's first Certificate in Ecotherapy founded at John F. Kennedy University (C. Chalquist, 2010).

  • “When Nature is the Best Therapist.” C. Chalquist, in Natural Awakenings, September 2011.

  • “On Ecological Identity and Terrapsychology,” C. Chalquist, in Soltys's Tangled Roots: Dialogues Exploring Ecological Justice, Healing, and Decolonization (Healing the Earth Press, 2012).

  • "Earthmind” by L. Mitchell in Vakoch and Castrillon, Ecopsychology, Phenomenology, and the Environment: The Experience of Nature (2014).

  • "Lorecasting the Weather: Unhumanizing Phenomenology for Decoding the Language of Earth,” C. Chalquist in Vakoch and Castrillon, Ecopsychology, Phenomenology, and the Environment: The Experience of Nature (2014).

  • Archetypal Mythology (2005, coined by Vernice Solimar): studying how mythic motifs and images reemerge in contemporary life (Campbell, Jung), but with emphasis on their linkage not only to archetypal patterns but to specific worldly events. Taught as a class at JFKU University.

  • Transrevolution (2014): how social systems recreate themselves around emerging archetypes. Taught as part of an online Deep Storytelling and Archetypal Activism course, Pacifica Graduate Institute.

  • Immanence Journal launched (2015) to promote applied folklore studies and writings.

  • Terragnosis (2015): the terrapsychological study of ecospirituality. Ecoarchetypal immanence: myths and archetypes reflect non-local natural-cosmic processes.

  • “Integral Education in Light of Earthrise,” C. Chalquist, in Integral Review 11(1), Spring 2015.

  • A. Berrios taught embodied terrapsychology as part of the NY Open Center Certificate in Holistic Psychology (2016).

  • McCrary, L., 2016: "Deep Genealogy."

  • Your Church, My Bar by C. Olivieri is the first dissertation to use Terrapsychological Inquiry as a primary methodology (2016).

  • A Psychology of Salt (2017): a terrapsychological thesis submitted by Maggie Hippman to the University of Utah Environmental Humanities Program.

  • Enchantivism (2017): the telling of stories large enough to include what's broken or rupturing culturally while moving beyond trouble into utopic imaginings of better possible futures for how to live with each other on a healing homeworld. Certificate in Enchantivism at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

  • "A Folklore of Hope: Storytelling for a Reenchanted World," C. Chalquist, keynote presentation to The Anthropocene and Beyond conference at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, 2018.

  • Nature myth studies included in C. Chalquist, Myths Among Us: When Timeless Tales Return to Life (2018).

  • Unattended Trauma of the San Lorenzo River: A Terrapsychological Inquiry. Dissertation by Michael Haber (2018).


The orienting root around which terrapsychological exploration turns is Story as a weave connecting people to place, Earth, and cosmos. Even the body's connection to the land and its elements is storied, imagined, fantasied in the depths. The terrapsychological approach seeks to learn the many-sided story of a particular locale by discerning how its ecological, cultural, personal, and even folkloric dimensions tend to gather into a meaningful narrative framework anchored in its unique geography. Often, this framework looks like myth.

The uncanny aliveness of the locations we inhabit and that inhabit us seems to be the rule rather than the exception. It’s as though what the conscious mind sees as dead places and things, the unconscious reacts to as animated presences and metaphors. Borderlines and borderlands, polluted bays and polluted moods, personal complexes and apartment complexes all seem to resonate together. Not only can events in the world symbolize aspects of the human self, those aspects in turn point back to the features of the world that evolved our minds.

Terrapsychology also takes on the questions which mainstream, empire-era psychology and psychiatry have proven to be incapable of tackling: What does it mean that I live in the middle of the greatest ecological crisis in history? What can I do about it? Beyond that, what kinds of ideas and narratives will guide me through it? What possibilities exist for post-belief forms of immanent, story-based spirituality? What new stories will I need to find my way back to my reenchanted home? What is Earth asking of me?

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