A Psychological Perspective on Landscape

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A windswept coastal headland in Inverloch, Victoria – both a concrete entity and a setting for personal transformation.

A windswept coastal headland in Inverloch, Victoria – both a concrete entity and a setting for personal transformation. Image: Jay Chapman

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The “Earth Mother” embodies the four seasons, the Jungian four elements of intuition, thinking, feeling and sensation, and the four natural elements of earth, air, fire and water.

The “Earth Mother” embodies the four seasons, the Jungian four elements of intuition, thinking, feeling and sensation, and the four natural elements of earth, air, fire and water. Image: Sophie Wilkinson

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A vertical rock stands against the horizon in Mungo National Park, New South Wales, where the dialogue between the land and sky is extreme.

A vertical rock stands against the horizon in Mungo National Park, New South Wales, where the dialogue between the land and sky is extreme. Image: Sophie Wilkinson

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The “Earth Mother” embodies the four seasons, the Jungian four elements of intuition, thinking, feeling and sensation, and the four natural elements of earth, air, fire and water.

The “Earth Mother” embodies the four seasons, the Jungian four elements of intuition, thinking, feeling and sensation, and the four natural elements of earth, air, fire and water. Image: Sophie Wilkinson

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An expansive horizon stretches across the landscape of Mungo National Park, New South Wales.

An expansive horizon stretches across the landscape of Mungo National Park, New South Wales. Image: Sophie Wilkinson

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Can examining the complex relationship between humans and nature through the lens of analytical psychology help us to create more meaningful landscapes?

Once a eucalypt stood on the sunset yellow stone of a coastal headland. Sown from seed, blown there by salt-laden winds, it spent its lifetime penetrating the soft, layered rock to reach pockets of soil hidden underneath the surface, drawing water from the porous stone to grow year after year into the sky from its dry horizontal bed. Seasons came and went; people did too. Some people stayed for a while, using the shade of the tree as protection, cooking food under it, raising family under it. The tree witnessed many events – storms, ravaging winds, the occasional fire – all the while basking in the warmth of the sun, pulling water up from the soil and continuing to grow vertically up and up, into the sky, ever more beautiful, ever more resilient. One day more people came. They built under the tree, buildings bigger than the tree itself. Then more buildings came and even more. The other trees near the eucalypt were cut down; they were no longer needed to provide shelter now that the buildings were there. Then one day people came with chainsaws. They climbed the tree and piece by piece razed it to the ground, erasing the tree, all that it was, all that it would ever be.

The pioneering psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung wrote that the concept of “landscape” or “nature” was an essential psychological construct. He suggested that a sense of belonging to one’s natural surroundings is essential for healthy mental functioning and that fostering this relationship promotes wellbeing, creative introspection and personal transformation.1 Jung proposed that Western scientific advancements, although positive in many respects, “completely despiritualised human experience and nature through the so-called ‘objective knowledge of matter’, and as such, man’s mystical identity with nature has been curtailed.”2 He suggested that our increasingly secular society and apparent rejection of the classical notion of the “soul” results in alienation from the experience of the “Self” and excessive differentiation from the natural world.

An expansive horizon stretches across the landscape of Mungo National Park, New South Wales.  Image:  Sophie Wilkinson

Jung posed the notion of archetypes as a language for patterns of thought common across all human beings, manifest in myths, rituals and dreams. His archetypes are at once temporal and spatial, yet highly fluid, permeating time, form and function. Although potentially limitless in number, some of the core archetypes that concerned Jung were: the Self, the Father, the Mother, the Wise Old Man and, most importantly in this context, the Earth Mother.3

Conceptualizing landscape from this Jungian perspective, we view it both as a physical expression of an archetypal construct, the Earth Mother, and as possessing innate soul, a “world soul” or anima mundi. It is a concrete and psychological entity, but also a setting for personal transformation, mediating the unfolding dialogue between landscape and human. Walking around the landscape, feeling the sun on our skin and the earth soft underfoot, we experience it unfold, as we too unfold. Our sense of the place sparks a realization of a sense of ourselves, an unfolding of our personality, our sense of individualism. We realize that we are as the land is; we too are of nature, multidimensional, complex and at times unknowable.

Some landscapes have the power to bring us out of our conscious human experience more than others by the sheer nature of their creative force. The notion of genius loci, or sense of place, is used to describe the essential quality of a place, felt most strongly when the place is truest to its biologically given nature. In possessing this “sense of place,” it is a true representation of what we think of as nature, in Jungian terms a physical manifestation of the archetypal idea of nature or the “Earth Mother.” In such a place the four seasons, the Jungian “four elements” and the four dimensions, created as the vertical plane intersects the horizon, interact.

A vertical rock stands against the horizon in Mungo National Park, New South Wales, where the dialogue between the land and sky is extreme. Image:  Sophie Wilkinson

Concrete examples can be used to illuminate this existential idea, by beginning at an individual, human scale and then incrementally multiplying this scale. We begin with the image of a tree, the eucalypt, whose roots penetrated the sunset yellow sandstone of a coastal headland. A tall, vertical expression of both its innate Self and the growth potential of the soil below the Earth’s horizon, it is at once a tree and a living image of the archetypal tree, an unfolding symbol of nature, of creative energy, of the Earth Mother. It unfolds from a seed, weathering winter’s storms to brave summer’s flame, surviving the seasons until it realizes the inherent uniqueness of its Self, a reflection of four seasons at work.

Stepping back a little further we see the tree as part of a larger ecosystem, small enough to walk around yet large enough to possess a unique character. This headland landscape is windswept and harsh, each tree, shrub and blade of long grass struggling to maintain a foothold in the rocky outcrop. The form of the coastal vegetation is distorted, gnarled yet beautiful, as it twists backwards recoiling from the sea, almost flattened horizontal by the wind. The genius loci of this place lies in the physical expression of the “four elements” at play. Wind and fire shape and distort the vegetation; wind and water combine to transform the stone, eroding it into life-giving earth, which holds within it the potential for what grows above.

Stepping back once more in this incrementally scaled spectrum of landscape, we invoke a larger piece of land: Mungo National Park, New South Wales, dramatic and utterly confronting in its weathered harshness. In this red-soiled desert landscape the horizon line is commanding, seemingly the sum total of the landscape itself. Here the dialogue between land and sky is extreme, the horizon a sharp line defining the diametric opposites of earth and sky. Standing in this desert landscape is the ultimate experience of being one’s Self, without distraction, with no shelter, no ego behind which to take refuge. With dry, scorched earth, a brilliant red, and water ever-present in its absence, this desert landscape is a dramatic exaggeration of the four seasons, the “four elements” and the four dimensions of the archetype at play.

Extending this approach by scale once more, we can apply this framework to the built landscape. As landscape architects, we must approach the landscape on which we intend to impose form and function not as a tabula rasa, but as an entity possessing unique natural quality. This approach acknowledges the necessity of aesthetics and function while maintaining the unfolding dialogue between human and nature, striving to maintain a sense of place, learning to touch the landscape lightly. The landscape design professional must aim to resist the urge to collect and quantify design data chronicling the genius loci in order to prescribe formula to be repeated ad nauseam in future work.4 This exploration of the Jungian psychological framework is an attempt to sew meaning back into the human experience, to put down roots and to highlight the importance of our role as landscape architects in mediating this essential relationship between human and nature.

1. Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, dreams, reflections (New York: Random House, 1989).

2. Carl Gustav Jung, “Transformation symbolism in the Mass,” in Gerhard Adler and Richard Francis Carrington Hull (eds), Collected works of C. G. Jung, Volume 11 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942/1954).

3. Edward Whitmont, The symbolic quest: basic concepts of analytical psychology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

4. Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis (eds), People places: design guidelines for urban open space (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997).


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