From "Storytelling and Wonder: On the Rejuvenation of Oral Culture" by David Abram:
"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. For a decade, now, parents, politicians, and educators of all forms have been raising funds to bring computers into every household in the realm, and into every classroom from kindergarten 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, it is hoped, they will be well prepared for the technological future.
"How can 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 children.
"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 millennia before we ever began writing our words down -- whether on the page or on the screen.
"Spoken stories 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 the hunt was successful, as well as specific insights 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 wild vitality.
"Such practical intelligence, intimately related to a particular place, is the hallmark of any oral culture. Continually tested in interaction with the living land, altering in tandem with subtle changes in the local earth, even today such living knowledge resists the fixity and permanence of the printed page. Because it is specific to the way things happen here, in this high desert -- or coastal estuary, or mountain valley -- this kind of intimate intelligence loses its meaning when abstracted from its terrain, and from the particular persons and practices that are a part of its terrain. Such place-specific savvy, which deepens its value when honed and tempered over the course of several generations, forfeits much of its power when uprooted from the soil of its home and carried -- via the printed page or the glowing screen -- to other places. Such intelligence, properly speaking, is an attribute of the living land itself; it thrives only in the direct, face-to-face exchange between those who dwell and work in this place.
"So much earthly savvy was carried in the old tales! And since, for our indigenous ancestors, 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. Hence, a chance encounter with a particular creature as a tribesperson went about his 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 sites in the local terrain where those events were assumed to have happened, and whenever one noticed that place in the course of one’s daily wanderings -- when one 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....
"There is 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.
"When we 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 sea 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."
(You can read the full essay here.)
Yes, I'm aware of the irony inherent in using a digital space to discuss our culture's over-reliance on mediating life through phone and computer screens. The Internet is a wonderful tool -- but like all powerful magicks, as folklore tells us over and over, we must learn to use it wisely. In my own life, I prefer face-to-face conversation over texts and phones; printed books over words on a screen; storytelling and theatre unfolding in real time over drama slickly produced by the burghers of Hollywood. Don't get me wrong: I don't disdain modern media altogether; there is good to be found in almost all forms art. But my soul craves the touch of the wind and the rain, of stories that are sensory, intimate, and on a more human scale. As a writer and painter, my work is born from a hunger for life deeply rooted in nature, richly entwined with the more-than-human world. And as a blogger, if typing these words on a screen can prompt even one person to turn off their computer and go for a walk outside today, then my work here is done.
The exquisite art in this post is by Cally Conway, a British printmaker specializing in linocuts.
"For me, nature is not only beautiful and essential, but it continually inspires and sustains me," she says. "Being in nature makes me feel that everything is alright with the world, even if it’s not. And I think too many of us have lost touch with that. So I like to try and capture its beauty if I can, and maybe distill some of that. With my interest in folklore, sometimes it’s not that obvious, but I love finding out stories and meanings associated with plants or animals. When I’m creating a print I will research any folklore associated with what I want to include so that there might be a connection between the different elements.
"Living in London you could say it would be hard to find any aspect of nature to work from, but in truth there’s actually lots in London if you know where to find it! I spend most of my time at Kew Gardens and Hampstead Heath. I’m lucky enough to live really near Hampstead Heath and just a short train ride from Kew. Since becoming a member of Kew Gardens a few years back I can honestly say it feels like a second home. "
The passages above are from "Storytelling and Wonder" by David Abram, first published in Resurgence (Issue 222, Jan/Feb 2004). David's books, The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, were influential texts for me (particularly Spell, when I was writing The Wood Wife), and I highly recommend them. The Cally Conway quotes are from an interview with the artist conducted by Claire Leach. All rights to text and art in this post are reserved by the authors and artist.