by Laura H. Mitchell
ReVision, Journal of Consciousness and Transformation. Spring 2010
Vol 31, Numbers 3 & 4.
Returning education to a focus on the Earth as the vast inexhaustible ground
of all our purposes and meanings requires a revisioning of how we imagine
ourselves and act within nature—a movement from the abstracted disembodied
mind and objectified body to the lived body-mind in synergistic dynamic
interweave with its place-worlds. The loss of connectivity to deep-seated primal
structures, such as the lived body and the living presence of place, manifests as
critical sites of individual and collective angst. The impoverishment of these
relationships remains a very real crisis in human-planet viability. These primal
structures are somatically embodied and constitute a first-hand experiential
‘thinking’ process germane to our radical participation in the imagination of Earth.
Earthmind is a term I am here using to indicate this first-hand immersion
within earth processes and the ecological imagination (Mitchell 2003) is the
distinctive human mode of intersentience—the aspect of our ecological wiring,
which attunes us to our kinship with all life forms and thus constitutes an
ecopsychology. The earth-body and our experiencing lived bodies form a
coextensive, interpenetrating unity. This foundational premise leads to a profound
reversal in the organizational assumptions that drive present day thinking and
behavior. It allows us to replace civilization-threatening myths of limitless growth
and progress with the Gaian vision of an interwoven web of existence. The overlay
of the experiencing body and the world (the body–world unity) is a view held by
Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) in his phenomenology of perception, by Edward
Casey (1993) in his philosophy of place, and also by Paul Shepard (1996, 1998) in
his view of the evolutionary mapping of the embodied mind and world wherein the
whole of natural history remains encoded as an organizing structure within the
modern human. As I shall emphasize, it is through direct experience, the lived
body, the restoration of the imagination as coextensive with anima mundi (the
animated living intelligence of all beingness), and the re-grounding of identity
within place-relations that we can recover educational approaches that bring the
human back into an ecology of caring for our Earth-home.
Pull-quote 1: The earth-body and our experiencing lived bodies form a
coextensive, interpenetrating unity.
Starting with this view that our place-worlds and our experiencing bodies are
mutually mapped within each other and that they together form an inseparable
unity has significant liberatory implications for education. I will explore this core
understanding of our primal locatedness in the earth as a transformational vision
for deschooling education both concretely as a grassroots movement and
philosophically as a critical paradigm for education. When a new mythos, a new
organizing idea takes form, the actual lived-trajectory of the vision will show up
along cultural margins: in the concerns and modes of expression of our youth, in
art, in interdisciplinary conversations, in the formation of grassroots responses in
the local and global community, in collective pathologies, and in creative
resistance to oppressive practices. Deschooling is one such trajectory.
Deschooling of Education
Deschooled sites are informal learning centers that exist largely outside the
confines of the marketplace or institutional education (Holmgren, 2002). As way of
illustration, persons may collect around and move out from specific leaders who
have articulated approaches such as Brad Lancaster’s work in Arizona with water
harvesting (2006) or from an evolving shared knowledge base such as the
permaculture movement or from nonprofit organizations such as The Quivira
Coalition of ranchers and environmentalists or from the explosion in local organic
food gardens and communities.
Such centers are oriented toward what Vandana Shiva calls living
economies: ones that are localized, draw upon participants’ creativity, and favor
small-scale self-organization along with large networks of emerging
interconnectedness often maintained through the Internet or itinerancy. The
Internet, says Paul Hawkin (2007), is the perfect condition for the margins to unity
by “creating a critical, fluid mass of information that evolves and grows as needed
—very much like an immune response. … At the heart of all this is not technology
but relationships” (144). Shiva defines living economies as “based on the vibrant,
resilient and renewable nature’s economies and rich, divers, and sustainable
people’s economies” (Shiva 2005, 63). Because such economies are centered on an
ethics of respecting renewable limits of natural resources and ensuring regard for
biodiversity and social justice, they stand in contrast to the global market’s
economic goals of commodity production and capital accumulation.
The resurgence of earthmind out pictures in these deschooled sites as lived
practices and experimentations with restoring a sustainable embeddedness in our
place-worlds. These trends will be examined by way of two prongs: 1) as a
nomadic force breaking down cemented and destructive structures in the status quo
and configuring and experimenting with new paradigms for creative thinking and
action conducive to dealing with the escalating ecological crisis and 2) as
exemplifying a new model (but also ancient) for revisioning education theory and
praxis in an era of ecological consequence.
Pull-quote 2: The resurgence of earthmind out pictures in these deschooled
sites as lived practices and experimentations with restoring a sustainable
embeddedness in our place-worlds.
Nomadic forces mobilize in response to rigid formations; they act like water,
wearing away at the edges, bypassing and creating new courses along the main
stream. Edges provide the ideal metaphor for this type of deschooling. Edges or, in
earth language, ecotones are living interfaces as “between two bioregions where
the distribution of species from both regions overlap creating greater biodiversity
than in either of the respective regions” (Holmgren 2002, 225). They can be quite
narrow as those occurring in the microbial exchanges in the living soil or
thousands of miles wide as those close to an ocean. Edges are places where the
most action happens and can analogously been seen as the rich fertile ground of
overlapping learning and ideas.
These deschooled forces, such as organic garden communities and intercity
food networks are the rich tidal pools at the edges of education, the incubation and
hatching place of diverse ideas and experiential knowledge, crossing disciplines at
will in an ecology of interaction, thinking, and innovation. The trend toward
specialization in higher education has produced many breakthroughs but often has
not been integrated with complex multidimensional realities. Formal education is
largely based on written texts and secondary sources interpreted through existing
fixed frameworks. “This reductionist approach, has contributed rather little toward
actual solutions for the increasingly severe global realities of declining [species]
populations, extinctions, or habitat loss” (Paul Dayton interview with Louv 2002,
Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic and sedentary positions inform
understandings central to deschooling education and place-relations. A nomadic
venture such as deschooling with its fluid nature and heterogeneous composition
and experiential wanderings acts as counterpoint to state-sanctioned institutional
forms of education. In many ways institutional education colludes with
commercial-industrialist pursuits and policies crippling its ability to understand
and work with the complexity of living systems with their emergent properties and
Deschooled groupings exhibit what Rosi Braidotti (1994) describes as a
nomadic style of implacement. Nomadism, she say, is a critical and creative
consciousness that resists socially coded modes of thought and behavior. It is an
ability to flow from one set of experiences to another while maintaining quality
interconnectedness but without appropriating what one has experienced in the form
of identity, theory, or social artifact. Braidotti describes identity as a passing
through that cuts across many different levels without taking any kind of identity
as permanent. Rather, it is a dissolution of the notion of center and identities that
shifts away from hegemony. By decentering identity, the nomadic allows an acute
sense of territory without possessiveness and functions within a net of multiple
interconnections where the task is to recognize differences within an inclusive
framework. It is “rather an emphatic proximity, intensive interconnectedness that
allows one to think through and move across established categories and levels of
experience” (p. 5). One’s personal engagement with place insures ethical
responsiveness based on a consciousness of gathering, reaping, and exchanging
These nomadic patternings can invigorate and infuse formal education as
peripheral branches extending education out of the textbook and chair, back into
Pull-quote 3: One’s personal engagement with place insures ethical
responsiveness based on a consciousness of gathering, reaping, and
exchanging without exploiting.
Coalitions such as the Quivira Coalition, which began as collaboration
between South West ranchers and environmentalists, speak to this crossfertilization
of thinking. Their projects illustrate the nomadic direction innovative
solutions are taking. Unsuspected partnerships arise, as in the collaboration
between United States ranchers, Maasai nomadic herders, and Southwest jaguar
conservationists. Livestock and wildlife have coexisted for 3,000 years on the
drought prone East African savannah. Because of current population pressures, the
Maasai are searching for new ways of extending their pastoral practices: ranchers
in the South West are looking for innovative approaches of utilizing the variability
of local rainfall patterns. Besides this cross-global collaboration of herdingranching
traditions, there is also the possibility of protecting and increasing the
handful of wild jaguars that still live along the Arizona-Mexican border by drawing
upon the Maasai’s deep knowledge about co-inhabitation with wildlife.
Building resilience in an age of consequence requires just such unsuspected
polyglot collaborations. We need to have access to the amassed knowledge of all
cultures and whenever possible to other periods of evolutionary and recent history
that still live within our thinking structures. Nomadism is just this ability to flow
from one set of experiences to another while maintaining quality ethical
interconnectedness without appropriating what one has experienced in the form of
identity or social exploitation. Deschooling is one of the sites where cultural
workers are practicing these new types of identities and honing place-based
practices that are now being gifted back into society and formal educational
settings. These restorative actions are a testimony to an engaged compassionate
response to caring for the earth.
While traveling between several organic gardening communities, I began to
notice other place-based patterns and attitudes germane to deschooled sites of
learning: the text at hand is the actual earth and hands-on experiential learning the
mode of activity. Direct experience, engaged observation, and the dignity of labor
are the prevailing modes of engagement. The learning environment is often out on
the land or in the local community with a fluidity between work and play. Work
arrangements are often through complementary currencies, work exchange,
apprenticeships or seva (service). People of all ages and nationalities and social
class intersect as they exchange and share knowledge learned elsewhere—a mode
of wandering or itinerancy, and then move on to other deschooled communities. A
language of place takes form that does not prioritize the human at the expense of
the earth; a specific type of decentered multiplicity emerges, a rhizomatic learning
and sharing that can only “be explored by legwork” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987,
Pull-quote 4: A language of place takes form that does not prioritize the
human at the expense of the earth.
Sharing of knowledge gained is essential to the ongoing viability of the
community because participants’ know-how and experimentation lay down an
accumulated history about what works and what does not in specific localized
conditions: unique micro-climates, soil composition, rainwater run off, and
absorption patterns. This communally held collaborative knowledge supports new
cultural responses rather than encouraging accommodation to societal practices
erected by dependencies on agro-business products and profit monopolies. A new
kind of place-based thinking is unfolding forging alternative identities and humanearth
The Imagination of the Earth for Us
It is clear that these kinds of deschooled sites have as inspiration and
reference points a desire for co-creative collaborative relations with the natural
world. This pull is magnetic reaching downward into the soil itself, toward
restoring the fertility and viability of the earth’s skin, toward being close to the
food chain and the cycles of growth-fallowness-seed, and then, at the same time,
reaching downward into the lived-body and the earth-maps dwelling within the
human. The transformational vision for education that I am proposing emanates out
and begins with our foundational first-order of entwinement with the living world
wherein earth’s mappings are body’s landscapes and wherein this extensive
collaboration with the earth as a living text forges implaced identities. What would
a practice of education look like that decidedly begins with our most fundamental
interinvolvement and consanguinity within earthmind and place?
Pull-quote 5: The transformational vision for education that I am proposing
emanates out of our entwinement with the living world wherein earth’s
mappings are body’s landscapes.
We begin here with our original assumption of the body-world unity: the
radical permeability and porosity between nature, our lived bodies, and our placeworlds.
The earth-body and our experiencing bodies are mutually mapped within
each other and together form an inseparable unity (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Casey
1993). It is clear to me that the starting place for understanding our relation to the
natural order is not psychological in the sense of attachment to family but begins
with the fact that we are already intimately and profoundly embedded with the
earthbody and with the natural order. The beginning place is not the individual
ground plan of the developing personality, but antecedent and anchored in each cell
and organ is the earth-plan fully mapped within and without: a reversible skin.
Starting with implacement in oikos—our internal and external earth house—is the
definitive departure point for of an implaced practice of education.
Place as Partner in Learning
We usually think of place as a background to our lives or a “sense of place”
as only those locations that are filled with special meanings, beauty or significance.
However, every experience happens somewhere, is always implaced whether that
be physical, imaginal, or virtual places. Place is a living animated presence in its
own right: it is part of us and the context of every experience—the ground that
implaces everything we do. Without place we would be literally and figuratively
nowhere. Thus place is the where of our activities, history, experiences, moods,
and imaginings. It is also the 'where' of the biotic and geographic environs in
which we live and work. Because place is part of us and we are part of it, together
this commingling forms a concrete interweave (Casey 1993).
In fact all our experiences, our thoughts, and our feelings are indivisibly
geared into place. And it is through particular localized places that we are linked to
the greater context of the world. Places are implaced by evermore inclusive places.
The stone lying at my foot is implaced by its watershed, which is implaced by its
bioregion, and so also by the planet and the cosmos. Self, stone, watershed,
bioregion, planet, and cosmos are all telescopically nested within one another.
Each is, as Bachelard (1958)— says, an “intimate immensity” the cosmos
mirroring itself in each of its parts. Yet it is because we have a body that we can
experience these remarkable qualities of place and stone.
Particular places have there their own stories and suffering. Engaging these
stories of a unique “locale includes how its empirical, ecological, cultural,
personal, and even folkloric dimensions gather into a meaningful narrative
anchored in its unique geography” (Chalquist 2007, 27). Place and person mutually
co-inhabit these storied features of a specific locale. Furthermore, memory and
identity are embedded in the textures of place “like the pegs in a vast storehouse on
which our memories are hung. …they symbolize all the states of mind through
which we have lived, with all their varied shades of feeling” (Tournier 1968, 14):
the tomato field where I felt so lonely as a child, the back room with the quietude
of the winter sun streaming through the southern facing window. Place is an active
participant mingling its colors, essence, and fullness—echoed and entangled within
our felt tones and expanding upon our imaginings, fears, and anticipations. In this
way one’s own story also becomes part of the storied body of the tomato field, of
the back room: adding another layer of texture and dimensionality to the living
presence of place.
Our complicity with the rich complexity of place is even all the more
extraordinary when considering that we share this involvement with all the things
and beings that make up the surrounding environs. Besides the human elements in
my home place, there is the natural vegetation, the coyotes and rabbits, tunneling
animals and varieties of flying birds, pollinating insects, the way the ecosystems
operate in the valley, the climatic changes, winds funneling through the river valley
—all this interlacing of life forms in symphonic interpenetration mutually
constituting one another. We are always ecologically implaced.
Because our cultural constructs teach children to objectify and abstract the
world, we gradually wrench the world and its places away from them, shatter the
intimate bond that pours depth of meaning and intricacy of nuance into their
experience and understanding; we abstract places so the egg stands alone as in a
text book without its nest or even a dreary crowded wire cage. There is the
wonderful feeling that a child has of “the transparency of places as direct, total,
and natural communion,” (Tournier 1968, 18)— the sense of a fully lived place
with its haunting invisible presences and compelling physical entanglement with
the senses and the moving body. Re-sensitizing ourselves and regaining contact
with the living presence of place is a way we can rediscover not a mechanistically
articulated ecology, but one “diversely alive and polycentrically implaced” (Casey
1993, 266). If places co-create our identity, says O’Loughlin (2006) than the
integrity and richness of these places and the multi-layered experiencing of these
places are of paramount importance. If place is a placeholder for learning (all
learning is implaced) than its centrality to educational praxis and theory is critical.
The renewed interest in a sense of place and place-based education is one of
the most revolutionary resets intercepting the current tendency to abstract and
mechanize learning as if it were taking place in a void. Thus stripped of the
resonant field of complexity and overlapping contexts, learning becomes
dissociated and looses its inherent relevancy and emotional fascination. Richard
Louv (2005) chronicles the extraordinary movement of environmentally based,
place-based, and garden-based learning that is beginning to put “place” back into
the educational setting. The reinstatement of place-based learning is part of the
larger need to re-localize our lives. People may know about panda extinction in
China, but may know nothing about the local insects and butterflies and plants that
grow in the vacant meadows, and lots of their community. As Merleau-Ponty and
Casey have convincingly shown, first-hand involvements with place and the
intimate connection with a sense of place re-establishes the rich ground of
existence and, I add, of learning. However it is not until we understand the full
import of the body’s relations to place that the full context of place-relations can be
Pull-quote 6:The renewed interest in a sense of place and place-based
education is one of the most revolutionary resets intercepting the current
tendency to abstract and mechanize learning as if it were taking place in a
The Lived Body
Education, says Marjorie O’Loughlin (2004) must involve recognition of
the primacy of implacement within a world of ecological bonds. Place is our link
with the environment and it is by way of our somatic beingness—the lived body—
that we are implaced within the seamless web of existence. It is to a deeper
understanding of the lived body that we now turn. Place experience happens
somewhere and that somewhere obviously is the body or more precisely, the bodyworld
unity. Our body is the locus of perception and of our directly felt and lived
We are somatically implaced: my body is the site where the place world
reveals itself. Here we refer not to the objectified mechanical body or to cultural
prescriptions of body image, but to the feeling, sensing body that extends within
and also outwardly into its experiences, to the body that encompasses the total
interactivity of the human organism as it actually experiences things in the world.
If there is a savior in the postmodern saga—a way to return to sanity and re-ground
in the natural world, it is the body and a new understanding of embodiment.
Our polycentrically located body is privy to another extensive mode of
knowledge, more embedded and akin to the earthbody than to cultural contexts—a
synesthesic direct knowing unedited by the mind or social lenses, a kind of fusion
with the world wherein the world and my body are continuous with each other.
Because the body is in the world, it has direct access—a preconscious
embeddedness—in the continuous fabric of the world. Together body and world
form an inseparable unity. This body-world unity sets the stage for intermundane
experiencing and is, as I have proposed, the basic assumption central to a
transformational revisioning of education.
Education, says O’Loughlin, must involve recognition of the inherent order
of human implacement and experience. Dwelling in the world is the location of the
core self: loss of environment is loss of primal core. “This may mean that, initially,
we need to become much less naive about how experience actually
occurs" (O’Loughlin 2004, 3). Shephard, Merleau-Ponty, and Casey show that the
template for experiencing the natural order is already mapped into our thinking
Early on during the romantic revolt against the severing of science from the
imagination, Goethe held that the imagination is the cognitive mode that actually
‘sees’ the connections between things. He emphasized the radical significance of
the two-fold unity of the sensory surface of a thing with its nonsensory
(metaphoric/archetypal) meaning, which together move toward a new way of
seeing in depth—a mode he calls the intuitive imaginal mode (Bortoft 1996). A
nest is not only a physical structure built by a bird, but also metaphorically a ‘nest
egg,’ and also a cozy home, a love-nest, or so too emotional states such as the
sorrow or elation of leaving the nest or of having an empty nest syndrome. Nature
gives us myriads of thinking structures to understand processes, feelings, and
aesthetic perceptions. Experience thus involves the entwining of the visible
tangible thing with its invisible imaginal depth and thereby meaning. The profound
importance of direct experience to educational theory and practice thickens.
Providing emotional and physical space for the child to stretch out into this
expansive experiential terrain awakens core knowings and grounds the child in the
living context of both his and her own experiences as profoundly commensurate
with the natural world and the living images of an animate universe—anima
mundi. These structurings and internalizations last a lifetime. We can now reconceive
of the imagination as an ecology of thought encompassing frames of
reference that naturally contextualize and implace experience, making connections
and mapping out relationships and thereby creating meaning. We have explored the
educational significance of first-hand learning and a few suggestions of how
regrounding in earthmind, experiential, place-based learning and place-relations
can inspire relevant educative practices.
Pull-out 7: We can now re-conceive of the imagination as an ecology of
thought encompassing frames of reference that naturally contextualize and
implace experience, making connections and mapping out relationships and
thereby creating meaning
We have looked at deschooling as a nomadic venture coalescing at the fertile
overlap of our cultural edges, bypassing outmoded assumptions and building new
ways of relating to the earth and feeding these learnings back into the social
system. If the journey into energy descent is to succeed, as David Holmgren and
Paul Hawkin have suggested, it will require an enormous reinvigoration of
observational and innovation skills, more efficient ways for people to learn through
direct experience, and cross-disciplinary studies to create the necessary complexity
and insight for an integrated understanding of living systems. The environmental
crisis is also a crisis in thinking and identity that opens new realignments with
nature requiring fluidity between modes of thinking, as between the imaginal and
the analytic, between the mythic and the concrete, between the sensory surface and
the imaginal depth, and between the global and the local.
Deschooling, along with its cultural workers, is one action form that reengagement
with the earth is taking. Because it is based in wandering, in
multiplicities of perspectives, multisensory immediacy, a radical presence to place,
and local sets of relationships, it cannot become encoded—it can only be enacted
and modeled. Shared knowledge is drawn from transcultural sources such as the
Maasai pastoral herding practice and old Europe permaculture traditions. As the
green society increasingly becomes a societal focus and the global crisis continues
to escalate, the edges between deschooled centers of learning become even more
crucial for providing lived-solutions that can challenge and enliven the educational
Place is our link to becoming present to our environment and it is by way of
our somatic beingness, the lived body, that we are implaced within the seamless
web of existence. I have focused here on embodiment and place as a locus of
learning and emphasized the role direct experience plays in connecting to the earth.
As such, I have suggested a reorientation of educational theory to one informed by
our embeddedness in earth processes. Only from this vantage point can we can
develop educational practices, new ways of thinking and acting, and creative
alternatives capable of making the systemic changes required for a viable planet
and human presence. The Earth calls forth its dreams and requires us to listen
attentively: our earthmind can respond and opt for living systems and living
economies to create new possibilities for human-earth well being.
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