What’s a better tale to tell?


by Joshua Stearns, SCA Board Member and Alumnus

Our narratives transcend fact, for they are formed from the delicious emotional nuances of sensation: sound, smell, moods, sensuality, taste, color, shadow, texture, rhythm, cadence, tears, laughter, warmth, and coolness all experienced here, at a place on this earth.
— Robert Archibald

Recently I posted an essay by a friend of mine that points out how the “Starfish Story“ of one person making a difference, teaches us a flawed lesson, if we look at it in terms of community service and conservation.

One commenter on this blog said, “I agree. So, what’s a better tale to tell?”.

I believe we need to begin telling stories about communities large and small working together creatively to address our own lifestyle and our culture’s increasingly disconnected relationship to the world around us. Some of you are out there everyday creating these stories in the way you live and the work you do. These are the stories I would like to hear, and I hope you will tell some of them here, using the open comments below.

In my own thinking about the power and potential of stories and metaphors to shape our relationship with the land, I have been deeply influenced by Peter Forbes’ essay in the Trust for Public Land book The Story Handbook: Language and Storytelling for Land Conservationists, edited by Helen Whybrow and Will Rogers.

In his introduction to this handbook, Will Rogers, president of The Trust for Public Land writes, “In our world of information transfer, data exchange, and media impressions, where we become callused by so much communication, stories have the power to speak to us about what truly matters.” Later in the book, Peter Forbes expands on why stories matter to land conservation:

Telling stories conveys the emotion, meaning, and power of land conservation’s mission. Telling stories is our best hope of reflecting the kind of world we want to live in and, therefore, gives us hope of creating it”¦ And, as conservationists, we must tell these stories because they are growing more and more rare”¦ Without these stories of connection and relationship, there is increasingly one dominant story to hear and one story to tell. This is the story where the point of trees is board feet, the point of farms is money, and the point of people is to be consumers, and the point of other species is largely forgotten. In failing to tell a different story, we fail to express what we really love. (Giving Way 13)

In another essay in The Story Handbook, Barry Lopez suggests that the value of storytelling is tied to a certain understanding of truth. Lopez writes that truth is “something alive and unpronounceable,” but, he adds, “story creates an atmosphere in which it becomes discernible as a pattern” (Lopez 34). Truth, then, is glimpsed in the stories we tell, not because they reveal any certain one thing, but rather because of the narrative patterns that are expressed and perceived between the teller and the listener. Lopez suggests that stories can create new truths by shifting the narrative patterns and themes. By telling a new story about our lives, our communities, and our relationships to the land, we can bring those lives, those communities, and those relationships into being.

Aldo Leopold wrote, “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in” (qtd. in Giving Way 9). Scott Russell Sanders responds to Aldo Leopold, writing that, “This has always struck me as a key justification for art, which brings the world into ethical regard through stories, images, sounds, emotions, and spirit” (qtd. in Giving Way 9).

Peter Forbes acknowledges that before we can tell stories we have to learn how to hear them. It is not a matter of creating stories, but rather, Forbes insists, “virtually every conservation project has important stories imbedded within it that we can hear if we slow down enough to listen hard” (Giving Way 14). The centrality of listening caringly, to borrow Richard Poirier’s phrase, is a key feature to understanding how conservationists might begin to foster cultural, social, and ecological change by telling new stories of human’s relationships with the land.

We need stories to redefine, re-examine, and repair our relationships with the world around us.

Tell us your story about living differently, about promoting a life of care and stewardship.