In the prosperous land where I live, a mysterious
task is underway to invigorate the minds of the populace,
and to vitalize the spirits of our children. In a strange
and curious initiative, parents and politicians and
educators of all forms are raising funds to bring computers
into every household in the realm, and into every classroom
from kindergarden on up through college. With the new
technology, it is hoped, children will learn to read
much more efficiently, and will exercise their intelligence
in rich new ways. Interacting with the wealth of information
available on-line, children's minds will be able to
develop and explore much more vigorously than was possible
in earlier eras -- and so, we hope, they will be well
prepared for the technological wonders of the coming
any child resist such a glad initiative? Indeed, few adults can resist
the dazzle of the digital screen, with its instantaneous access to everywhere,
its treasure-trove of virtual amusements, and its swift capacity to locate
any piece of knowledge we desire. And why should we resist? Digital
technology is transforming every field of human endeavor, and it promises to
broaden the capabilities of the human intellect far beyond its current reach.
Small wonder that we wish to open and extend this powerful dream to all our
It is possible,
however, that we are making a grave mistake in our
rush to wire every classroom, and to bring our children online as soon as possible.
Our excitement about the internet should not blind us to the fact that the
astonishing linguistic and intellectual capacity of the human brain did not
evolve in relation to the computer! Nor, of course, did it evolve in relation
to the written word. Rather it evolved in relation to orally told stories.
Indeed, we humans were telling each other stories for many, many millenia before
we ever began writing our words down -- whether on the page or on the screen.
were the living encyclopedias of our oral ancestors,
dynamic and lyrical compendiums of practical knowledge.
Oral tales told on special occasions carried the secrets
of how to orient in the local cosmos. Hidden in the
magic adventures of their characters were precise instructions
for the hunting of various animals, and for enacting
the appropriate rituals of respect and gratitude if
a hunt was successful, as well as information regarding
which plants were good to eat and which were poisonous,
and how to prepare certain herbs to heal cramps, or
sleeplessness, or a fever. The stories carried instructions
about how to construct a winter shelter, and what to
do during a drought, and -- more generally -- how to
live well in this land without destroying the land's
earthly savvy was carried in the old tales! And since
there was no written medium in which to record and
preserve the stories -- since there were no written
books -- the surrounding landscape, itself, functioned as the primary mnemonic, or
memory trigger, for preserving the oral tales. To this end, diverse animals
common to the local earth figured as prominent characters within the oral stories
-- whether as teachers or tricksters, as buffoons or as bearers of wisdom.
A chance encounter with a particular creature as you went about your daily
business (an encounter with a coyote, perhaps, or a magpie) would likely stir
the memory of one or another story in which that animal played a decisive role.
Moreover, crucial events in the stories were commonly associated with particular places in
the local terrain where those events were assumed to have happened, and whenever
you noticed that place in the course of your wanderings -- when you came upon
that particular cluster of boulders, or that sharp bend in the river -- the
encounter would spark the memory of the storied events that had unfolded there.
the accumulated knowledge of our oral ancestors was
carried in stories,
the stories themselves were carried by the surrounding
earth. The local landscape was alive with stories!
Traveling through the terrain, one felt teachings and
secrets sprouting from every nook and knoll, lurking
under the rocks and waiting to swoop down from the
trees. The wooden planks of one's old house would laugh
and whine, now and then, when the wind leaned hard
against them, and whispered wishes would pour from
the windswept grasses. To the members of a traditionally
oral culture, all things had the power of speech. .
when we consult indigenous, oral peoples from around
the world, we commonly discover that for them there
is no phenomenon -- no stone, no mountain, no human
artifact -- that is definitively inert or inanimate.
Each thing has its own pulse, its own interior animation,
its own life! Rivers feel the
presence of the fish that swim within them. A large boulder, its surface spreading
with crinkly red and gray lichens, is able to influence the events around it,
and even to influence the thoughts of those persons who lean against it --
lending their thoughts a certain gravity, and a kind of stony wisdom. Particular
fish, as well, are bearers of wisdom, gifting their insights to those who catch
them. Everything is alive -- even the stories themselves are animate beings!
Among the Cree of Manitoba, for instance, it is said that the stories, when
they are not being told, live off in their own villages, where they go about
their own lives. Every now and then, however, a story will leave its village
and go hunting for a person to inhabit. That person will abruptly be possessed
by the story, and soon will find herself telling the tale out into the world,
singing it back into active circulation...
something about this storied way of speaking -- this
acknowledgement of a world all alive, awake, and aware
-- that brings us close to our senses, and to the palpable,
sensuous world that materially surrounds us. Our animal
senses know nothing of the objective, mechanical, quantifiable
world to which most of our civilized discourse refers.
Wild and gregarious organs, our senses spontaneously experience the world not
as a conglomeration of inert objects but as a field of animate presences that
actively call our attention, that grab our
focus or capture our gaze. Whenever we slip beneath the abstract assumptions
of the modern world, we find ourselves drawn into relationship with a diversity
of beings as inscrutable and unfathomable as ourselves. Direct, sensory perception
is inherently animistic, disclosing a world wherein every phenomenon has its
own active agency and power.
speak of the earthly things around us as quantifiable
objects or passive "natural
resources," we contradict our spontaneous sensory experience of the world,
and hence our senses begin to wither and grow dim. We find ourselves living
more and more in our heads, adrift in a set of abstractions, unable to feel
at home in an objectified landscape that seems alien to our own dreams and
emotions. But when we begin to tell stories,
our imagination begins to flow out through our eyes
and our ears to inhabit the breathing earth once again.
Suddenly, the trees along the street are looking at
us, and the clouds crouch low over the city as though
they are trying to hatch something wondrous. We find
ourselves back inside the same world that the squirrels
and the spiders inhabit, along with the deer stealthily
munching the last plants in our garden, and the wild
geese honking overhead as they flap south for the winter.
Linear time falls away, and we find ourselves held,
once again, in the vast cycles of the cosmos -- the
round dance of the seasons, the sun climbing out of
the ground each morning and slipping down into the
earth every evening, the opening and closing of the
lunar eye whose full gaze attracts the tidal waters
within and all around us.
For we are
born of this animate earth, and our sensitive flesh
is simply our part of the dreaming body of the world.
However much we may obscure this ancestral affinity,
we cannot erase it, and the persistance of the old
stories is the continuance of a way of speaking that
blesses the sentience of things, binding our thoughts
back into the depths of an imagination much vaster
than our own. To live in a storied world is to know
that intelligence is not an exclusively human faculty located somewhere inside
our skulls, but is rather a power of the animate earth itself, in which we
humans, along with the hawks and the thrumming frogs, all participate. It is
to know, further, that each land, each watershed, each community of plants
and animals and soils, has its particular style of intelligence,
its unique mind or imagination evident in the particular patterns that play
out there, in the living stories that unfold in that valley, and that are told
and retold by the people of that place. Each ecology has its own psyche, and
the local people bind their imaginations to the psyche of the place by letting
the land dream its tales through them.
and instinctive is the imaginative craft of telling
a tale! And yet how little we exercise these skills
in the modern era. Of course, we'll read a
story to a child before sleep, but we won't take the
time to really learn to tell the story ourselves (without
reading it), or to improvise a fresh version of an
old tale for our neighbors and friends. We have too
little time for such frivolities: a world of factual
information beckons, a universe of spreadsheets and
stock comparisons. If we crave entertainment, we have
only to click on the tv or the computer, and straightaway
we can synapse ourselves to any one of the rapidly
multiplying video games and virtual worlds now accessible
through the glowing screen. Surely this rich and rapidly
shifting realm of technological pleasures is the niftiest
magic of all!
Yet for all their dash and dazzle, the inventions of
humankind can never match the complexity and nuance
of the sensuous earth, this breathing cosmos that invented
us. The many-voiced earth remains the secret
source and inspiration for all the fabricated realms
that now beckon to us through the screen. Let
us indeed celebrate the powers of technology, and introduce
our children to the digital delights of our era.
But not before we have acquainted them with the gifts
of the living land, and enabled its palpable mysteries
to ignite their imaginations and their thoughts.
Not before we have stepped outside with our children,
late at night, to gaze up at those countless lights
scattered haphazard through the fathomless dark,
and sharing a story about how the stars came to be
there. Not before they've glimpsed the tracks of
Coyote in the mud by the supermarket, or have sat
alongside us on the banks of a local stream, dangling
a line in the water and pondering an old tale about
the salmon of wisdom...
when we listen to them, or when make them our own and
tell them ourselves, wake us up to our immersion in
a dreaming universe -- to the vast and enigmatic story
deliciously unfolding all around us. They induce us
to taste the icicles dangling from the roof, and to
smell the breeze, and to wonder: what's going to happen