A Psyche the Size of Contra Costa County


I have become very familiar with a particular strip of shoreline along the San Pablo Bay over the past couple of years. We were first introduced on my balcony. I stared across the bay at Mt. Tamalpais, but my gaze kept catching on the smoking cylinders to the right. It almost hurt to look at Martinez, John Muir’s former home, now inhabited by two major refineries, three chemical plants, and several hazardous waste dumps. I was equally dismayed by the train tracks that wound their way along the shoreline. What a shame I thought- the view is ruined. No wonder Pinole is cheap. It looked like the bay was suffering from some sort of environmental acne. Once beautiful, it had been marred and was depressing to look at. For me, it represented the “dark side” of progress. This is what we have to do to the environment in order to sustain our lifestyle, and this is the poor side of town, so it’s in my backyard.

I knew there was about a two mile trail “for walking dogs” that paralleled the train tracks along the shore, but I wasn’t sure if it was safe to go walking there alone. I had recently read that a local youth had been shot and killed on the tracks, and that a woman had been severely beaten near the trail parking lot. I started to walk around the neighborhood for exercise in the mornings, but quickly became bored by the houses and sidewalks. I felt like I was being pulled down toward the water and into the early morning fog that hovers over the bay.

The separation between land and sea is marked by sharp, jagged rocks. When the tide is low, old tires and scraps of junk can be seen peeking there heads out of the dark grey silt. The Union Pacific Railroad carries liquefied petroleum, freshly cut boards, and other building materials past me, roaring and screeching, shaking the ground. The bay looks wounded and used. The train cuts through her, splitting the earth form the water. There’s an old pier, going no where, left for dead and falling into the water. There are no waves, just ripples. A boat with a large crane is anchored in the middle. It is always there, I wonder if it ever moves.

To my right is the Shell Refinery, and to the left is the old Giant Dynamite Manufacturing Company, now a state park. Beyond that, just out of sight, is the Chevron Refinery in Richmond. To my back, right behind the complex I live in, is the Sugar City Building Materials Co. and concrete batching facility: an imposing mechanical fortress that churns and grinds, the cement trucks always coming and going. I feel surrounded by industry, chemicals, metal, and noise.

At first, this was pretty much all I could see. But my walks became a morning tradition, and soon I started leaving my keys at home. I noticed how different it felt to be walking outside instead of on a treadmill at the local gym. There is always life on the trail--it literally pulses with it. I notice the birds, the bugs, the lizards, the stray cats, and the dogs walking their owners. I discover blackberries, and see that the dried brown grass on either side of the trail is dotted with patches of bright pink and fuchsia flowers: my favorite colors. They are like bright jewels of hope.

I love watching how the land changes with the seasons, and how the bay’s mood changes every morning. I feel connected with all the different plants and animals even though I’ve never learned their names. I say good morning to the little swamp covered with algae, to the trees, and even the weeds. I fell in love with this little stretch of land. She helps to me remember my dreams from the night before, to get in touch with my feelings, and to make important decisions. Some mornings I walk, tears streaming down my face, the wind blowing through my hair, completely overwhelmed by her beauty.

I chose this place as the site of my terrapsychological exploration. What is the “presence” or “soul” of this place? What does this place have to tell me? What themes, or placefield motifs, emerge when I examine this place as a personality (Chalquist, n.d.)? Terrapsychologists believe that “just as human minds retain their unhealed scars of sorrow and guilt, betrayal and rage, so do colonized lands retain the ‘memory’ of the events that conquered their soils and shores and scar the hearts of their present inhabitants” (Chalquist, 2006, p. 2). How might the ecological destruction in this area be connected with psychological devastation?

So I walked and I listened. I asked the place to tell me her story, to speak to me my dreams. At first, it seemed like I was only getting my story. I kept having memories and dreams about my childhood and adolescent years--a time when I was living in a different part of the county. I reflected on how different this place is from where I grew up, how unhappy I was then, and how genuinely happy I am now. Gradually, I let go of my concern about whether or not it was actually the place speaking or just my own imagination, and I allowed the conversation to reach inland and back into my childhood.

I realized that although I have lived and worked in many different areas, they are all parts of Contra Costa County. Originally from “Central County,” I first moved “East County”, and have now settled in the “West County.” I know this county well, from the summit of Mt. Diablo to rocky shores of San Pablo Bay, from country clubs to the housing projects. Furthermore, I could see that the theme, or placefield motif, that was arising was the sharp contrast between these different areas. I realized that perhaps I wasn’t just speaking to my little strip of shoreline, but that I was in dialogue with the whole county. Two areas in particular called out to me the most: the city of Danville and the city of Richmond.

I was born and raised in “Coco” county (a nickname adopted from prison uniforms that read “Property of Co.Co. County”), but not on the poor side of town. Conversely, I grew up in Danville, one of the richest cities in the county. My parents, far from wealthy, had purchased the property while the area was mostly farmland, before the “exclusive” gated housing communities sprang up around it. Our house was the same one-story post war track home that was built all over the county during the 1940’s housing boom, and stood in sharp contrast to the multi-million dollar mansions that became its neighbors.

I learned soon enough that happiness doesn’t always live in mansions; they are often lonely and cold. I remember having the sense that something was terribly wrong. I could feel it, but I could never see what it was. It seemed like everything and everyone was beautiful and “perfect” where I grew up. People were successful and attractive; they remodeled their bodies just like their homes, tore out old fixtures and added new rooms. All the housewives had bright white smiles, sculpted bodies, and manicured nails that matched their white picket fences, landscaped yards, and manicured lawns. Everything had been tamed.

There was something so unnatural about this community. It was all surfaces, it didn’t have any depth- it didn’t have any soul. It was as if the entire town was suffering from “materialistic disorder” (Fisher, 2002, p. 22). All this luxury, all this “perfection,” but at what cost? What has to happen so that so few can have so much? It was like I could hear pain screaming beneath the surface, trapped under the glossy veneer. It was seeping out, poisoning my being. Why can’t anybody else feel it? It must be me, something is wrong with me. My only relief was to numb it away, to just not feel anything. There were tendrils of despair that seemed to grow up out of the earth, pulling me down, down, down. I had no more energy anymore; I could barely get out of bed.

Back then, I was just as much afraid of the outer wilderness as I was afraid of my inner wilderness. I wanted nothing to do with the outdoors. I associated being outside with dirt, creepy crawlies, bug bites, allergies, itching and sneezing. I remember having nightmares that I was crawling with insects, especially spiders, and jumping out of bed to turn on the lights and make sure there were no bugs hiding in the blankets. We lived almost at the base of Mt. Diablo, a mountain named by a group of Spaniards who, after losing their Native American captives in a thicket, proclaimed it to be “Monte del Diablo” (Contra Costa County, n.d). I was surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural environments in the area, but I wanted nothing to do with that Devil Mountain.

My dad was an addict and my parents were always fighting, and would later divorce. I was mostly miserable then, and as a teenager I had taken to polluting my body with alcohol and other recreational drugs. I wasn’t the only one: Danville had a huge drug problem, an unfortunate side effect of having too much money and too little to do. At fifteen, I was diagnosed as clinically depressed and having a substance abuse problem--“self-medicating” they called it. I was told by a psychiatrist that these types of mental illnesses are genetic, and although they hadn’t found a gene for it yet, they probably would any day now. The message was clear: The problem was in me. I was damaged goods, fatally flawed.

While doing research for this project, I learned that “since 1989, there have been thirty-five major industrial accidents in Contra Costa County, making it one of the most dangerous places to live in the nation” (Sherman, n.d., p.4). For the first time, I am considering the possibility that growing up here may have contributed to my “dis-ease.” Maybe the whole problem wasn’t within me or my family after all. Perhaps I have been communicating with Contra Costa County for longer than I thought. Maybe I have even been identifying with her, spontaneously fusing with her soul the same way I tend to merge with other people if I’m not careful with my boundaries.

It wasn’t until I moved to West County, and started working with youth in Richmond’s Iron Triangle, a crime and poverty ridden area bounded on three sides by railroad tracks and crouched in the shadow of the Chevron refinery, that I learned what being poor really looked like. It is a community made up mostly of people of color, primarily African Americans that were brought in from the southern states to work at the old Kaiser Shipyard, where almost fifty percent of children and every third house are living under the poverty line.

The city has suffered such high crime rates that last year the mayor requested (and was refused) a “declaration of a state of emergency” so that the city could receive military aid. Part of the city’s strategy appears to be keeping crime barricaded in the Iron Triangle in an effort to prevent its spread to other parts of the city. Many of the youth I work with have the word “Richmond” tattooed on their neck, chest, or back. I often see the “510” area code permanently scrawled across their forearms as if to say “I am this place, it is a part of me.” They wear it like a badge of honor to show how “hard” they are, daring the world to look at their pain; the pain of this place.

According to Andy Fisher “the society that violates nonhuman nature is the same society that violates human nature” (2003, p. 25). The treatment of the people of Richmond mirrors the treatment of our waste: out of sight, out of mind. We store most of the county’s poor next to hundreds of acres of tanks and pipe, the same place where we store over eleven million pounds of toxic, explosive, and corrosive chemicals (Sherman, n.d.). There are obvious parallels between our domination of the environment and our domination of women and people of color (Fisher, 2003).

At first, this didn’t make any sense to me. Why should I be happier and healthier living closer to the toxicity? Why is it that I feel so good now, so alive, and so full of energy? People ask me all the time “how can you work there, how can you see it everyday?” “How do you do it, how do you keep from getting depressed?” But now I realize that it was not looking at it that made me depressed. It was living in the more “desirable” area that was depressing. I can witness this now, be with it. I can even choose to do something about it, make my own humble contribution. I can bring presence and joy and playfulness to this place.

Danville had been only one side of the story of polarization. There was no poverty, no pollution, almost no people of color. The closest people from Danville get to Richmond is passing it on the freeway, and most youth from Richmond have never been outside the city. Growing up, I had never known anyone who received public assistance, or even seen a “food stamp.” I had never witnessed a refinery up close, or smelled the chemical stink. It is as if the county is an un-integrated psyche that refuses to acknowledge the tremendous shadow it casts. I can feel the resonance between the natural devastation, the cultural devastation, my own devastation.

I’m not really sure whose soul I’ve been talking to, my own or that of this place. I don’t know if it even matters. I do believe that “your soul is both of you and of the world” and that “the world cannot be full until you become fully yourself” (Plotkin, 2003, p.42). It’s ironic that it has taken living in the county’s dumping ground for me to develop a deep affection for this place. Far from the picturesque views of Danville, walking on a “dog path” next to a strip of railroad hugging the coastline between two refineries, I have uncovered an intense love for this county, as well as for the dark and polluted places within myself.

When we muffle the cries of our souls with addictions and other distractions, we ignore the cries of nature, of the world’s soul. When we are in touch with our soul, our aliveness, we can’t help but be in touch with the world, constantly feeling it (Plotkin, 2003). I share the pain of this place and yet I feel at peace here. I can stand in the swirling vortex of environmental and human degradation and I can face the devastation, survey the ecological and cultural injuries. And I feel strong--I am not afraid. I can stand tall, with my eyes open, and my feet firmly rooted in the ground. This is the place where the earth meets the sea, the conscious meets the unconscious. It makes sense that I would encounter soul here, discover my kinship with the Earth.


Chalquist, C. (n.d.). What is terrapsychology? Retrieved August 21, 2006, from https://terrapsych.com/whatisTP.html

Chalquist, C. (2006). Terrapsychology: A new (and ancient) paradigm for engaging the world’s soul Retrieved August 21, 2006, from http://www.tearsofllorona.com/summary.html

Contra Costa County, California. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contra_Costa_County,_California

Fisher, A. (2002). Radical ecopsychology: Psychology in the service of life. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Plotkin, B. (2003). Soulcraft: Crossing into the mysteries of nature and psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Sherman, S. (n.d.). Environmental justice case study: West county toxics coalition and the chevron refinery. Retrieved August 22, 2006 from http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/sherman.html

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