Earthmind: Deschooling Education - The Imagination of the Earth for Us

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 Edges

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

unexpected creativity.

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

without exploiting.

These nomadic patternings can invigorate and infuse formal education as

peripheral branches extending education out of the textbook and chair, back into

natural world.

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.

Direct Experience

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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