Thinking with place

I spend last week-end at an ecopsychology retreat in Lancashire. We were staying in a stone barn in the woods, very close to a peat stained river that surged over ancient rocks.

river flowing over rocks

On Saturday I paired up with a colleague for a ‘medicine walk’. This was a wander, wherever instinct led, but with senses awake to the potential for meaning in our surroundings. It was surprisingly powerful and it’s worth pondering why.

Natural places are rich in metaphor and humans are habitual makers of meaning, so perhaps it’s to be expected that a damp, dark grove might trigger a sense of fecund mystery.

While such an interpretation isn’t wrong, it misses the sophistication of the process of thinking with place. The ambiguity of that phrase is productive: While thinking with place can refer to how we use a place as a tool to think with, it also implies an animistic thinking together with place.

Previous posts argued that the subject/object distinction is largely artificial - the “organism and environment enfold into each other” (Varela et al. 1991). I have also described how the mind can reach beyond what Clark calls the “skin-bag body” (1997). It is, therefore, by no means clear where my mind ends and the spirit of place begins. To suggest that there’s a richly metaphorical natural world ‘out there’ and a human meaning maker ‘in here’ is far too simplistic.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote:

“As I contemplate the blue of the sky … I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it ‘thinks itself within me,’ I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, and as it begins to exist for itself; my consciousness is saturated with this limitless blue …”
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

In conclusion, person and place are part of a single process; bodymind place.

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One Response to Thinking with place

  1. Juliano says:

    I am currently re-reading The Spell of the Sensuous. I posted this quote I LOVE from the book to the Shroomery forums the other day:
    “In the oral, animistic world of pre-Christian and peasant Europe, all things–animals, forests, rivers, and caves–had the power of expressive speech, and the primary medium of this collective discourse was the air. In the absence of writing, human utterance. whether embodied in songs, stories, or spontaneous sound, was inseparable from the exhaled breath. The invisible atmosphere was thus the assumed intermediary in all communication, a zone of subtle influences crossing, mingling, and metamorphosis.. The invisible yet palpable realm of whiffs and scents , of vegetative emanations and animal exhalations, was also the unseen repository of ancestral voices, the home of stories yet to be spoken, of ghosts and spiritual intelligences–a kind of collective field of meaning from whence individual awareness continually emerged and into which it continually receded, with every inbreath and outbreath …
    Thus it was that the progressive spread of Christianity, was largely dependent upon the spread of the alphabet [and they were] by far the greatest factor in the advancement of alphabetic literacy…Only by training the senses to participate with the written word could one hope to break their spontaneous participation with the animate terrain.Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air. The air, once the very medium of expressive interchange, would become an increasingly empty and unnoticed phenomenon, displaced by the strange new medium of the written word”. (The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram, page 254)
    I love this — and his book, because it makes you not WANT to read the linear words and chant and touch, and feel, and look and daydream.
    How many people ignore the air, yet when ever I have psychedelic experience i am very aware of it. Reading that passage makes you want to chant with the rustling leaves and flowing stream

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