What Is Terrapsychology?
Craig Chalquist, MS PhD
For the last five hundred years of Western history, environmental research has confined itself primarily to looking at the world from the outside, through a screen of self-interests, numbers, theories, and data. Whether prompted by profit, curiosity, fear, or concern, this heavily quantitative style tends to frame the world as an object and ourselves as detached observers of it.
Yet every culture, including ours, has insisted throughout its pre-industrial stages that the world—including the sky, the air, the sea, and particularly the land—is alive, reactive, and very present to what human beings do upon it. From kami to lorelei, naiads to dryads, the Navajo Changing Woman to the Neoplatonic World Soul, every local folklore reflects what the Greeks and Romans knew as the genius loci, a resident “spirit of place.”
That such animated images have been depreciated as mere projections or primitive superstitions says less about indigenous or rural psychology than about an economically and colonially vested need to see the land as an exploitable resource and ourselves as above it, masters rather than dwellers or guests. Nevertheless, they recur time after time in place after place. Artists, poets, naturalists, nature healers, and wilderness guides have born frequent witness to the strength of this influence of the surround. So, finally, has psychology as it extended outward from inside the person to inside the family and beyond with constructs like the transference (Janet and Freud), the psychological field (Lewin), intersubjectivity (Stolorow and Atwood), the relational matrix (Mitchell), and ecopsychology.
Terrapsychology seeks to hinge the two great traditions of inner and outer knowledge—the richly animistic and the empirically scientific—by listening into the terrain and its features and occupants without losing what more external knowings can tell us about them. Put simply, terrapsychology is the deep study of the animated presence, or “soul,” of locale, made visible through deep connections with the human interior. It treats the places and things below and around us as psychological presences in a widely flung field.
It is precisely the power of these connections that the market- and conquest-driven Western habit of self-world mind-matter dualism has obscured. But if they inhabit our psychological field—and their persistent reappearance in dreams, symptoms, folklore, recurring motifs, and unhealed local histories suggests that they do—then we share an ongoing but nonvocal dialog with the things around us. Consider the following examples of this:
A man residing in a city heavily militarized in his absence discovers otherwise unanalyzable qualities of defensiveness and guardedness showing up in his relationship with a long-term resident.
A woman working in an oppressive, conflict-ridden institution realizes that she and her coworkers unknowingly repeat a 150-old local historical drama whose key player bore the same name as the institution’s.
A graduate student researching the designs of petroglyphs scattered around a present-day bombing range discovers carved images shaped like bombs, jets and explosions—images carved hundreds of years before the invention of missiles or aircraft. Indigenous locals attribute these parallels to the presence of the Thunderbird deity.
Another student preparing to visit a county he’s never been to dreams about it the night before his trip. The word “contaminated” occurs throughout the dream. When he arrives at the place, he finds this motif everywhere, from polluted bays and streams to invading species and underground oil spills.
In a small sample of interviewees asked about their experience of some sacred or meaningful place, all unknowingly describe it as though it were a soothing, healing, or mentoring person.
Shortly before a tsunami strikes, five tribes move inland to avoid a flood that destroys their villages. One medicine leader claims that the god responsible for the deluge warned him in a dream.
The tribalist says that the natural world acts like a community of living beings. The geologist says that natural disasters like tsunamis come from measurable seismic movements. What if both are partially correct?
From the mainstream perspective, the examples above seem superstitious in their evocation of a soul or spirit of place. But this perspective fails to distinguish between literalized animism—explaining meteorology or other natural events as being caused by a spirit or arcane force—and the inner experience of these events as animated, ensouled, and full of significance. That places and things act as though alive need not conflict with explaining them outwardly as Western science normally would. How we experience them depends on the mode of consciousness available: literalistic and externalized, or symbolic and interpretive.
The uncanny aliveness of the locations we inhabit 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. This should not surprise us. 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 aims to bring these resonances more fully into consciousness by using the psychological field in which they surface to listen in on parallels between human and ecological wounding and well-being. Rather than reducing one to the other, the method honors the fully interactive nature of placefield motifs—recurrent themes common to people and place—as multidimensional, interdependent, intersubjective, and symbolically connective and meaningful. In fact, given the “transferential field” they inhabit with us, we interpret them much like the images of dreams, where even the most literal facts carry symbolic impact.
When local events are reexamined as linked to our interior depths by motif and metaphor (the language of the unconscious)—in other words, as though they possessed their own subjectivity, inwardness, or psychical aspect—then a fortified border is not just a very tall fence: it also recurs as a psychic division, a cleavage of the heart, a spiritual dam, a cultural barrier, a split within the self, a political regression. Instead of a psyche confined to human heads, we behold an ecology of the heart, where verdant landscapes moisten verdant souls. The matter we would master enters into us at will over bridges of image and dream.
How is terrapsychology different from ecology or environmental psychology?
Terrapsychology follows the example of deep ecology and depth psychology by looking below the surface of obvious connections between persons and places. Mainstream studies show a high correlation, for example, between rates of obesity near expanding metropolitan regions, whereas a terrapsychological question would be: Do we need a new concept, obecity, to describe an unconscious but bodily registered connection between urban sprawl and expanding waistlines?
Is terrapsychology scientific?
In terms of “science” narrowly defined as a search for causal relationships, the answer would be no, but humanistic and transpersonal psychologies have pushed for broader definitions. To extend Abraham Maslow’s remarks about studying the uniqueness of individuals to the uniqueness of places and their features: If what we discover does not fit a particular idea of science, “then so much the worse for that conception of science.”
What kinds of research does terrapsychology conduct?
Because current quantitative and qualitative methods tend to split self from world, we are fashioning our own blend, called Terrapsychological Inquiry, which draws on phenomenology, hermeneutics, ethnology, naturalism, geology, geography, collaborative inquiry, and various techniques from depth psychology to put the presence of place directly into the foreground.
Can you prove that matter possesses qualities of subjectivity?
Not with purely quantitative methods. They can’t even prove that we possess a subjective life. Search for it and all that appears are neurotransmitters and complex nervous networks. No hidden vital principle, no homunculus pulling the strings anywhere, and why? Because subjectivity is not a locatable thing to be detected from without. It is the felt interior of matter: the “within” of everything, as Teilhard de Chardin expressed it. The more complex or “brainy” the matter, the more differentiated the subjectivity. Looking for a source of subjectivity with such crude instrumentation is like leveling a yardstick at the symphony-ghost floating in the space between stereophonic headphones. It breaks the basic engineering rule of “the right tool for the right job.” The terrapsychological view is that the right tool is the psychological field: using the researcher’s subjectivity to explore the subjective properties of a given location.
Do you investigate things like ley lines, morphogenic forces, vibrations, etc.?
Not usually. Aside from what’s mentioned above about the limits of quantitative methods, the thesis that places and things occupy interactional fields with us makes force explanations unnecessary. If a housing development or a forest are resonant, integral parts of someone’s psychological field, then looking for lines of force or energies stretching between them and the person’s psyche is less fruitful for us than uncovering more symbolic, transferential connections. Discussions of forces and energies also tend to be what analyst Heinz Kohut referred to as “experience-distant.” We don’t invalidate any of that, but we try to keep within the range of what we can sense and feel.
What are some of the benefits of this kind of investigation?
All who have done it feel closer to the world, to things, to the places where we live. They have come to be like persons to us. As a result of this interior connection, we are less willing to see our surroundings wasted and destroyed, and more willing to educate each other about the losses of sanity and joy and embodiment that parallel losses of air, water, and land. Human and ecological health, wholeness, and justice can not be legitimately separated.
We also find ourselves less inclined to unknowingly repeat, become entangled with, or otherwise act out themes of local or historical wounding. It sounds paradoxical, but the very expansion of consciousness that allows reassessment of local doings as psychical facts somehow detaches us from the shadows they cast into the human psyche. The materialism of an unconscious identification with the environment, the very regression indigenous psychology has been accused of being stuck in, gives way to an intersubjective dialog. It’s rather like the difference between knowing and loving an animal well—prizing its uniqueness, respecting its needs—and babying it to death, looking down on it, or covertly reinforcing its barking or biting.
Deep ecologists, naturalists, and bioregionalists have spoken and written at length about the need to reinhabit our surroundings, to live in them consciously and caringly. Wendell Berry’s observation that we Americans still have not truly arrived in America speaks to the need for this sense of emplacement, of being still long enough to feel connected and responsible. Terrapsychology engenders this while demonstrating how the what of our surroundings also tends to approach us as a who.