Once upon a time, stories wove the known universe together, connecting communities to each other, to the land and to the plants and animals they lived alongside. For most of human history, people carved stories out of raw experience and pure imagination in order to create truths to live by. The wisest stories were remembered and retold over and over down the centuries, until the printing press and science came along, and indigenous ways of knowing began to unravel.
With the scientific revolution, people started to tell new stories about the world and about the place of humans in it. The practice of science separated people from landscapes and other beings, claiming that reason required detachment and objectivity. For a long time, the stories of science promised a better world. Lately, however, these tales have turned dark, telling of mass deforestation, pollution plumes, threats from climate change, losses of habitat and accelerating rates of species extinction.
Meanwhile back in the 1960s, science sent men to the moon—the greatest separation from our planetary landscapes that any human being has ever achieved. These astronauts looked back on Earth and saw it not with cool detachment, but with love. At the same time, James Lovelock invoked the old stories when he named his scientific theory of the interdependence of life on Earth after a goddess: the Gaia Hypothesis. Love and stories, no matter how far we travel, we cannot escape them.
For the better part of a hundred years, the environmental movement has pinned its hopes on science and technology. But scientific facts alone will never be able to teach us how to love, because it is through story that we learn to be in relationship with each other and the world around us. If we are to learn how to live well, in harmony with all the inhabitants of Earth, we will need more than facts. We will need stories of wisdom and connection, love and magic.
But before we get nostalgic for tales from the past, we need to remember that modern humans did not invent selfishness or cruelty. Wisdom stories are not the only tales that have been handed down. As we sifted through archives, searching for tales that could speak wisely to the ecological crises of our contemporary era, we uncovered piles of traditions that justified the slaughter of birds and animals, the clear-felling of ancient trees, and the scapegoating of people from other communities. Crows and wolves suffered most at the hands of our ancestors’ fears and hatreds, but we found traditions encouraging the killing even of cheerful yellowhammers and tiny wrens. Societies ruled by story alone can also wander down the path that leads to ecological destruction.
In a living tradition, stories grow and metamorphose as the needs and knowledge of the community changes. What the world needs now is a living tradition of storytelling that supports shifts in attitudes that we know through science and rational thinking are needed, a tradition that can lead us on a journey towards a sustainable future. In our collection, we re-tell traditional tales while keeping scientific knowledge and contemporary crises in mind. We hope our book will be one resource amongst many feeding a practice of storytelling for a better world.
The contemporary storytelling renaissance has emphasised the collecting of stories and the development of the art-form and the artist. However, for storytelling to truly come alive once more, attention also must be paid to developing audiences (and we’re not talking about numbers of bums on seats!). In days gone by, audiences would be silent after a well told story, showing that they had been touched by what they heard, were absorbing the message it brought to their lives, and were reflecting on their own experiences in light of the meanings offered.
Today’s audiences usually clap after a story, which has the effect of breaking the spell a few moments too early. We offer a simple practice to help people connect their selves to stories they have heard. Before closing a storytelling session, pause and invite your audience to ask themselves the following questions:
What caught your imagination in the story you just heard?
What does this connect with in your own life, in the past or the present?
What new options does this story open up for being and acting in the world?
You may ask people to write down their answers or simply reflect quietly on their own. You can then initiate a discussion about what came up for people and ask them to commit to making one small change in their lives during the following week. By moving from listening to reflecting, and only then to discussing and acting, people’s learning will be deepened and strengthened. Younger audiences can be helped to reflect through art. Ask children to make a picture of what they remember best or like best from the story. Then use their artworks to start a conversation.
Together we can re-story the world for a thriving future for all!
By Alette J Willis and Allison Galbraith