Thinking with place

I spent last weekend 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.

a peaty stream running over flat 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 animistic thinking together with place.

In future posts I’ll argue that the subject/object distinction is largely artificial – the “organism and environment enfold into each other” (Varela et al. 1991). I’ll also describe 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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  1. Pingback: The power of place revisited - Body Mind PlaceBody Mind Place

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