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The Way of Story
by Sylvie Shaw

The Place of Story in Nature
Stories need to be told and retold. They are like a path in the forest that becomes your walk only after passing its way many times. (Joan Halifax, The Fruitful Darkness, 1993:108)

The Way of Story
Stories are living vessels of experience and wisdom. Each person has a unique story to tell about their connection to the earth, and the layering of these stories, one on top of the other, leads to a cumulative understanding of nature connecting. In my research I talk to people about their relationship to nature, to particular special places, childhood haunts, to land and seascapes. I ask them about memorable encounters in nature, physical, emotional, spiritual, about how their body feels in nature, about the rituals they do in nature, about the activities they are involved in. My aim is to uncover persistent themes and repetitive patterns that emerge from the stories people tell about their nature-based experiences and weave them into a fabric depicting elements of human-nature relationships. The overall effect of interviewing and listening to tender and textured stories about nature connecting gives rise to an understanding of the problems created by the illusion of separation in Western culture between people and nature, and explains how and why some dedicated individuals are working to heal what could be described as ‘separation anxiety’.

Throughout my research I have been continually aware that the experiences of the nature carers reflect and are embedded within the social and cultural milieu of a society that has lost its reverence for nature, and in many areas, has lost contact with or has destroyed the wild. From an ecopsychological standpoint, there is a link between the destruction of wilderness and the suppression of the wild within. In her book Women who run with the wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992) maintains that when we lose touch with the inner wild, with what she terms ‘the instinctive psyche’, we become cut off from the world. So reclaiming the inner wild through engaging nature experiences and through telling stories of these experiences is a journey with deep soul connection.

By basing my work on ‘nature stories’, one of my hopes is to engage the reader with the experiences being written about. Writing about transformative and emotional experiences of nature connecting might lead the reader to reflect on their own encounters with the natural world, or to reconsider their feelings about the ecological crisis. Using the tellers’ voices to relate multi-textured stories of nature connecting may, as Ronai (1992:123) suggests, foster ‘the understanding that we are all processual, emergent, multivoiced entities living different situations yet sharing similar lived emotional experiences’. She believes that reading the stories told by these different voices may lead to ‘a precognitive apprehending that is sublime, unstructured, and nonverbal in nature’, but I would prefer something a little more visceral. In terms of this research I hope it not only encourages the reader at least to reflect on the issues raised, but also to take off their shoes and dance barefoot on the earth.

Stories from the Wild
Stepping into the world of story is like stepping into a world of imagination as these stories of nature connection are not often told in contemporary Australian society, except among Aboriginal communities. I have gathered stories from a range of people who are connected in various ways with the earth and braided them together. These stories serve as guides for a journey of renewal between people and nature. They are sacred stories of intimate connection, childhood adventure, rites of passage explorations, body parables and spiritual initiations.

Stories I remember my primary school reader were mostly about natural disasters, drought, fire, snakes, floods. There were stories of battlers battling the elements; stories of fear and control rather than stories of understanding or cooperating with the land. In these stories the sound of the chain saw and bulldozer is not far away. Other stories from poets like Banjo Patterson talk about the land-conquering hero, ‘The Man from Snowy River’, who tamed the wild land and subdued the wild animals. But new stories are slowly emerging - through the magic of the poetry of Judith McKinney-Wright, Les Murray, Mark O’Connor, Bill Neidje, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and through the stories of place by Kate Llewellyn, Tim Winton and Susan Kurosawa. The words of poets like Judith Wright ripple on the tongue and take you deep into the mystery of the natural world as these lines from Wright’s poem ‘Scribbly Gum’ display.

The gum tree stands by the spring.
I peeled its splitting bark
and found the written track
of a life I could not read.

I see the possibility that stories of nature connecting could add to the work of poets and writers who invoke a spirit of place and revere this ‘wide-brown land’.

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Together they have the potential to lay the foundation for a new tradition of earth stories, a bardic repertoire of heroism made up of stories of activism and reconciliation; stories which celebrate the human-nature relationship. Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992:19-20) writes that,

"modern story tellers are the descendants of an immense and ancient community of holy people, troubadours, bards … and crazy people’, people who are able to move between worlds (like the shaman) and feel the wind blow inspiration ‘into the face of the listeners’."

Stories link people to place and to naturescape; they affirm feelings of grief for the pain of the earth and joy in the celebration of our connection with it. When Aboriginal people lose their connection to stories of place, they lose connection to life itself. Their stories not only describe their relationship with the land, they also assist in creating and re-creating those relationship. I am not suggesting we appropriate Aboriginal stories of the land but pointing out the consequences of losing a story when the ties to the land are severed.

Childhood Fascinations
Stories played a great role in my childhood. As my parents did not have a car and my father refused to go on holiday, I spent a lot of time with my head buried in books. From them I learned that animals could talk and trees could guide me down a treacherous path to safety. What I couldn’t understand was that adults had told me that animals and plants could talk and then when I got older they told me that they couldn’t. I never stopped believing. Stories like the Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Una and the Lion and Winnie the Pooh, as well as fairy tales from many lands were, and are, an essential part of my worldview. This animistic awareness forms the epistemological backdrop to this study. Deep ecology founder Arne Naess believes that childhood animism is closely related to the worldview of deep ecological philosophy, and I would also suggest, to the worldview of ecopsychology.

Green philosophy and the philosophy of the deep ecology movement is largely an articulation of the implicit philosophy of 5 year old children who have access to at least a minimum of animals, plants and natural places. These children experience animals as being like themselves in basic respects. They have joys, sorrows, interests, needs, loves and hates. Even flowers and places are alive to them ... Philosophers of the deep ecology movement may be said to be people who have never found biological, political or other arguments to undermine those attitudes implicit in childhood (Naess, 1984:180).

In animistic and indigenous cultures there is no distinction between magical and natural events and ‘nothing mysterious, transcendental, or “mystical” about magic’ (Favat, 1977:41), whereas in Western culture, the magical has been transformed into the supernatural and has been split off from the natural world. This means we might not see the fairies at the bottom of the garden, converse with nature devas, or connect with the spirits of place. But as children we know they are there. These animistic or magical relationships that live in a child’s world also live in the world of fairy tale. Favat makes an interesting comment that while the interest in fairy tale generally wanes between six and eight years of age, ‘there is a resurgence of interest around the age of 18 to 20 that seems to continue through adult life’ (1977:56). In particular he mentions the fantasies of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein as if we remember the child-self or wild part of ourselves that lies buried in our hearts.

In her marvellous book on fairy tale, From the Beast to the Blond, Marina Warner (1994) explains why she rekindled an interest stories from her childhood but comments ‘there is nothing the least childlike’ about them.

"I have become even more drawn to them as I have grown older, because they began to represent childhood, that vividness of experience in the midst of inexperience, the capacity for daydreaming and wonder (Warner, 1994:xiv)."

This capacity for daydreaming and wonder can still be found in fairy tales but many of the stories we loved as children were and still are sanitized and changed to fit the prevailing social and political climate of the day (Zipes, 1983). This can be seen particularly in the ‘Disney-fication’ of many of my favourite stories where, Warner (1994:311) observes, the wild animal or wild beast ‘no longer seems charged with danger, let alone evil’. The bear becomes the tame teddy; Beauty and the Beast becomes a popular cartoon; and the once vicious wolf from Little Red Riding Hood is rehabilitated and returned to the wilds where you can hear it howl.

The real stories that will sustain us will only come out of community where we tell and listen to stories. The act of telling creates community and, at the same time, elicits more stories (Sam Keen, 1993).

Sylvie Shaw (PhD) teaches social ecology/environmental sociology at Australian Maritime College in northern Tasmania. Her passion is ecopsychology.

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