Sense of Place


How do you get to know a place? What defines a place? How small can it be? How large? It has been my experience so far that those questions are more distracting than helpful. Sit somewhere and sense. Sit there often and mindfully. You could sit on your couch everyday but how often are you mindful when you do it? Mindfulness, the practice of bringing your attention to bear on your senses, your body, your feelings, your thoughts, your full experience without grasping is a skill to build and apply to any activity. So, mindfulness first. Some find that mindfulness and presence are interchangeable concepts. Be here now, allowing and accepting all that arises. Simple, challenging. My experience has been that every effort I put into being present contributes to my ability to be present. One does not have to be a master before applying the skill to a task. The skill only grows in application. There is great deal of literature on mindfulness and reading about it is helpful. Nothing compares to doing it. Start here, now…and again…and again. Notice your breath, and perhaps thoughts arise. Notice the thoughts and go back to the breath. Notice your feelings and go back to the breath…there is nothing wrong with the thoughts or the feelings or the sensations… now go back to the breath. The breath, where you feel it, the exchange of inhale and exhale, whatever draws your attention, the breath is fundamental to awareness. We can be nothing without it. So, no matter where you are, come back to the breath.

Some helpful reference material:

Coleman, M. (2006). Awake in the wild: Mindfulness in nature as a path to self-discovery. Inner Ocean Publishing, Maui HI.

Welwood, J. (1992). Ordinary Magic. Shambhala Publications, Boston, MA.


“Combining contemporary concepts and intuitive language with the indigenous hosting of earthly beings, we are pushing past the objectification of nature that allows her human participants to believe themselves her masters to take up instead the responsibilities of storytellers, listeners, alchemists, ambassadors, philosophers, poets, and dreamers.” –   Craig Chalquist

To paraphrase from Chalquist’s book, Terrapsychology is a fledgling endeavor to track, identify and engage the psyche of place. Utilizing adapted depth psychology concepts, terrapsychology explores terrain as a therapist might establish trust and containment with a client. Within the two phases of preparation and assessment are four primary domains of exploration of place. These are :

  • Locale: the natural/original formations of land, patterns of weather and significant eruptions of elemental forces.
  • Infrastructure: human built systems and structures.
  • Community: political forces, social balances/imbalances, range of diversity and potential for soliciting community participation in the inquiry.
  • Genius Loci: this is where imaginal and psycho-emotional insights proliferate and serve. Patterns of behavior emerge, themes announce themselves and place speaks in many languages; through news, fiction, art, events, dreams, reactivity, quirks, etc.

Terrapsychology also employs and generates some specific depth psychology practices and phenomena to attune and reflect attunement to place. Archetypal geography asks if there is a mythos or a deity inhabiting a place, tuning into ecology, psychology, and history to discern such expression. Dialogical Alchemy seems to be a process wherein the inquirer and the inquired experience or express mutual development, enrichment, and realization as an inherent quality of attending each other. Chalquist is suggesting, I think, that this is a discernible effect of the process that manifests in symbolic language and in some way confirms attunement.  Lorecasting is a process that tracks the import of large-scale events such as earthquakes, weather “disasters”, unusual animal behavior as well as significant sacred sites. Finally, psychocartography: this is the offspring of preparation and assessment. Being curious about what lives in a place, how the place lives: bioregionalism, how a place weaves itself on multiple levels over time and opening to the intimacy of relationship.

It seems to me that terrapsychology is a framework of perception that can contribute to a sense of place, given that it asks the inquirer to be deeply present to the inner ranges of one’s psyche as divining rod of the story a place may be trying to tell. If  the inquirer has explored his or her own psyche and crafted a sound identity with permeable yet practiced boundaries, then I imagine tuning in to the larger psyche of places may be less confusing or overtaking. I have often referred to terrapsychology as an offshoot of ecopsychology, thinking of it as more of a collection of practices rather than a field in its own right. As ecopsychology is a new field itself, and inclusive of principles involving sense of place, for terrapsychology to splinter off as a separate domain seems precarious. While terrapsychology is a weaving of sense of place and depth psychology, would it serve us more profoundly as a community of healers, explorers, alchemists of earth and psyches to ask ourselves to simultaneously appreciate the diversity of modalities and honor the strengthening properties of solidarity under ecopsychology? Is terrapsychology strong enough, individuated enough, different enough to say it is independent of ecopsychology? Or is it an organ of the field that the host would best be served by its integrated presence? In the end, the best thing for all is to inquire: inquire into the story and whether it is contributing to healing or dismembering.

Chalquist, C. (2007). Terrapsychology: Reengaging the soul of place. Spring Journal Books, New Orleans LA.

and retrieved from:


Sensing Seattle

“Because of an inescapable process of identification with others, with increasing maturity, the self is widened and deepened…Our self-realization is hindered if the self-realization of others, with whom we identify (emphasis mine), is hindered…One of the great challenges today is to save the planet from further ecological devastation, which violates both the enlightened self-interest of humans and the self-interest of nonhumans and decreases the potential joyful existence of all.” Arne Naess, Self-Realization: An ecological approach to being in the world (p.82).


My Crossing Over Place

The primary norm of the ecosophy of Deep Ecology’s progenitor, Arne Naess, is Self-Realization. For the purposes of this paper, I will define self-realization briefly and along the same lines as Naess given that it is a term that lends itself to abstraction and interpretation. What is the ultimate goal in life? To me, this goal is not a static endpoint but a dynamic, a mode of operation. Self-realization is the practice of exploring life with the attitude of growth and development of inherent potentials with an eye to cultivating a fluid capacity for peace and happiness. While this definition is greatly oversimplified, the opening quote speaks to self-realization and draws a question up for me. If I can identify with a place; a room, an interior space, a park, a forest, is this place not a self of its own? Where then are the boundaries of selves? As living systems theory promotes, we: people, animals, plants, ecosystems, places, the planet are interrelated parts contained within a whole that stretches who knows how far, encompassing a complexity that defies human comprehension (Macy). If a place, big or small, is a self, how does it realize itself? How does it define itself? As a human there are currently limits to how I interpret experiences and information. My experience is subjective. I can only imagine how a place might define and realize itself. But based on the assumption that I am a being participating within the reality of another being (within another being that is within another), how do I make meaning and sense of my relationship with/in place? How do humans participate in the self-realization of places and realize their own selves? So far, it’s a very complex and conflicted story living and dynamic and far beyond the scope of this exploration. Regardless, I want to start somewhere, because I want to contribute to self-realization, my own and others.  When the right to self-realization for all beings is not acknowledged by a powerful species, that self-realization is oppressed or manipulated by said species. In our case, as humans, this is often referred to anthropocentrism or  something like Manifest Destiny.

Michael Pollan illustrates in The Botany of Desire the power of plants to proliferate. His example of corn is a case in point. Corn is flourishing, cultivated for innumerable purposes. It is the preferred crop. How has corn seduced us into this arrangement? If “Be fruitful and multiply” is the order of the day, corn has triumphed. Has corn realized itself? When you look at a city, like Seattle, have humans damaged or impaired a place’s self-realization or are they contributing to it?  How can we begin to explore this? Here I refer to my newfound interest in what is termed “Terrapsychology”. It may not actually indicate humanity’s role in the self-realization of a place: constructive, destructive, confounding or other. However, I think that the practices emerging from the new field may contribute to the self-realization of all beings involved: the place, all that lives within and along the boundaries of place and the individual engaging in the discovering process. What follows is a cursory and limited attempt to enter into a deeper imaginal relationship with the place I know best: Seattle, Washington.

There are many practices and principles of terrapsychology that I have yet to attempt.  I have barely scratched the surface and am excited to carry this project further in the future. An essential definition of terrapsychology as stated by Craig Chalquist in Terrapsychology: Reengaging the Soul of Place, is “ (an) approach (that) explores how the inner connection between people and planet remains active and highly resonant, providing a means to greet the genius loci on its own lively ground.” Genius loci can be described as “the living, reactive field” manifesting as “ the imaginal presence of a particular place.” My approach here does not hold to the structure as offered by Chalquist. I have limited myself to sharing a little personal history with Seattle, an exploration of Seattle’s history, and some of my interpretations of the dynamics at play in the city’s development, indicating how the place has influenced my psyche. I see this primarily as an exercise in exploring my primary relationship in life as an avenue to self-realization.

I was born in Seattle. My parents made a deliberate choice to travel from the state capitol of Olympia, 90 some-odd miles south, to Providence Hospital in Seattle when I was ready to be born. Rumor has it they were planning on inducing but I just happened to cooperate with their intentions (or maybe they cooperated with mine) and I arrived on the appointed day. My parents didn’t move to the Seattle area until seven years later, having lived in Olympia and then a couple different suburbs of Portland, OR. I remember a handful of trips to Seattle for Christmas to visit with my father’s family. I remember the northbound approach to Seattle along Interstate 5: the panorama of lights and industry that included Boeing Airfield, trains and their tracks, the Port of Seattle, and the Kingdome which preceded the skyline of downtown Seattle as it stood in the 70’s and 80’s. All was encircled by mountains in the distance and flanked by Elliot Bay. It would come into view just before we took the exit that led us east over Beacon Hill down into Rainier Valley via Empire Way (now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Way). Rainier Valley was considered a ghetto. The south end of Seattle was a melting pot of minorities and immigrants and transplants. My father’s family had moved to Seattle from Butte, MT back in the 50’s and sank their money into a couple pieces of property: one in Rainier Valley and one on nearby Mercer Island. The small 1920’s cottage on Mercer Island is where I spent the rest of my childhood when my parents moved us back to the area in 1978. Seattle and my grandparents were over the water, across the bridge. When we crossed that bridge we wound our way through a lovely affluent neighborhood that suddenly shifted to ghetto at some undeclared boundary. I think that ghetto boundary had to do with not being able to see the water anymore.

Water. The preponderance and variety of water is Seattle’s dominant trait. Rivers, lakes, bays, sound, fresh, salt, rain, cloud, mist. The Puget Trough bioregion is defined by its relationships between earth and water. Fire has the occasional cameo here, especially in one particular event, as far as the city is concerned. Wind? Yes, but far more variably, a supporting role, if you will. In the course of my limited research for this project, I discovered a strange and conflicted relationship the people who moved here in the 1800’s had with the natural beauty and bounty of this place. The Puget Sound area was gorgeously desirable and rich, elementally dangerous and inconvenient. Wilderness is like that to the western mind; unpredictable, deeply compelling, threatening.

Seattle is a city born in 1853. Thanks to plentiful old growth timber and a wide and deep bay, it rooted deep into the soil in a location that was called “The Crossing-Over Place” by the Duwamish Indians who had inhabited the area for centuries. “The Crossing-Over Place” was an abandoned native site that occupied a low open space between the waterline, woods, and steep hills. An actively used trail led from the salt waters of the bay through primeval forest to the fresh waters of the large lake to the east. The native people crossed over here from one side to the other to hunt and forage and trade. This was the land’s gentle, feminine access point. This euphemism occurs to me spontaneously. “The Crossing-Over Place” was the yoni of this place, a portal penetrated by Western Civilization. My predilection for eco-feminist principles is showing. If the waters and low points in the terrain might be considered feminine, the hills and trees might be masculine – and threatening to the dominating intentions of western minds. Trees to be harvested and hills to be re-graded; emasculated and objectified.  The trail where the native people crossed over became Yesler Way. Henry Yesler purchased an easement from two other founders so he could send the trees he cut down from the top of the hill to his sawmill at the waterfront. This timber slide became the origin of the term “Skid Road”, embodying a dividing line and an access way. To the north was the property of the genteel, the upright citizen, the civilized founder, entrepreneur and merchant. To the south was the territory of industry, the laborer, the native, the prostitute, and the immigrant. Yesler’s sawmill was the meridian and point of the burgeoning belly of Seattle. To this day, the neighborhood is referred to as Pioneer Square, speaking to a four-fold dynamic and the geometric tension of opposites.  Pioneer Square was the origin of a massive fire in 1889 that wiped out the majority of the city. This became a tipping point: rebuild or abandon ship? The so-called Spirit of Seattle manifested in the ashes of its first incarnation. The makers of the city pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, pushed up their sleeves, and started all over again by raising the street level, thereby creating another dimension to Pioneer Square: the Underground.  It strikes me now that the Spirit of Seattle likely emanates from this underground cavern, its bones lying in heaps and darkness, attended by rats and tourists: A womb, a tomb, and another resource to be used.

Is Seattle an incarnation of place, a continuation of “The Crossing-Over Place”? When one reflects on the original name, it conjures up the idea of dying, or transforming, traveling to a mythical “other side”. The Duwamish were reliably literal in their naming of place and assignments of power. They meant that this was the best place to travel from west to east, like a pass over the mountains: of low incline, cleared, and short.  As many know, Seattle was named after a local Duwamish leader who helped the founders and settlers muster up supplies, survive harsh seasons, discover local foods, and access other natural resources, including native laborers. His name was something like Seeathl.  The famous speech regarding native attitude and belief about land attributed to him is disputed. Anachronistic references abound, as mentioned in Native Seattle by Coll Thrush, and the language is pristinely Victorian and grammatically too correct.  His death was nearly ignored and his grave unmarked for a period of time. In Native Seattle, Thrush weaves a picture of the participation of the local native population in the establishing of the city. He contends that, while the most visible Indian in Seattle is the indigent on the street corner, native people had and continue to have vital, integral roles in Seattle as a thriving city. The dominant culture exploited the curiosity and generosity of a people who wanted to participate in building a town, to be considered equals in the process rather than dehumanized resources to be used. There is a pattern, not unique, of using the needs of the displaced and dispossessed to fashion a foundation for the ambition of those who are in command of resources: To use them, the poor and disadvantaged, to bolster the fortunes of the wealthy. The legacy and perpetuation of this pattern haunts Pioneer Square to this very day.

Another native reference will help illustrate the nature of this place:  Dookweebathl, the Changer. The Duwamish attributed this deity, embodied by the moon, with the stabilizing and destabilizing of their place, their lives.  The Changer was in relationship with them. I interpret this personification of an absolute force as an attitude of openness and acceptance to the forces of change and transformation.  At some point, the Duwamish began to refer to white settlers as “changers” and while initially in relationship with the original settlers who arrived in small numbers, they became subject to them. Change is a fact of life: White men and ships appearing on the horizon, small pox and dividing land into parcels, all part of the ebb and flow of stability. Living and dying, shorelines straightened and filled, steep hills sheltering the impoverished in their paltry shacks flattened and repurposed into waterfront property. In many ways, the place that became Seattle seemed to offer itself up for what we call “development” today. Is this kind of development self-realization?

“The Crossing-Over Place” might very well accept the changes wrought by white settlers, as a living system open to information and energy.  Seattle, descendant of a wilder ancestor, with a story of birth and growth, is alive and communicating as a living system now.  What is it communicating? How is it communicating? If a city is as much a place as a rainforest, then in the spirit of John Seed, am I a part of Seattle recently emerged into thinking? I am a voice of Seattle, a manifestation of the place’s diversity, like cedar and mountain, salmon and bridge, tunnel and cloud formation. In my certain knowledge that I love this place, I find seeds of trust that my voice is integral to my expression and Seattle’s. We are interrelated. What is the current need to be acknowledged and explored to perpetuate self-realization now, in the year 2011? How does my self-realization coincide with Seattle’s self-realization?

For a person who has been certainly called to attend to the condition of the Earth, to how we, as the human species, have been poisoning our own well which also happens to be the well of all organic life on the planet, I have been surprised that I haven’t removed myself from my urban habitat to some place more rural, forested, and wild. Many years ago when I lived in a suburb north of Seattle, I would commute along I-5 through Lake Forest Park. This was the boundary place between King and Snohomish Counties. Here, trees cluster close around the freeway. I somehow found myself imagining what it must have been like before white settlers harvested even taller, denser stands of forest. I found myself in that strange place of mourning and longing for what I had never seen, what used to be. It was like being visited by a ghost. The first chapter in Native Seattle is titled “The Haunted City”. Even the speech attributed to Chief Seeathl speaks to it : “The white man will never be alone…for the dead are not powerless…there is no death, only a change of worlds.”  What is dead then? The enormous ancient trees? The past and future generations of salmon? The native people wiped out by small pox? The original foundation of the city? The original foundation. The ground. David Abram refers to a diagram of time and space in The Spell of the Sensuous, designating the ground beneath our feet as the past. In this way I see that ghosts are in the ground. The ground has generated and received all life. The ground is not a ghost but voices: histories and potentials. Oh, potentials. Potentials may live or they may die. The future. I don’t want the future of what I love to die. Change is inevitable, yes. Pain is inevitable. What about my potentials, the expression of my diversity will contribute to the diversity and potentials of all life, life here in Seattle? How can I participate in change instead of resist it or suffer from it? What actions are a logical extension of my love for this place, cultivating fluid capacity for peace and happiness? So many questions arise from this process. And here is the light side of the pioneer spirit: the courage to explore, to engage curiosity and ask questions, to go deep into unexplored territory. This is the spirit that “The Crossing-Over Place” was willing to receive. Here I recognize my predisposition to assume victimization and domination instead of reciprocity. What was once primeval forest and abundance of diversity and resources was ruined and spoiled and reduced by ambition, greed and Manifest Destiny: that humans are the only important creatures on the planet. This is a relationship to be healed; my relationship to my own humanity. I am more empathetic to birds, earthworms and cherry blossoms than I am to my fellow humans, to myself. Dr. Lori Pye speaks to the correspondence of environmental devastation resulting in the development of the capacity for empathy. All this destruction is the ground harboring the dead, of the foundation of the life of the future.  The foundation of the future could be empathy. Empathy could be the antidote of anthropocentrism. Empathy could be the pathway the prodigal human might travel to return home to the Earth, forgiven. The child must choose to return, an act of faith that there is some providence left to him or her. I imagine that the more one attempts to listen, to relate to any being, the more empathy is cultivated. As I utilize the practices of terrapsychological inquiry, I cultivate empathy with Seattle. Our relationship will mature, widen, deepen and our selves will be more realized in mysterious and tangible ways. I will learn how to walk in Seattle in right relationship, cultivating connection to more and more of the city’s expressions, citizens (human and nonhuman), systems, and dreams, especially those that support common interests. I resist in this moment promising an end result. What point is my connection unless I act in consistent alignment to my values, which include sustainability, diversity, empathy, and compassion? I have yet to integrate what I have spoken to here.  I have a sense that my voice will gain strength to encourage what I view to be positive, life-affirming change. I can only act according to my values, and I cannot expect anyone else to. Here I refer to that well used quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Hmm. Be the change. Be Dookweebathl, the changer, symbolized by the moon, influencer of the waters.  Water is a powerful force, a carrier capable of the softest mist and the most torrential rush. Water is a powerful changer, relentless, patient, subversive, and elusive. I would love to be in power-with Water, in right-relationship with Seattle. I am cultivating an array of skills and tools. I am pioneering unknown space in my heart. Seattle, I thank you. I am honored.