First Contact: The Sound of the World in our Symptoms

Fantasize with me for a moment that the planet we live on is not a dead globe, not a collection of rocks and soils and metals hurtling mindlessly around the sun like a yoyo around a finger, but aware and sensitive. 

Fantasize with me for a moment that the planet we live on is not a dead globe, not a collection of rocks and soils and metals hurtling mindlessly around the sun like a yoyo around a finger, but aware and sensitive.  And imagine that within the skin of this huge terrestrial turtle or whale pulses a living reactivity that shares our predilection for survival.  When we mine it, poison it, parcel it up, or tear it down, this skin hurts.  But how would such a being let us know this?  How would it communicate to us its alien sentience, its desire to live and breathe and coexist?


Here a mere paragraph into the fantasy, the reader must already suspect that for me, this is not a fantasy at all--but neither is it a metaphor for some ideal bond with Nature.  Instead, it speaks to an insight that overturned everything I’d been taught to believe about the Earth and my comfortable place upon its surface.


Once upon a time I found myself in a relationship congested by walls of defensiveness.  This was in San Diego, and I had returned after a long absence with nine years of psychotherapy experience and a desire to reacquaint myself with my home town.  As I admired La Jollan sunsets and walked on the beach at Carlsbad, I did my best to tune out the ominous grumble of the gunships flying overhead.  The vessels of war clustered in the harbor; the massive military presence; the guns, the flags, the Army, Navy, and Marine inundation that has characterized San Diego almost from its founding days:  I ignored these, and as I did I grew increasingly bewildered by the guardedness infiltrating a romance I thought myself trained and knowledgeable enough to preserve.


A few weeks after it ended, I dreamed that I was approached by a bronze-skinned woman who resembled my ex-partner.  Overjoyed to see her, I stepped forward and called her by name.  A slow shake of the head, as though to say:  that is not my name.  I halted at this and began to realize that she was not, in fact, the woman I had hoped to marry.  “Then who are you?” I asked, still in the dream but beginning to feel the bed underneath my shoulders. 


“I am San Diego,” she replied.  When my eyes opened they were full of tears. 


I had been getting to know her all right.  All the unheard defensiveness, paranoia, protection, and militarized fencings-in of the city of my birth had fallen down into my relationship and blown it apart as place conflicts amplified personal ones beyond repair.  San Diego had indeed addressed me, but by speaking in the psychological language of my romantic conflict, a language to attract my dilatory attention.


I soon found other examples of this dynamic.  In 1867, for example, Alonzo Horton arrived eager to found a “New Town” and convert the muddy hide-trade outpost of San Diego into a bustling modern city.  That before his arrival his visit to Panama was interrupted by a mob that attacked the hotel he was staying in never entered his awareness as a tap on the shoulder.  He likely knew nothing of the retreat of a famous band of conquistadors from Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital where Mexico City now stands; nothing of the future Governor of New Spain beaten back by terrific indigenous resistance so fierce the Spaniards dropped their bags of gold and fled across the causeways connecting the great lake city to the mainland; nothing of the nineteen million New World lives those Spaniards would eventually put out as part of their colonization agenda.  Firing his pistol in self-defense, Horton, a future city-founder himself, almost certainly thought nothing of retreating up a waterfront gangway, his bags of gold dust left behind at the hotel, or of the name of the steamer on which he fled:  the Cortez.


Three years of research up and down El Camino Real, the King’s Highway or Royal Road connecting the missions of coastal California, have provided me with so many similar examples of unknowingly reenacted history that I find myself compelled to believe that place is not the inanimate hunk of matter we have taken it to be, no:  it is as alive and aware as every indigenous culture unvisited by missionaries or anthropologists claims it to be, sparked  with a subjectivity or imaginal presence that addresses us in the most intimate fashion:  through those conflicts, complexes, and figures of folklore and dream that we normally take to be purely psychological. 


If this be so, and if the ancient tradition of panpsychism rightly recognizes qualities of mind as inherent in matter, then what the deep ecologists want from us--namely, to be sensitized to the pain of the world--is unavoidable.  Because the world’s pain and ours are not separated.  Congested freeways mirror congested communications; polluted bays, polluted moods; personal complexes and apartment complexes.  We couldn’t be divorced from the speaking voice of place if we tried. 


It seems to me that knowing how our “inner” issues so perfectly parallel and symbolize the historical traumas of the places we inhabit inevitably changes how we relate to those places.  If I am not living on a heap of paved-over loam but, in fact, on the back of something that is always whispering urgently to me of its aliveness via my own inner life, then allowing such a being to be polluted, used up, or volatilized by heavy industry feels less like a scenic blotch than like a kind of family violence.  If I share psyche with the Earth, if not only my body but my mind partakes of its integrity, then to let it be plundered means allowing a plundering of my own soul--not poetically, but literally, inescapably.


I have suggested that this could all be a fantasy, and legions of reductionists stand by to accuse such ideas of being projections of self onto place.  Perhaps.  But we can also set aside the politically expedient logic of our Earth-deafness, and the clamorings of the fossil fools of the Bush administration, and test the fantasy for ourselves.  Your weak points, your fears, your patterns of unhappiness and persistent downfalls:  what if they parallel the weaknesses and downfalls of where you live, and upon close inspection in irrefutably uncanny detail?  Who then is speaking to you:  your unexplored unconscious, your childhood, your upbringing--or the unexplored possibilities soaked into the living ground below you?


In his famous Cosmos series, Carl Sagan asked:  who will speak for Earth?  Perhaps, however, an equally important question for our day is:  who will respond to the speech of the Earth?


Copyright Craig Chalquist PhD 2003.
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Craig Chalquist, PhD, cofounded the Cornerstone Counseling Center in Simi Valley, is a recent graduate of Pacifica, and is an ongoing contributor to AlterNet