A Terrapsychological Glance at Schumacher College

Craig Chalquist, PhD

I would like to thank the students in my Introduction to Terrapsychology
short course at Schumacher (February 2013), psychologist and deep
educator Gill Wyatt, and ecologist Stephen Harding for information
they contributed to this article.

Terrapsychology is the study of how the presence of a place and that of the creatures and materials within it interacts subtly and psychologically with the humans who inhabit it. As an interpretive (hermeneutic) rather than empirical discipline, terrapsychology inquires into the recurring images and motifs that form the spirit, soul, or story of a locale, asking: What would we see if we thought of this locale as animated, ensouled, beckoning, and systemically involved with those who study it? The Bay Area where I work and live includes the largest estuary on the west coast of North America; from a terrapsychological perspective, this ecological formation serves as a psychological, cultural, and spiritual estuary too. Sites, landscapes, flora, fauna, rock strata, watersheds, roads, and buildings do not merely influence our psychology: they are themselves manifestations of it and can be interpreted accordingly.

In February 2013, ten students, a facilitator, and I had the chance to look over Schumacher College from a terrapsychological vantage. Although we did not have time for a thorough study, we did receive strong impressions as detailed below. First, a bit about the school and the place it inhabits.

Schumacher and Its Surroundings
The college was founded in the 1920s to provide a learning environment that combined communal work and study, cross-cultural knowledge and practice, and artistic and agricultural experimentation, all organized around a holistic worldview in which culture and nature, self and world, were not rigidly separated, as they are in educational approaches based primarily on knowings from the neck upward. The school was named after economist E.F. Schumacher (1911 – 1977), author of Small is Beautiful and A Guide for the Perplexed. Economic activity, he believed, should be intelligently managed, decentralized, locally resourced, and rooted in what we now call sustainability: a capacity for living within one’s ecological means. He was an economic adviser to Britain, Burma, India, and Zambia as well as an avid gardener and student of great thinkers like Gandhi and Thomas Merton.

The school named after Schumacher looks out from the Dartington Hall Estate near Dartington and Totnes onto the green and moist South Devon countryside rolling through the southwest of England. Stands of oak and beech draw nourishment from a moor watered by the river Dart. Students come here from all over the world to study holistic science, sustainable agriculture, natural building, post-carbon economics, and ecological design. Before and after class, the students participate directly in the life of the school, including changing beds, cooking food, and cleaning the floors and bathrooms. To the north stretches the 368-square-mile Dartmoor National Park, a preserve where (according to legend) giants, gnomes, and witches once walked and stalked; to the south is Plymouth, site of so many historical ship launches. Underneath, the entire region sits on an ancient granite core. Nearby structures contain limestone quarried from nearby cliffs. Grazing sheep prevent the forests from reestablishing themselves over the moor.

Circling a Holely Site
As we started getting to know this place, the students and I quickly noticed the recurrence of an image: that of an empty hole, hub, or center surrounded by swirling color or activity. We saw it in much of the school’s artwork, the main building (built around a main hall and fireplace), a large empty font in the back, the heart-shaped estate around us, its location within a circular bend of the Dart (whose name means “oak”), and, thematically, in the leaderless Transition Towns movement that started in Totnes (named after a helmet), the circular gong that began all daily events, the clocks and watches people kept forgetting to bring or to set, and the fact that nobody but school administrators–threshold guardians?–could live on site. I had arrived, synchronistically, the week of Valentine’s Day, and on February 14th, heart-shaped messages bearing love poetry by Rumi appeared throughout the school, including over the fireplace.

The sign out front–“Old Postern“–prompted me to look up the etymology of that word, on the assumption that names are never terrapsychologically accidental. “Postern” refers to a hidden doorway and reaches back to Latin words for “coming after.” A suitable meaning, metaphorically speaking, given the post-industrial and post-carbon design courses taught here. Schumacher’s coursework looks ahead to safe, sane, and just ways of living lightly on our planet.

Terrapsychology assumes that such recurrent patterns–nuclei of local stories and the sense of place–begin in the land itself. The loop in the Dart matches the empty space of growth in the acorns here as well as the perforations found in the limestone, sandstone, granite (from the word “grain”), and fragments of ancient coral.

In my terrapsychologically inquiring travels throughout California I often noticed how local motifs and images fit inside regional ones. Somerset, a county adjacent to Devon, contains Glastonbury, site of so much Holy Grail lore; a legend dating back to 1191 tells of coffins found here belonging to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Another legend describes Glastonbury Tor as a portal to the Celtic underworld. Chalice Well brings iron-rich waters bubbling to the surface. Travel one more county eastward and you can see the circular ruins of Stonehenge. (I was delighted by all the stone around here, but then my first name means “outcropping of stone,” the Scottish counterpart to “tor.” My middle name, Steven, means “crown.”)

As C. G. Jung observed long ago, the spiral around a center describes a movement of psychic evolution. Devon gave its name to the Devonian Period (419-3.2 million years ago) and its immense explosion of early life, much of it riding on a wave of vascular plants, roots and seeds, all hollow. From these rose forests and, eventually, braciopods encased in shell (helmets), corals, ammanoids, bivalves, radially symmetrical echinoderms, lobe-fined fish, and large land vertebrates, all built, as it were, around an empty center space. Rock outcroppings here preceded ancient Pangaea; from here Darwin sailed forth to make his first studies of evolving life. No wonder the name of this place is Devon, an old Celtic word that means “deep.”

Raven’s Circle
As our classroon candle placed next to a perforated talking stone burned a deep hole in its wax, images of centers, abysses, and voids spread around us, even infiltrating our dreams. Nor did they confine themselves to our classroom: students and instructors in other programs told us of related themes set loose in their groups too. The void took different forms: sometimes long silences, sometimes fears of death, anxiety about Earth’s state of ecological crisis, worry about mass extinction. Vandana Shiva gave a talk that touched on the dire but looming possibility of losing the planet surface to ecocidal industrialism.

On the second day we went for a walk on Dartmoor with ecologist Stephen Harding (author of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition, and Gaia). After benefitting from his deep knowledge of our surroundings we went into the hills and sat among the tors to appreciate the presence of this sacred-feeling place. As we stood in a circle together, a large raven appeared, sailed slowly around us in a perfect circle, and flew off. We had just been talking about how we felt watched here, as though the place itself had noticed our presence.

In many cultures Raven symbolizes a difficult and even dangerous initiation, one involving a real possibility of death in the passage through a void of bewilderment; but animals are more than symbols of human mythology. The place itself had come strangely and immediately alive for us, with Raven as an emissary of that knowing.

In my book Terrapsychology: Reengaging the Soul of Place I followed up Joseph Campbell’s observation that myth is all around us by showing how certain myths seem to gravitate toward certain locales. (My Animate California Trilogy continued this demonstration throughout the entire Golden State.) Schumacher College seems to be the place of Hestia, the quiet hearth goddess at the center of every home, just as the fireplace stands at the social and geographical center of the school. I did not think about Hestia at first when I arrived, but two days later I dreamed that a feminine presence reached out and sliced my finger. Not knowing what to make of this dream, I shelved it until, standing in the kitchen, I ran a knife blade across a chunk of bread and caught my finger. Bread: the staple of Hestia, the goddess who partakes of every sacrifice.

Terrapsychological work has shown us that qualities of the interactive field between investigators and places surface almost immediately. In a Skype conversation before my visit to the school, Dr. Harding had emphasized a possible need for Wellington boots out on the rain-dampened moor. I pondered which footwear to take along on the trip, finally settling on waterproof hiking boots I was forced to remove time and again while passing through the security apparatus of various nations on my way to the United Kingdom. I was puzzled about how often shoes and walking came up not only for me but in conversations at the school until I recalled that “schumacher” meant “maker of shoes,” and that the school taught new/ancient ways of walking sustainably through the world. What is a shoe but a space for a foot?

Even when briefly conducted, terrapsychological discoveries carry practical implications. I suspect the school will do well as long as it walks its talk of being a portal through which students stride into transformative knowledge. Courses underlining dimensions of depth–cultural, psychological, historical, spiritual–beyond and below specific ecological and agricultural practices can enhance students’ sense of purpose for being here. On the other hand, going mainstream would set an agenda contrary to the nature of what lives here. I doubt the place would ever allow it.

In the terrapsychology anthology Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled, Schumacher College graduate Adrian Villasenor-Galarza contributed a chapter (“Longings, Travels, and Heartbeats”) in which he described a parallel between the presence of the land and his hard-beating heart:

Hand in hand with my growing heart, it dawned on me, as to fellow students at the school I attended, that something special characterized the land there. Visitors and students alike commented on the “field,” “presence,” “magnetic attraction,” or simply the “magic” of the place. It was said that the presence of so many influential leaders who came to Schumacher College to teach had created a palpable—and palpitational—subtle structure that informed the present participants. The house of James Lovelock, a developer of Gaia Theory, stood not many miles away; one of his courses inaugurated the renowned college in 1991.

However the school and its locale evolve, the center had best be kept open for whatever creative ferment wants to palpitate at its heart. Whether we conceive its interiority as acorn, river bend, shoe, seed, temenos, heart, hearth, or chalice, the land holds a Hestian holiness available for wide dispensation, but only on condition that its hearth be approached with quiet respect for the magic circle around it.