What Is Terrapsychology?

What Is Terrapsychology?

Craig Chalquist, PhD


Terrapsychology studies how terrain, place, element, and natural process show up in human psychology, endeavor, and story, includying myth and legend. 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. What emerges when we listen, imagine, and feel into rich intersections of psyche, story, archetype, and place? When we put the presence of world in the widest sense at the center of psychology?

To put it differently: Terrapsychology is a psychology of reenchantment of our relations with the world, and therefore with each other.

In terms of its academic origins, terrapsychology is a kind of more-than-human, ecoarchetypal depth psychology aligned with deep ecology’s and ecopsychology’s connection of psychological and planetary health, Goethean phenomenology, Hillman’s remythologizing of psychology, and the deliteralization and replacement of cumbersome libido hydraulics with a complexity emphasis on story, iteration, circularity, emergence, and participation. TP also recognizes how Jung’s heavy borrowing of Gnostic image and terminology built his version of depth psychology on a foundation of sacred lore gathered from internal research stimulated by political and religious oppression.

Terrapsychological work can and is being done in academic circles but can also be used professionally (see below) or as a method of personal inquiry and self-exploration.

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 seeem 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 provide one reason for the universal pre-industrial belief in an all-caring Earth goddess?

We also know from more than a century of deep psychological work and research from 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.

Terrapsychology began by providing a multidisciplinary set of approaches for exploring and amplifying that sense of presence. After writing my dissertation on the presence of place in human psychology, I published my book 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).

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

These 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 environmental crisis discussion, diagnose the crisis, and offer sustainable alternatives.

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.

6. An invitation to dream up “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 the environmental 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 (whether they call it “terrapsychology” or simply “depth psychology”) include Annabelle Berrios, Bonnie Bright, 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. Stephen Aizenstat’s DreamTending and Archetypal Activism could also be considered terrapsychological practices.

Beyond the Local Focus

As terrapsychology evolved, it kept its place-based emphasis but broadened its inquiry to include the psychological, iterative, motif-rich presences of natural forces unrestricted to specific geographical sites. This expanded sphere of interest is reflected in these areas of study:

– Locianalysis (“low sigh analysis”) (2003) : analysis of the presence of place via moods, dreams, somatic states.

– 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. Career position: Deep Genealogist.

– Lorecasting (2007): playful interpretive work with weather and ecological processes.

– Intersubjective animism (2003, 2010): interpretive work with “inanimate” matter and objects and elements; animal behavior.

– Eradigmatics (2010): an archetypal approach to historical and collective worldview changes.

– Archetypal mythology (2005, 2014): 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 material worldly events. Career position: Applied Mythologist.

– Transrevolution (2014): how social systems recreate themselves around emerging archetypes.

– Earth Beauty Consciousness (2010): Rebecca Elliott’s term for a set of practices and appreciations that draw us back to the beauty of nature, place, and Earth.

– Terraspirituality (2015): the terrapsychological study of ecospirituality. Ecoarchetypal immanence: myths and archetypes reflect non-local natural-cosmic processes. Career position: Ecospiritual Director.

The orienting root around which terrapsychological exploration turns is Story: 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 empirical, ecological, cultural, personal, and even folkloric dimensions tend to gather into a meaningful narrative framework anchored in its unique geography. Beyond that, it studies the storied influences of natural, ecological, and universal forces as these influences appear in the mind, the imagination, legend, and myth.

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 also takes on the questions which mainstream, empire-era psychology and psychiatry have demonstrated themselves incapable of tackling: What does it mean that I live in the middle of the greatest environmental crisis in history? What can I do about it? Beyond that, what kinds of ideas and narratives will guide me through it? What new stories will I need to find my way back to my reenchanted home? What is Earth asking of me?