My previous posts have discussed various elements that provided me with terrapsychological insight during the early 1990s. Today I will outline an experience that was more unusual than those I've previously recounted - a relationship with a kind of meditative mandala that seemed to open my consciousness to archetypal dimensions of the region where I live. And synchronistically, it was this mandala that led to my most successful and influential project as a city planner, which I will discuss beginning next week.
Individuals can use mandalas as a map of the psyche, and as an aid to achieve better articulation and integration of the elements of one's personality. If places also have personalities, then it makes sense to imagine that there can be mandalas for neighborhoods, cities, even regions.
In the late 1980s I began to discover a mandala for the entire Upper Midwest, anchored in the cities of Chicago and Minneapolis/Saint Paul, 400 miles northwest of Chicago. The basic structure of the mandala was discerned by Phil Lewis, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (although he did not realize that he was articulating a mandala). In the early 1950s, Lewis had noticed that the four-state region of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa was largely defined by a system of interconnected cities, arrayed in the form of a circle. He provided a name for this mega-region: Circle City.
Starting from Chicago, the outline of the circle proceeded north through Milwaukee and Green Bay in Wisconsin, before heading in a northwesterly direction through the Wisconsin cities of Wausau and Eau Claire toward Minneapolis/Saint Paul where it headed southward towards Iowa cities such as Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, before heading east toward Chicago again through Davenport, IA and Rock Island, IL. Lewis was not any sort of religious mystic; he explained Circle City entirely in materialistic terms - as a result of the area in the center of the circle being largely undeveloped due to its steep hills and bluffs, anomalies in the otherwise flat Midwest. But he advocated for focusing future urban development along the path of the circle, preserving the natural areas in its center. Mandalas are typically circular, so Circle City provided an obvious structure for a mandala that could potentially reveal the personality of this part of the world.
But I also discovered another set of tools in the late 1980s that helped me to perceive the personality of Circle City: tools arising from the discipline of sacred geometry, especially as articulated by the British thinker John Michell. Among Michell's books, The New View Over Atlantis was particularly fruitful for me. Not only did it describe traditional principles of harmonious geometrical forms that align with personality, it also provided an account of the reawakening of interest in "earth mysteries" in Michell's native land of England. Much to my surprise and delight, it turns out that this reawakening was partially triggered by mid-19th century European discoveries of Native American earth mysteries in the Upper Mississippi River Valley - essentially within the area that Phil Lewis identified as Circle City. Before European settlement, this area was thick with natural and cultural alignments over vast distances, believed both to manifest aspects of the personality of the place, and to channel spiritual energy.
By combining the insights of Lewis and Michell, I therefore had a mandalic form that I frequently used in meditation - and also in my engagement with communities in my job as a city planner. And increasingly a single simple image began to dominate my meditations: a flow of energy seeking a water path connecting Chicago and Minneapolis/Saint Paul.
Next time: from meditation to manifestation in the "Grand Excursion" and its associated creative placemaking.