In one of Paul Shepard’s essays he talks about the research of a woman named Edith Cobb. She believed that the external terrain of childhood forms a model for internal cognitive development.
Perhaps the most remarkable document on childhood in this century is Edith Cobb’s Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. Surveying the lives of geniuses, she noticed a common thread—the return in moments of creative meditation to the place of childhood in imagination or sometimes physically, a trip that helped toward a solution to a problem. The original meaning of the term genius loci referred to a unique sacred power. What was it, Cobb asked, about the original experience that made it useful to the psyche in a recapitulated travel across the juvenile home range; in what sense was it an organizing force?
She concluded that the adult faith and intuition that order permeates the cosmos, that no bit of data or bizarre idea was truly disparate, that searching would be rewarded, extends from the singular imprint of an intensely inhabited space about thirty-five acres at a crucial time of life. Played through, the child’s transit, time and again, locked this literal, objective reality into an unforgettable screen, through which other, novel objects of the mind would be envisioned by the questing adult as though they were details of a landscape. Just as the mnemonist studied for thirty years by A.R. Luria ‘placed’ images for later retrieval along a path in the mind’s eye, at some less conscious level a holding ground is absorbed. The juvenile home range is a tiny universe, whose trees, rabbits, culverts, and fences probably register some kind of metaphorical series whose branching, skittering fleetness, subterranean connecting, and boundary-marking function in relation to a speculative field of half-formed and elusive ideas follows a paradigmatic system of relationships. An anatomical model for this unlikely neural representation of place is seen in the fundus of the eyes of vertebrates, where the colored oil droplets in the cells of the retina, differing according to the frequencies of light in different parts of the visual field, form an eerie landscape that can be seen with an ophthalmoscope. Edith Cobb’s own genius has given us insight into the primordial meaning of coherence as a function of a specific, tangible, ecology, swallowed by the nine-year-old in repeated excursions.
What excites me about this line of thought is the possibility that part of our minds exists outside of us, in the landscape. While it seems that Cobb was saying we build up internal neural networks in childhood that replicate the external environment, to me it almost seems like our neural networks extend out from us into the environment. It is as though the whole earth were brain, or mind. I find it especially interesting that Cobb found geniuses to frequently use landscape as a means of gaining knowledge or insight. They’re tapping into the larger mind we’re all part of. I’ve said before, I believe that tapping into our full human potential means tapping into our larger identities--identities that extend out beyond the boundaries of our skin.
Cobb talked about geniuses who returned to the landscape of their childhood. This implies that they left that land at some point. But what if you stayed put? What might be possible in a lifetime of building up internal and external neural networks? Of enlarging the self, extending more and more deeply into the environment? Until we become rooted in the land once again I don’t think it will be possible to reach our full human potential.
Shepard, in a related essay, mentioned that the classical definition of genius was “the spirit of place”. It’s by tapping into the spirit of place, the larger mind, that we can achieve “personal” genius. All knowledge is out there. None of it is personal. It simply waits to be located. When I’ve said “Place holds potential”, I mean that very literally. There’s a very visceral way I’m sensing that place holds unique knowledge. We become who we are by our unique interactions with the land. We can’t become the same person in a different locale. We don’t gain the same knowledge.
These days the line between nature and nurture have blurred for me. It’s all one seamless experience of responding to nature. I think I can begin to see the next phase of our evolution. Instead of consuming matter in the childish way that we do, we will begin to convert matter into spirit. By knowing the land we will expand Mind and eventually begin to know who we are--Gaia. And once we recognize ourselves to be this entity, Gaia, then maybe we will shed the idea that Gaia is an isolated dot in the universe, and begin to extend our identity and mind out into the cosmos. Eventually we will recognize that we have always been the Mind of God.
But if we can just reach Gaia-Mind, that would be hugely transformative. Our human potential could begin to unfold and it surely wouldn’t be tied to consumption. We would stop trying to make the ego look bigger. Instead we would grow our Mind.
I think we would regain a more fluid way of being and perceiving, as in our primordial days only with deep conscious awareness. The egoic, rational brain which is so clumsy and a hindrance, could recede in importance. Direct experience would again be primary.
I’ve often found the rational brain gets in the way. I hate the fact that I always have maps in my head; always have a name for the place I’m in or the place I’m going. I don’t want a representation of place. It interferes with my ability to know a place. I have enough “past life memories” to remember the older, more fluid and direct way of experiencing. The rational mind, while so important for building consciousness, really dumbs down reality.
Intuitive, fluid, spiritual beings--that’s our destiny if we don’t kill ourselves off first.
I’ve been trying to encourage a more fluid way of being to take hold in me. For one thing, since reading the Temple Grandin book, I’ve been trying not to censor my imagery. I’m becoming aware just how ever-present my imagery is. It is always flashing up, probably in every moment, if I was just aware enough. My “haunting” may just have been me moving into that more fluid way of seeing. There are layers of reality here, always. I want to get a handle on what I’m seeing, why certain imagery wants to be connected with certain thoughts, actions, or places.
One example (I know this sounds bizarre and psychotic but I think there’s legitimate knowledge here): lately when I look in the mirror I see a flash of an image overlaying my reflection. It’s a bird, probably an eagle, but maybe a hawk, with its wings outstretched in flight.
I’ve also had tons of past life images arising as I read and write and think. I see the land before all this manic human destructiveness and development took place and it makes me so said.