Edith Cobb's The Ecology Of Imagination In Childhood

by Paul Shepard[1]
"The recognition of the value of true metaphor would seem to be the key to the journey, leading as it does to the ultimate meaning of human transcendence and to the understanding of our most precious tool, compassionate intelligence."

Someone has quipped that Charles Darwin had "the only good idea" in the last three-hundred years, and it has been said that he and Sigmund Freud "created" the 20th Century. True or not, they did lead in the demolition of the mechanical model of the world that had ruled the intellectual life of the West since the sixteenth century. Their thought has survived the tempests of reaction and has led the radical new syntheses in recovering an organic universe, of which theories of holism are the heart.

In spite of its seeming integration the mechanistic concept was allied to the notion of a divided cosmos. On many fronts the old dichotomies of man and nature, body and spirit have begun to crumble. Edith Cobb believed that the horizons of mind and nature, said by the dualists to be opposite paths, could be -- are -- met and united in what her friend, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, calls "the ecological theater." She began by exploring the mystery of individual genius, looking for common ground in autobiographies, extrapolating her findings finally to a general principle in human life. In her subjects' frequent reference to childhood outdoor play and later `return' in thought and reflection she found a clue to creative intuition that led, in some, to superlative achievement. Increasingly for her, "culture" meant a kind of evolutionary process, linked in individual growth to a surprising and rather specialized relationship of the child to both nature and place.

Here, in the innocuous to-and-fro of play, in the use of moved-through space as an organizing screen of patterned experience, is a source of the core elements of the personality. Children of middle years, from about six to eleven, are engaged in expanding awareness from body to the organic surroundings, from self to the ecosystem. In this employment of their own bodies as a kind of flying shuttle, they embody the inherent integration of the small world of yard and garden, whose special places hold a constant relationship to each other, predisposing their own perception of meaning in the disparate fragments of experience. In this play of body and earth the landscape becomes a model and method of anticipated knowledge, juxtaposing the systems of the body and the structure of the living nature. After infancy it is the first great coherence between already existing patterns of the body and the Other, the unpremeditated discovery that such resonance is itself a tool. The great leap in comprehension from the microcosm of the self to the macrocosm of the mysterious universe is otherwise confronted by an impossible distance, but the leaping, dancing play of boys and girls prepares an ecological bridge, a vehicle of insight and intuition.

Cobb's theory does not imply an identity of self and world. It emphasizes, she says, the discontinuity of the self and all else. One of humankind's most specialized traits -- extended immaturity-- is the time of an intensely focused discovery of the world's diversity, including personal uniqueness. It is not an isolating and fragmenting experience, however, for the perceptual immersion of the active self in a complex and patterned world redeems its plurality. The child's mind instinctively responds to this vascular and webbed analogy. Play in the landscape glows with elated expectancy, the foreknowledge of an equipoise between parts and wholes, self and the world. This experience, she says, is the prelude to loving the universe.

This dynamic vision of self and world as a temporal and spatial whole she holds to be "at the source of all original thinking." The two primary activities of unconscious mapping and the naming of living things create a reticulate image from sensory perception, forming a powerful faith that the world is structured and meaningful. Such silent recognition is the genesis of all the gestalt-making that comes later in life.

The ecological domain in which the child soaks, the middle ground of juvenile home range, is a school of preverbal confidence, protecting the emerging ego against the fragmentary thingness in the healing loom of terrain, grass, and trees. This sense of things is deeply imprinted. So, she says, the little outdoor events of childhood are "the universal link between mind and nature as yet uncodified but latent in consciousness in intuitive form."

Edith Cobb has described nothing less than a new meta-physiology, connecting the most prized human faculties with the pungent presence of soil, leaves and butterflies. Her probing of this metabolic connection opens a whole new field of study, a prevalent, little understood, exquisitely timed encounter. She presents to us in an elegant synthesis a glimpse of an extraordinary facet of human becoming, so close around us as to have been invisible, a source of metaphors that bond body and planet, thought and place by the seemingly aimless, rhythmic frolic of children.


[1] This is the introduction to the Japanese edition of Edith Cobb's The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood (Tokyo: Shishaku-sha Publications, 1986), not previously reprinted in English