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Heartsteading: Cooking Up the New

Craig Chalquist, Phd

In 2007, I introduced the word “heartsteading” to mean “dwelling deeply in places through knowledge and love that strengthen over time in continual interactions between the human and the nonhuman” (p. 52). Doing so would require “reweaving the sacred fabric of place, spirit, society, self, and heart” with help from wise elders and mentors capable of interpreting the language of nature and opening awareness through dialog.

Heartsteading is a new type of reflective problem-solving circle that joins the wisdom of the group to the natural wisdom of the land. I see such groups as a possible basis for the just, sustainable, and Earth-based civilization we will need to design in order to survive as a species and, beyond survival, to flourish in communities that bring us joy and belonging.

Our Perennial Container: The Small, Reflective Group

Humans evolved within the small group, a supportive structure that has always served us, especially in difficult times.

Since the Agricultural Revolution’s displacement of informal leadership by territorial hierarchies of centralized power and empire, small groups that preserve collective sanity and vision have gone by many names: kibbutzim, Gnostic worship circles, covens, sanctuaries, mystery schools, Mothers’ Centers, reality laboratories (Martín-Baró), public homeplaces (bell hooks, Mary Belenky), beloved communities (Martin Luther King Jr.), intentional communities, “snailshells” (Subcommandante Marcos), consciousness-raising (New York Radical Women), communities of resistance (Thich Nhat Hanh), counter-public spheres (Olav Eikeland), free spaces, Simplicity Circles (Cecile Andrews), salons....

Other examples include Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the Pan Valley Institute in Fresno, CA, and Jane Sapp’s Center for Cultural and Community Development in Springfield, MA.

Situated between private identities and large institutions, these kinds of groups provide containers (according to Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman) for preserving one’s humanity, analyzing and decolonizing internalized oppression, thinking and problem-solving, supporting resistance to injustice, and incubating common dreams for desirable ways to live with each other, recognizing (as Van Jones expresses it) that “we are all in this together.”

As the multinational colonization of cultures and landscapes proceeds across a world pounded by increasingly dangerous weather and by overheating climates threatening food, water, and shelter everywhere, visioning and support containers will need to think ever more deeply in ecological terms while facing collective traumata on a scale never witnessed in human history.

Adapting to Massive Change

From Homesteads to Heartsteads Like the fort and the castle, the private neighborhood and gated mansion offer no lasting refuge from cultural and ecological upheaval. On the American frontier, a settler dissatisfied with local affairs could travel elsewhere to set up a homestead. In our day, however, most people cannot afford what land remains; meanwhile, ecosystems crash all over the world and toxins cross all legal boundaries. Extreme weather of the kind that floods or burns entire regions is now the norm. How to adapt to it all?

A heartstead is a small, local group designed for mutual support, collaborative problem-solving, reflective listening and dialog, reclaiming of community strengths, decolonization, story-telling, practical research, direct democracy, preservation of crafts and skills (“reskilling”), and self-education. Relying on the ecological principle of resilience, heartsteads rely on multiple backups and communication sources, preserving their infrastructure and culture through many means that offer some protection from the obvious fragilities of centralization.

Unlike the homestead, the heartstead can be set up anywhere to form a circle of people dreaming together toward just, sustainable, and abundant forms of community that cultivate appreciation of Earth and all its creatures.

Heartsteads can serve as hubs of healing, resource-gathering, mourning, remembrance, cultural creation, and problem-solving for communities devastated by political, financial, or ecological disaster. Knowledgeable and reflective groups offer psychological containment to individuals whose coping skills are overwhelmed and tools for reimagining selves, families, neighborhoods, and societies as ecosystems capable of resiliency and self-design.

In helping members move from paralysis into critical consciousness (Paolo Freire) and action, the inclusiveness of the heartstead embraces and works imaginatively with the presence of the locale: flora, fauna, soils, streams, hills, valleys, geology, geography, recognizing the human mind’s deep connection to its surroundings. As observed by terrapsychology, the deep study of the presence of place, nature, and Earth, ecology and geology are modes of psychology. This means that we can practice thinking and doing like the features of the land around us. A nearby mountain invites a higher view of things, a river teaches us about transport and time, a valley about going down into the depths of an issue. In this way we appreciate how our personal story is part of the story of where we live.

Why the "heart" in heartsteading? Psychologically, I understand the heart as an imaginal core, a seat of affects that involve us in the world's doings. The heart's wisdom partakes of an embodiment and solidity that brain alone cannot aspire to. Its knowledge is holistic and centered and inclusive of that of the head. To know from the heart is to know fully; to speak from the heart is to be sincere and open. To reflect, speak, and act from the heart issues an evolutionary challenge to soullessly disconnective economics, politics, religions, and sciences that would dominate life rather than participate in it.

The premises informing the heartstead model are:

  • Threats to life on earth are now overwhelming financial, governmental, and educational institutions, many formed in the 18th Century or even earlier and most in the hands of a global finance system with no interest in preserving social or ecological integrity.

  • Humans naturally form small bands to deal with adverse circumstances.

  • Groups hold more healing, problem-solving, and culture-building potential than individuals.

  • The wisdom of the group surpasses that of the lone genius and should be the primary resource for solving difficult planetary problems.

  • Ecological, psychological, political, and cultural pathology spring from the same alienation from nature and place; their regeneration must arise together.

  • Regenerative work should cultivate imaginal-visionary resources that link inner and outer.

  • It should also generate new knowledge and practice as an ongoing activity.

  • Networked groups of successful adaptation can provide a foundation for a Great Turning (Joanna Macy) toward a just and sustainable civilization.

Obviously this is a lot for anyone to take on. But I am convinced that almost any problem can be solved by putting enough of the right people together and teaching them how to tap their deepest sources of creative knowledge.

The primary purpose of a heartstead is to provide a container in which dualisms that split people from place, nature and each other can be melted down into new recipes for just, sustainable, and self-replicating culture brewed by mixing the wisdom of group participants with the wisdom of the deep psyche as it connects with that of Earth. This wisdom is to be pooled and passed on through multiple channels. Another way of saying this is that heartsteads should be designed to encourage groups of humans to imagine and grow into an ethical-responsible relationship to the natural world as a basis for an authentically evolved civilization.

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