FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Chellis Glendinning

My name is Chellis Glendinning, and I live in the northern New Mexico village of Chimayo, in a village system that up until very recently was sustainable villages, growing corn and chili and squash. There's an acacia system, a water system that, with no more technology than a shovel, moves the water from the river to the homes, through the fields, and back to the river again. So that's where I live. And at this point, after all these years here, I am a Chimayosa.

And I spend my days in very disparate ways. Sometimes I see clients, mostly clients who have post-traumatic stress disorder, and helping them to heal from that. Or I engage in local political things. Or I leave and go to a city somewhere and give a lecture. Or I write articles, or I work on other books. Or I work in my garden.

I think that I finally got a bigger picture of what we call mass society. That's a sociological term, mass society. It's actually, "the fruits of imperialism". It's the fruits of expansion. I came to that view after having been in a whole number, a whole series of social change movements. I essentially grew up in the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and my mother was awakening to the need for that movement. And so I had the opportunity, as a child, to go to demonstrations, to go on buses overnight to Washington, D.C., and protest all day, and then bus back, and in school the next day, missing only one day of school.

Then I was in the anti-Viet Nam movement, the peace movement, in Berkeley. And out of that also emerged, out of the cultural wing of what was going on at that time, was the movement for natural foods, the back to the land movement, and soon enough came the feminist movement and the environmental movement and/or the ecological movement. And out of that was also parallel, white people were becoming aware of the indigenous rights movements, so we got to know about sovereignty, and we became exposed to a whole other way of thinking; the natural medicine movement. Here in New Mexico, the land grant movement, to reclaim land that was stolen by the U.S. government, etc., etc.

Just this blossoming of movements that I have the privilege of being a part of. And each one of them had a thread of analysis that was about its own subject, whether it was civil rights, or whether it was where food comes from, or if it was pollution in the skies, or it was how women were treated. And so after a number of years, I began to have this capacity to put them all together. And because the basic theme of my work has always been, the personal is political, the political is personal, they reflect each other, and because I have training as a psychotherapist, I was suddenly able to see that one could look at mass society and say, "Oh my god, all these problems, they're not isolated." It's not like you end the Viet Nam war, and then you can go about your business.

The whole thing seems to be expressing some grave dysfunctions that we can find in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM). And through the years, I've seen a number of different people apply different personality disorders to mass society. You know, you could say it's schizophrenic. I happen to have landed on post-traumatic stress disorder, I think, because of the profound dissociation that is implied by that state, and all the symptoms. But also perhaps it continues, by its very existence, to create post-traumatic stress disorder in people. And it goes from being 'fighting the war', and actually getting post-traumatic stress disorder, to just the dissociation of the educational system, and the way that a person ends up being dissociated from themselves and from the community, etc., etc. So that's, in a nutshell, how I came to understand, or to apply a psychological mode of thinking to a social situation.

To understand the dysfunction of Western civilization, or really any civilization, mass society, I think that we have to understand what I would consider to be a much more natural evolutionary state of being. Because as long as you're inside of mass society, you're going to be defending some aspect of it, in a defensive manner. As long as you think that survival is dependent on that set of economic and technological arrangements.

And so, If you look back at the history of humanity, or if you look at what's left of indigenous people, you quickly come to understand that human beings evolved to live in small, what we call ' human scale' -- for a good reason -- groups of people, face-to-face communication, knowing where they're getting their food, education through experience, through the experience of the culture, and the experience of going to get food and finding food, preparing food, and the experience of the biosphere and the local ecology, the trees and the birds and rhythms of nature.

The experience of language springing from the earth. The experience of being in close communion with other people. The experience of encountering other groups of people who are foreign, and having a lateral experience, lateral communion, rather than some kind of imperialistic, top-down, militaristic relationship to other people, or the kind of separation from other people one has living in an urban area, where all this kind of people live over here, and all this kind of people live over there, and you don't ever encounter the other.

We've come so far from that, that the people have literally forgotten. Because it's almost as if we are made to understand our survival through what's in front of us. And so, if you think your survival has to do with going to the supermarket and having a car and watching TV and using your cellphone, then you're right in that situation. But that's not the big view. The big view is that survival has always been given to human beings through an unmediated participation in the natural world. And so, it's also very interesting to note that the kind of mental health problems that exist today, I think that they're all based on some form of dissociation, it just depends on where that gets sliced in the personality.

So, one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is a split. I mean, it's really all about a trauma occurring, whether it's a single trauma like a car accident, or an ongoing trauma like living in mass society, that is too much for the nervous system to handle. It overwhelms the nervous system. And so the nervous system, rather than taking in the experience, processing it in a normal way, and putting it in memory, it can't be done, it's too much. And so the nervous system splits it, splits the experience, and throws part of it into consciousness, and part of it into repression, and part of it into the body, and part of it into the nervous system, like that.

And so you get, perhaps, a verbal memory, a narrative of what took place, but without the feeling state. Or you might remember aspects of what took place, but not the totality of it. Or you might remember who was there, but not where it was. Or you might have eruptions of feeling states that don't seem to be related to anything. Or you might have it all buried in your body, and have illnesses that are expressing it. And so that's really the core definition of what starts, what begins, launches the post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of the symptoms are, it can be an extreme numbing. You know, it's just all too much, and we're going to keep this stuff in repression, and we're just going to numb ourselves out. Which, of course, is one of the major symptoms that exist in mass society.

I always remember the time that I was invited to go to New York City to give a lecture and be in a play. And so I arrived at night, took a cab to this apartment. And I got up the next morning, and I came out, and no one was there, so I was all by myself. And I walked down the street, and I started saying hello to people. Hello to the garbageman, you know, hello to the postman, hello to all the people walking by. And by the time I got to the corner, I was exhausted. So I stopped.

And that night, I told my host what had happened, and they said, "Oh, well, everyone thought you were crazy." Well, the deal is, is that in my village in New Mexico, you would be considered to be crazy if you didn't say hello to everyone you passed. And so, it's almost like to make it through mass society, to make it through all that onslaught that is way too much for the system to handle, that you have to numb yourself off from that.

Fragmentation is also the experience of trauma. Like I was saying, some gets into repression, and some goes into the nervous system, some is in memory, but not entirely. So there's this incredible fragmentation that takes place. And it's really curious to me that mass society itself is a fragmented entity. You know, well, the steel comes from over here, and then you have a car over here, but you never see where the steel comes from, or where it's smelted. So you go to the market, and you buy food here, and it was trucked in from 3000 miles away, or 10,000 miles away, or it was grown over here, but it was packaged here, or canned, or processed, and the chemicals came from over here.

And like I was saying, the city is like: well, here's the upper-middle class lives here, and here's the ghetto, and here's the freeway, and here's where the business takes place, and here's where the chi-chi boutiques are, and here's the park, and so it's all fragmented. And how can anyone even figure out what this is?