Connecting with community through storytelling
We put away many kinds of violence that we would act out in the natural world beyond the city; in order to inhabit cities we put away actions…Inside these cities we need writers, we need artists, like myself…Nietzsche said, ‘we have art so that we do not die of reality.’–Ray Bradbury
Ever since the beginning of man’s oral history, our cultures have taught lessons, stored memories, and guided group values through stories. Stories are a safety valve, and the linchpin of civilization, according to Bradbury. Whether it is transmitting the virtues of hard work through Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the good fortune tale of Cinderella (as told by Vonnegut) or the Inuit legend about Raven the trickster, allegories, fables, and campfire stories have been passed on from generation to generation, using elements of truth, disbelief, myths, allegories, and wisdom to pass on important cultural knowledge. I’ve recently encountered stories with an Alaskan theme of opposing sides–environmentalist vs. resource extractor–told at three different scales of global, national, and local scales. These stories serve as excellent reflections on how we relate as people within nature and what we need to relocate in terms of connecting with nature and with our community. I will share them below in my own crude attempts at storytelling.
My parents were great storytellers. My mother exposed me to the humanities through literature. My father (HT Odum) told stories describing the current culture and past cultures, relating how civilizations cycle over the larger time scale, and explaining how we would have to go back to earlier culture eventually. He described stories of resilience from his travels in countries where people lived more simply, he taught me ecological principles, and I was reminded often, through natural analogies, that nothing grew forever, everything pulses, and what was, will be again. The stories were invaluable, and they helped to frame my value system, which has been outside the norm and resistant somewhat to the enticements of wealth and keeping up with the Joneses. Although HT occasionally called me a “Yuppie,” perhaps reflecting his general frustration with our consumptive society at large, I have generally lived frugally and simply, within my budget, to the extent that I could. HT was aware that to separate oneself too much from the culture at large was in opposition to Maximum Empower, which suggests that those who do not maximize emergy returns to the system do not prosper. I am very grateful to him that I now think differently about the world than the dominant culture does, and I feel more or less prepared for a future with less.
The stories that HT told were mostly told at the dinner table and on family trips in the car. I can’t imagine how the interactions would have been changed if our family had been subject to the current digital distractions such as cellphones? While digital forms of storytelling are useful, nothing replaces face to face versions such as the campfire story. In our empire, we still tell stories, but the stories are often much bigger than local campfires, family dinner tables, or community halls. The movie Big Miracle was filmed up here in Alaska, and I saw it recently. The movie can be viewed as a parable about the soul of our economy, with environmentalists and resource extractors squaring off regarding resources amidst the lands of mostly neutral, bemused Iñupiaq who have lived sustainably with those resources for thousands of years. Environmentalists and little and big technology save the day in the movie, leaving questions about media, environmentalism, the place of technology, heroic efforts to save symbols of Nature, and our place in Nature.
There are a number of fine local examples of storytelling groups springing up in Alaska, including the Storytellers Guild of Anchorage, Alaska Native Storytellers, Toastmasters, Mudrooms in Juneau, and Arctic Entries. I am most familiar with Arctic Entries, as one of the organizers is our nearest neighbor (we cohouse). Arctic Entries is a grassroots group who describe their mission as the following:
There’s always a place in your home where people gather and stories are born. The east coast has stoops. The south has porches. But Alaska? We’ve got arctic entries. Our Arctic Entries show features true stories born from those moments when we close the door on 8 feet of snow or the midnight sun, pull off our XtraTufs, and say, “You’ll never guess what happened …?
The originators of Arctic Entries in Anchorage came from Baltimore, and they said that they wanted to be able to connect with their community. Since they didn’t immediately connect with all aspects of Anchorage, they brought their favorite piece of Baltimore with them to share, which was the storytelling. They said that through storytelling, we often find that we have more in common than we originally thought. Telling our Alaskan stories helps us to develop culture and a sense of place. Here is a sample story audiofile of Dan Ritzman from a recent Arctic Entries event themed Reaping What You Sow, describing more interplay between environmentalists and resource extraction experts in Alaska in “Dan, the oil, and the law.” The audio file is only 9 minutes long. Arctic Entries consists of a format of seven people each telling a seven-minute true story relating to the show’s theme, interspersed with local live music.
We need to recover the art of storytelling, especially in telling ecological stories that explain how people can learn to live again in nature. Here is another example of the interplay between environmentalists and developers here in Anchorage, this time in a letter to the editor regarding zoning issues in Anchorage from Cindee Karns of Transition Anchorage who wrote this wonderful ecological allegory:
I’ve been sorting it out in my head the last couple of days and then it came to me while I was reading Edible Forest Gardens, a book by Dave Jacke.
“To enable one community member to functionally connect to another appropriate community member, we must put each in the right place relative to the other.”
Of course Jacke is talking about companion planting, but I read it as if it were talking about the process of planning a city and where to put things. I re-read your letter with gardening in mind. I know one method of gardening is to simply throw a mixed bunch of seeds out in the dirt. I did that this summer. The borage took over. I liked the borage flowers, so bright blue and tasty, but the plants got so tall and tangled, only a few calendula got to bloom and no poppies at all. Later this summer I read that borage goes well with tomatoes and may even make the tomatoes taste better. Had I known that at the start of the summer, I might have planted the borage with the tomatoes. Well, there’s always next year.
With city planning it’s not like we can tear down buildings when they get too tall and are blocking the sun for the poppies; or move buildings around when the traffic pattern changes. I’m wondering where the balance is between letting the city grow where it wants and planning the city like a garden? Should there be raw survival of the fittest, so that whenever land is for sale, whomever wants to, can plant/build ANYTHING? I don’t think we want that in our city either, do we? There has to be a balance. We need to plan how to use the land, so that there’s a place for the borage to thrive AND the poppies, not to mention the calendula.
So, I believe the city DOES need a landscape design, just like my garden. I do believe that companion planting (multi-use districts) would be beneficial, so that we can stay in Anchorage in our old age and not have to drive all over creation to get our groceries, medicine and gardening supplies. I don’t believe that what you said, ‘adoption of the new code means we lose choice, we lose mobility, (or) we lose privacy.’ It just means we get a nicer looking city.
Stories are the glue that holds communities together, by transmitting wisdom and cultural values. Stories that revive and explore our relationship with nature and pass on ecological principles can help us bridge to a simpler, more connected way of living. Perhaps this summer people can connect around firepits, cabin stoves, coffee tables, and fire-rings, or at the pub or community hall, and start telling their stories?