The Imaginal Energy of Earth

Joanne H. Stroud, Ph.D.

One always feels when beginning a paper or a talk that we should still invoke the Muses to favor us, as the ancients always did. I especially feel that way tonight. In Dr. Louise Cowan’s riveting talk a few weeks ago, she spoke about the need for a poet to give words to the acute feelings that we all have felt in the last number of weeks, to give form and meaning to the chaotic anger and angst we have been experiencing. I was reminded of an early Yeats poem that I had already planned to include, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd. Our subject for this series is elemental nature and, in the first stanza, it speaks to the division of man from an animated world. The narrator claims that in order to see beyond the immediate, excruciating present moment: “words alone are certain good.

The woods of Arcady are dead,

And over is their antique joy;

Of old the world on dreaming fed;

Grey Truth is now her painted toy;

Yet still she turns her restless head:

But O, sick children of the world,

Of all the many changing things

In dreary dancing past us whirled,

To the cracked tune that Chronus sings,

Words alone are certain good. (Yeats, 7)

And, of course, since it always seems to me that Yeats finds the perfect words for any situation, when I saw all the faces of those fireman and the others who rushed to help, I too thought of Yeats’s poem that Glenn Arbery included “Easter 1916–a tragedy event for Yeats in which he lost many close friends. But he could see in all that loss of life, not only the sadness but also the magnificence of heroism and proclaim: “A terrible beauty is born. How does any horrendous event become something we can call beautiful? We have spoken many times here about the power of the imagination to translate even the mundane into the significant. In the words of Rainer Marie Rilke, it is the earth, the imaginal energy of earth, the subject of my talk, where we find transformation of the bitter in experience into the framework of meaning:

Explore transformation.

What is your most suffering experience?

Is dreaming bitter to you, turn to wine

And if the earthly forgot you

To the still earth say: I run

To the swift water speak: I am

It is through our human nature, which we sometimes forget contains the word nature directly linking us to the natural world, and from earth that we find the bonds that strengthen our resolve to survive. In The Double Flame Otavaio Paz explains why when we feel separate from nature, any overall meaning in life is difficult to attain:

In antiquity the belief in metamorphosis was founded on the continuous communication between three worlds: the supernatural, the human, and the natural. Rivers, trees, hills, forests, seas, everything was animate, everything communicated with everything else, and everything was transformed by this communication. Christianity desacralized nature and drew an impassable line dividing the natural and the human. The nymphs fled, the naiads, the satyrs, and Tritons were turned into angels and demons. The modern age accentuated the divorce: at one extreme, nature, and at the other, culture. Today, as modernity comes to an end, we are rediscovering that we are part of nature. The earth is a system of relationships, or, as the Stoics put it, a “conspiration of elements all moved by universal sympathy. We are parts, living pieces of that system. The idea of humanity’s kinship with the universe appears at the very origin of the idea of love. (Paz, 269-270)

I want to emphasize this point: The idea of humanity’s kinship with the universe appears at the very origin of the idea of love. Dylan Thomas’ poem, “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower that Dr. Cowan used for her talk, its title but not all of its content, has always reminded me of this prose statement of Rabindranath Tagore that I like so much: “The same stream of life that runs through the world runs through my veins night and day and dances in rhythmic measure. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth into numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of flowers(lxix).

Rupert Sheldrake, in his seminal book, The Rebirth of Nature-The Greening of Science and God, traces how the past three centuries with an exclusive emphasis on science are responsible for extracting the soul out of nature and exchanging for it a mechanistic model. But now, surprisingly, science is leading the way back to an animated view of the physical world. In his first chapter, “Mother Nature and the Desecration of the World, Sheldrake traces the thinking that led to the desire to conquer nature. Nature has always aroused fear as well as pleasure–the terror of the hurricane or the storm sea, or when the earth rumbles and quakes. In order to pacify our uneasiness, humankind has sought to conquer nature, to make it benign at best, or, at worst, into a predictable machine that humans can control. Sheldrake clarifies this point: Like human mothers, nature has always evoked ambivalent emotions. She is beautiful, fertile, nurturing, benevolent, and generous. But she is also wild, destructive, disorderly, chaotic, smothering, death dealing-the Mother in her terrifying form, like Nemesis, Hecate, or Kali(9). To designate nature’s unruliness as subject to control pacifies our fears. Sheldrake explains why: “Mother Nature is less frightening if she can be dismissed as a superstition, a poetic turn of phrase, or a mythic archetype confined to human minds, while the inanimate natural world remains there for us to exploit. Unfortunately the consequences of this way of thinking are themselves terrifying. Nemesis is now operating on a global scale: The climate is changing. We are threatened with droughts, storms, floods, famines, chaos. Ancient fears are returning in new forms(9-10). To me this statement means that having pushed all our unease aside, we are not prepared to face the facts of the destruction that we are rendering to the earth-the warming of the atmosphere, the pollution of seas and rivers and recently, in the last forty years, the cluttering of outer space surrounding the earth. Early in the twentieth century Albert Schweitzer warned: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth. Our Promethean tendencies, the inclination to believe that we understand all the mysteries and don’t need the gods any more, blind us to the real truths of our connectedness with others and with the earth.

In his book Love and the Soul-Creating a Future for Earth, Robert Sardello explains where these Promethean tendencies have led us. He claims that the loss of the sense of soul in the world was made manifest when we dropped the bomb of Japan on August 6, 1945: ” The great cosmic instruction manual on how to live with the universe went up in the conflagration in Japan. Besides being a literal event, “the explosion of the bomb is an epiphany, the appearance of a new god that questions the power of former divinities, a god capable of creating the capacity to destroy not only the Earth, but perhaps even a greater part of the galaxy(67-68). Sardello suggests that we need to examine these qualities of consciousness that made this event possible. We cannot blame the scientists for they “simply expressed in clear form the condition of the modern world in relation to the world. For the individual soul to have developed in this direction, the world as the place of soul would have to have already been obscured and forgotten for a long time. This following statement that Sardello published in 1996 is chillingly applicable to recent events:

Now, nearly fifty years after the explosion of the bomb, we see these same characteristics of doubt, hatred, and fear exploding in the world. A new kind of violence characterizes the modern world. Terrorism can be seen in relation to these characteristics of the modern soul; can street violence, drive-by shootings, mass murders, cases of individuals walking into office buildings and coolly taking out a gun and killing seven or eight people. This new violence is not characterized by passion and loss of control, but rather by coolness and calculation; we might even call it scientific, technological violence. (Sardello, 68)

I don’t want to make an apocalyptic speech tonight, because I think there is so much of that feeling of Armageddon in the air. I want to affirm the notion that we are all in this together in this planet that we share, even though here in America we may have been entirely too complacent, thinking our distance allowed us to ignore poverty and suffering in others places. I want to return to some of the pre-September 11th-thinking that seems encouraging that we may be at last waking up to the importance of the earth as our home and an awareness of the interconnectedness of all.

Christopher Bache in a recent article in “Ions calls the challenge of transforming ourselves into a truly sustainable civilization “the defining global challenge of the twenty-first century. In his paper “The Noetic Core of Sustainability, he contends that the sustainability crisis “is being generated by our lack of deep self-awareness. In other words it is a crisis of unconsciousness, or of “not knowing fully who and what we are, of `disconnection from source’. He follows up with this conclusion: Beings who have rediscovered their connection to the web of life, who have experientially recovered their essential identity with the totality, do not gouge the Earth to sell off the pieces(21).

Father Thomas Berry is called an eco-theologian, a new title for me. In his book, The Dream of the Earth, he makes this similar point:

The time has come to lower our voices, to cease imposing our mechanistic patterns on the biological processes of the earth, to resist the impulse to control, to command to force, to oppress, and to begin quite humbly to follow the guidance of the larger community on which all life depends. Our fulfillment is not in our isolated human grandeur, but in our intimacy with the larger earth community, for this is also the larger dimension of our being. Our human destiny is integral with the destiny of the earth. (xiv)

Walter Christie, at a Harvard conference in 1990, “Psychology as if the Whole Earth Mattered observed:

The illusion of separateness we create in order to utter the words “I am is part of our problem in the modern world. We have always been far more a part of great patterns on the globe than our fearful egos can tolerate knowing…. To preserve nature is to preserve the matrix though which we can experience our souls and the soul of the planet Earth. (12)

Theodore Roszak in The Voice of the Earth is hopeful in suggesting that “an `ecological unconscious’ lies at the core of the psyche, there to be drawn upon as a resource for restoring us to environmental harmony.

Let’s return now to Rupert Sheldrake who offers positive proof that the earth is coming back to life. He cites James Lovelock who proposed twenty years ago that Earth is a self-regulating living organism. Lovelock was trying to find ways of detecting life on a Mars and discovered that the composition of our atmosphere could only be maintained by the continual activities of photosynthesis that releases free oxygen and through the nitrogen-releasing activities of bacteria. There is no other explanation for the chemical equilibrium of our atmosphere. Lovelock’s refreshing point of view was that Gaia is not overly fragile and, with some human cooperation, is forever both self-renewing and creating new life. He says:

Gaia, as I see her, is no doting mother tolerant of misdemeanors, nor is she some fragile and delicate damsel in danger from brutal mankind. She is stern and tough, always keeping the world warm and comfortable for those who obey the rules, but ruthless in her destruction of those who transgress. (James Lovelock, 1988, 212) (quoted in Sheldrake, 151)

Sheldrake outlines the scientific thought that has shaped the attitude that the earth is inanimate. Science, beginning is the seventeenth century, assumed more and more a mechanistic model for all of nature. Soul was expelled from the equation and all powers of renewal that couldn’t be explained were considered supernatural, not natural. For example, in Newtonian physics, such subjects as gravitational forces that were little understood were attributed to God’s will. In the nineteenth century, Farraday first developed the ideas of electromagnetic fields as an explanation for some of the observations about gravity. In the twentieth century, the new physics postulated that all matter at the quantum level is composed primarily of space or vacuum full of flows of energy. Matter was no longer regarded as solid. I’m not certain we have really yet assimilated this change of perspective. Matter, mother, material things (and all the words are related)-not solid anymore!

Einstein gave us the equation for the conversion of matter to energy. He also explained how gravitational fields control the curvature of space. The gravitational field “is not in space and time; rather it contains the entire physical world, including space and time(82). As Sheldrake elaborates: “The gravitational field is a space-time continuum curved in the vicinity of matter, and gravitation is a consequence of the curvature of the field(87).

These discoveries also affected the organic world. Carrying the quantum theory over into the field of biology, in the 1920’s a number of biologists proposed the concept of morphogenic fields as explanation for embryonic development of all living things into mature creatures. What this means to me is there is a thrust that any live organism makes, pushing toward growth and maturity that could not be accounted for by simply looking at the DNA of the cells. I often wondered why a human baby, for example, that has learned how to crawl suddenly decides it has to struggle to stand up and walk. Sheldrake, who is good at explaining complicated processes, has this to say:

If the same energy can exist in the body of a plant, in the deer that eats it, and in the man that eats the deer, then the plant, the deer, and the man must owe their different characteristics to some formative principle over and above the flow of energy-indeed to a principle that organizes this flow in accordance with its own ends. Aristotle called this principle the psyche (the soul). He also called it entelechy (from en, meaning “in, and telos, meaning “end), that which has its end in itself, its own internal purposes.


Thus life involves both an energy flow, which can be understood as an aspect of the universal energy flux, and a formative principle, which gives an organism the ends toward which its life processes are attracted. The big question concerns the nature of this formative principle. For over three hundred years, the science of life has been the arena of a long and often bitter debate on this very question. (99)

It is the forming principle that exists on all levels-from the cellular to the whole human being. In the twentieth century “entelchies were replaced by the concept of biological fields. If we had time we could talk more about morphic fields that surround every living thing and about morphic resonance, but I can recommend this book to you. Once again Sheldrake explains why the old paradigm no longer works: “The machine analogy breaks down when it comes to understanding the growth and development of organisms, their morphogenesis (from the Greek words morphe, “form and genesis, “coming into being)….Living organisms have a wholeness that is more than the sum of the parts and their interactions. They can often regain their normal forms even if parts are removed. There is something within them that is holistic and purposive, directing their development toward the normal adult of the species-the soul or life principle(104-105). Imagine such a statement from a scientist!

Gail Thomas said in her lecture: “We live in a resonant universe. Our world resonates. It hums, vibrates and moves. It seems that not only is our world alive with the sound of music, the world also has a memory. Sheldrake remarks: “The morphic field of Gaia contains as inherent memory(163). He summarizes with argument with this remarkable statement: “The organismic or holistic philosophy of nature that has grown up over the last sixty years is a new form of animism. It implicitly or explicitly regards all nature as alive(151). The earth is coming back to life!

Tonight in a talk on the earth Gaston Bachelard is very much on my mind, which is actually not so unusual. But, especially this week, because, on Monday Dr. Scott Dupree and I finished our editing of the Institute’s latest translation. With the immense help of Maribeth Lipscomb and Patti Mora who have done the formatting and cover, we are getting ready to send The Earth and Reveries of Will –an Essay on the Imagination of Matter off to the printer. Some of you that I haven’t cornered to discuss Bachelard (could there be anyone?) may not know that previously we have translated six of his books. This one has lived up to its title, having had the most incredible will of its own not to be rendered in readable English. We’ve been working on it for ten years or more. And now we are faced with translating its companion volume,Earth and Reveries of Repose. In the Preface, Bachelard explains that the imagination of earth required two books-one for extroverted dreams of work and one for introverted dreams of repose. He warns, though, against considering any image exclusively introverted or extroverted, for: “The loveliest images are often hotbeds of ambivalence(7).

In this book, Bachelard develops those dreams of definite action that he designates as “reveries of will. The idea of dreaming, or of reverie, as being linked to the will to action may be one of Bachelard’s most original premises. Generally the acts of willing and dreaming are conceived as being opposite urges. Bachelard makes a good case that there would be no effective will without the impetus of the dream behind it, because

[M]atter reveals to us our own strengths, suggesting a system for categorizing our energies. It provides not only enduring substance to our will, but a system of well-defined temporalities to our patience. In our dreams of matter, we envision an entire future of work; we seek to conquer it through labor. We take pleasure in the projected efficacy of our will. It should not be surprising then that to dream material images–yes, simply to dream them is to invigorate the will. (17)

It is basically in its role as teacher that Bachelard exalts terrestrial matter. The earth gives us a sense of who we are and locates us in the cosmos. The earth gives us a sense of up and down, inside and out, above and below. Gravity gives us the nostalgia for lightness. Earth presents challenges to us, enticing our interaction with, or, more dynamically and actively, provoking reactions to an array of possibilities for engaging our energies. This active, creative potential is inherent in the earth’s dynamism, not simply waiting to be revealed by human action. Earth is a never-exhausted mine of riches to be discovered. Presented with sand and water, we are required to make a clay vessel. Finding a river, we are compelled to build a bridge. Earth evokes our best efforts. In the first chapter, Bachelard makes one of his usual inversions: ” Matter is the mirror of our energies; a mirror that focuses our strengths by illuminating them with imaginary gratifications(17).

That is the crux of it—matter engages our imagination and summons the personhood of each of us, providing the will to action. We are not allowed to be passive in our engagement with matter. Imagination is supercharged by interaction with the material world. “Even in contact with an element as strongly material as the earth, imagination asserts its mobility, Colette Goudin explains in her Introduction to Bachelard in On Poetic Imagination and Reverie(xxv). By the way Collete Goudin will be coming to Dallas next November 1st, 2002, when the Institute will host a conference on Bachelard. In his exploration of an element, Bachelard not only extols its virtues but also includes its drawbacks, the under or dark, unseen side. He doesn’t state it explicitly in this book but does elsewhere that imagination depends upon the flow of energy between contrasting opposites. He would agree that earth’s creativity is matched by an equal urge, destructive but necessary for renewal. We’ve always known this–haven’t we?–that Mother Earth not only births us but also buries us. These two lines of George Meredith echo the closeness of the dual aspects–creation and disintegration: “Earth knows no desolation/ She smells regeneration/ in the moist breath of decay. Bachelard too emphasizes the beneficial rather than cruel part of the earth’s role in death, regeneration, and renewal.

The earth is ever our first great classroom. From the earth we experience soft and solid, hot and cold. Bachelard reveals his sense of humor in the following exchange from Earth and Reveries of Will:

The imagination of cold turns out to be rather poor. Authors scrape by with descriptions of numbness and whiteness-snow and ice-or make use of comparisons with cold metal to approximate coldness. In short, they quickly turn to moral metaphor, unable to find images more simple and direct.

Why such poverty? It is probably because nocturnal life lacks a true oneiric sense of cold. It is as if humans asleep are entirely unconscious of low temperatures. When on occasion it happens that I am served wine in my dreams, not only does it always turn out to be tasteless, even more horrifying for a man from Champagne, it is always brought to the table at room temperature. Quite naturally it is as warm as milk! In dream it is impossible to get anything cold to drink. (171)

Bachelard often refers to Francis Ponge who speaks in many of the same ways he does of the creative urge as “the will to formation. I would like to include “The Earth from The Voice of Things by Ponge (150-152). He sees the world not in a grain of sand but in a clod of earth.

Wendell Berry, one of the Institute’s Fellows, a poet and a Kentucky farmer, has written much about our relationship to earth. In this statement he insists:

There must be new contact between men and the earth; the earth must be newly seen and heard and felt and smelled and tasted; there must be a renewal of the wisdom that comes with knowing clearly the pain and the pleasure and the risk and the responsibility of being alive in this world. (Fox, 37)

Finally, it is earth that sharpens our eye to see the terrestrial beauty that surrounds us. Here Bachelard waxes most enthusiastic. Three centuries ago Michelangelo said much the same: “My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through earth’s loveliness. For both practical and spiritual guidance, earth is our primary classroom and most instructive teacher. That’s where we learn the challenging lesson of how to love. Listen to Rilke’s words: “Isn’t the sly earth’s secret purpose/ when it urges two lovers on/ that all of creation/ should share in their shudder of ecstasy? Ultimately these affirming words of Robert Frost in “Birches where he recalls the joy of swinging on a limb of a birch tree sums it all up: “I would like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over. / May no fate willingly misunderstand me/ and half grant what I wish and snatch me away/ Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:/ I don’t know where it’s likely to get better.


Bache, Chris. “The Noetic Core of Sustainability. Ions Noetic Sciences Review Sept.-Nov. 2001: 19-21.

Bachelard, Gaston. Earth and Reveries of Will. (Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture Press– to be published Fall, 2001)

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990.

Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America-Culture & Agriculture. New York: Avon Books, 1977.

Fox, Matthew. The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988.

Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1969.

Rilke, Rainer Marie. The Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. 

Roszak, Theodore. ed. with Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner Ecopsychology-Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995.

Sardello, Robert. Love and the Soul Creating a Future for Earth. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Sheldrake, Rupert. The Rebirth of Nature The Greening of Science and God. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1994.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Collected Poems and Plays. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1948.

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