Stories will lead us back to the forest

May 12, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

Credit: @fiona_veritas

It’s been another long intermission, but with a heave of the creaky ropes and a squeak of the pulleys I hereby open the curtains on a new act for Vivid.

Since last writing here, there has been a time of false dawns and illusory summits; of horizons that came pleasingly into view only to be lost again in cloud. Of conflicting goals and wavering beliefs. On the surface it was no more than another period of indecision about future directions, brought on by a relentless and uninvited flow of leads and possibilities, each a distraction from the previous, and each, when it came to serious analysis, of dubious compatibility with my skills, resources and leanings.

But there were lessons in that limbo. While the apparent result is a plethora of shelved ideas, an accumulation of articles half-read or bookmarked; a fat notebook full of scribbles and another year spent, something else was forming underneath.

It has not been an easy gestation, for the pattern of inspiration and review was modulated by another feature: an accelerating sequence of alternating joyful and dark periods, which, I eventually realised, mirrored a pattern of flip-flop inversions of my beliefs.

It seemed these switching beliefs correlated in turn with the things I had most recently read, in particular the contrasting accounts of the possible futures that await us and the rest of life on the planet. One account would bring uplift from its descriptions of ecological restoration; the next, total gloom, from its dogged analysis of how inertia in the system means no turning back from eco-apocalypse.

Hope, despair and surrender

As I teetered between hope and despair, between feeling alive and considering that we are all, in some collapsed time-frame, already dead, I struggled to determine whether to accept that I am but one organism in a species that has taken a wrong evolutionary turn, and to surrender to my fate alongside that of others, or whether to see myself as an agent of influence with purpose and direction.

My inclinations depended on what I believed that day. And I learned that beliefs are moveable, malleable things.

On one day it would seem entirely plausible that we will retrieve something worthwhile from the convergence of crises bearing down upon us and on the next, that near-total extinction of life on Earth was so inevitable that we may as well stop worrying about it.

What was interesting was the effect of these respective beliefs on my energy levels. The latter, not surprisingly, was depleting; the former energising.

This, finally, was the deciding factor. Forget ultimate truth; forget the consensus view of the future. In the end, it came down to which belief engendered energy, openness and possibility; sensations that I happen to prefer to cynicism, rigidity and defeatism, regardless of what happens in the end.

Perhaps it should have been no surprise that the direction that beckoned was ultimately determined by a conscious choice of how to feel, rather than by some assessment of the chances of success based on external information; now I’m only surprised it took me so long to recognise and respond to this form of knowing.

The wisdom of forests

Image Removed

Forests, the ultimate complex, interwoven communities, hold a certain form of knowing. I know I am far from alone in regularly longing for submergence in their dappled, mysterious entanglements. Perhaps this urge has primeval roots. I am in awe of these huge networks of beings, held together in dynamic equilibrium by myriad, finely-tuned, ecological inter-relationships, collaborating in a co-evolving symphony of cooperation through space and time.

That awe brings humility: in the forest we are subsumed, just one among billions of diverse other living things, different from but no more special than the rest, as susceptible to the vicissitudes of nature as them all, these players in the interconnected cycles of life and death. We are forced to realise that, for all our technologies of separation, we will be rotting with those leaves at some point or other. There is both peace and a visceral edge in that knowledge, reinforced by the slightest of direct engagements — a scratch from a bramble or the sharp sourness of wood sorrel on the tongue.

Back in history, at about the time that we were starting to build cities and other edifices of social, economic and material complexity, we also began to see the forest as a place of fear, darkness and resident evil, and our fairy tales reflected that. In those tales the forest is often the place where characters undertake rites of passage, confront their inner shadows, and risk their own anonymous demise. The hope is that they will emerge victorious from that frightening place and take insights and self-awareness back into the bright light of civilisation.

For the unprepared, the forest is forbidden; full of things that are not what they seem and cannot be negotiated without risking a premature encounter with the life-death-life cycle. But for those ready for initiation, the forest is the perfect setting for the classic hero’s journey: that narrative arc common to nearly all stories, involving a call to adventure, an initiation in the form of a challenge, and then a return to home, to bring insights and wisdom back for the benefit of the community.

Telling the tale

There’s a reason I mention stories (and forests, for that matter, but more on that later). My year of living indecisively entailed an extended exploration of the concepts of narrative and stories — and an unexpected foray into storytelling.

It was unexpected because I had booked a place on what I thought was a course in the theory and structure of stories; once there I realised, with no small degree of trepidation, that this was in fact an initiation into the performing art of telling stories.

I did it — but it was terrifying. So terrifying that I felt compelled to do another, longer one.

I doubt I will ever be a performing storyteller but I came away from my own small rites of passage not only with the knowledge that it is possible to stand on stage as a complete amateur with neither notes nor a single memorised line and tell a tale from the heart that captures the unwavering attention of an audience, but that I had, until that point, dramatically underestimated the power of story.

What I discovered for myself is well-understood and articulated in a dozen books: that we are wired for story; that stories convey deep messages to parts of our subconscious without our realising it; that stories are the most efficient way to establish the empathic response between people (mental “mirroring”) and that stories enable us to gain access to the emotional dimension of a situation. But that list does not do justice to what I discovered by actually doing it.

I had no conscious awareness of the process that was working on me as I went through the training, but working it was, and after a few days of immersion in a simple story about a frog I found myself knocked sideways by deep emotions connected with everything upon which that story touched.

Stories, I now know, present a means of communication — a channel, a direct line to the heart — that I couldn’t have imagined without that experience. Awareness of their potential has recast each of my seemingly impractical ideas into an opportunity, and all of them into chapters within a bigger story. I realised, after this creative diversion from contemplating systems theory, inter-generational justice and subsidy analysis, that I just had to choose one idea, turn it into story, and start.

Energy and conviction

And so it was that emotional responses calmed my fibrillating mind and interrupted my doomed attempts to rationalise a plan of action — on more than one occasion — to liberate energy, conviction and intuition from the chains of rationale, logic and doubt.

These realisations about feelings and story were the lessons in my limbo. I know now from experience that the stories we tell have a direct effect on the beliefs that we hold and the feelings we feel – and therefore the actions that we take.

And it’s clear that these relationships are reflected at a cultural level. A culture is shaped by and captured in its stories. Those cultures that live in ways that respect and revere the cycles of life, death, transformation and renewal often capture in their mythology the cyclical nature of life, death and time itself. The aboriginal dream-time stories are one example (the story I told about a frog was one).

These cultures understand that, as in the forest, everything is always transforming into everything else, and that we cannot escape that motion; we cannot rise above the rest of life and become static or immortal; we must respect the interplay of energies and succumb to the forest, in the end.

By contrast, our own culture has lost its sense of the circular. Our beliefs, our plans and aspirations are founded on a linear sense of time. Our stories — whether fictional or not — have beginnings, middles and ends; and also winners and losers. The hero’s initiation invariably takes the form of a conflict and the end is either good or bad depending on whether the protagonist, with whom we have identified, is victorious.

The style of these stories mean that (by definition) we cannot identify with the antagonist; we are encouraged to feel dispassionate about his or her ultimate demise. Our stories require that we abandon concern about one half of the cast and any sense of continuation beyond the story’s end.

Fear of death

Image RemovedThere are studies that suggest this linear construct of our stories (also reflected in our food, manufacturing and production systems) is tied up with a cultural fear of death, which manifests as a desire for immortality. This leads to the endless struggle to rise above nature; to fight it and win; and to enormous efforts to build tall buildings, pyramid economies and hierarchical social structures. Sit at the top of these and you are so far from the rotting leaves that you are near enough to heaven as to be immortal.

Yet this mentality, which enables us to push the antagonist from our minds and to deny the win-lose nature of every conquest with a so-called happy ending, depends on a denial of our deeper, more nuanced emotional responses, and this neglect comes at great cost. We live in a society hell bent on destroying its habitat and we wonder how this can happen; but it could not happen were it not culturally acceptable, in fact mandatory, to suppress feelings of empathy, love and compassion in favour of profit and progress. In matters of commerce, business, research, politics or any professional endeavour, such feelings are treated with derision.

This cultural repression means that our society selects for success on the basis of psychopathic behaviours. It is what enables us to shut out and destroy those very things that give life. Like forests, for example.

In the case of forests, we do this with a rapacity, speed and violence that can only suggest our ever deepening terror of the shadows. We’ve been doing this for a long time: as civilisations rose in North Africa, the Middle East and Greece, forests fell. As civilisations fell, forests grew back.

Civilisation and forests could almost be antitheses of one another; civilisation the manifestation of our linear obsessions, of the split lines of life and death, forced apart into the overworld and the underworld, their natural interchange stymied to result in imbalance and calamity; forests on the other hand embodying the endless, circling cycles of life and death — and being the holding places for our terror of losing out to these, and so the places we feel free to destroy, along with the knowledge and wisdom they hold.

The irony of nature

A look at the forests of Chernobyl suggests that nature surely knows irony.

In our mission for exponentially more powerful sources of concentrated energy, we chose to interrupt the cyclical behaviour of atoms themselves: to produce nuclear power. The forests around Chernobyl, apparently defiant with abundant life after the disaster, do indeed harbour a dark secret, the shadow side of our culture. For despite the tenacious local residents who insist on hopping the barbed wire to collect berries and mushrooms, these woodlands are still radioactive and the radiation is having alarming effects.

The fallen twigs and leaves on the forest floor that should by now be turning to nutritious mulch for the next generation of forest beings are not rotting. The microbes, fungi and bacteria that perform the beautiful task of decay are incapacitated. The death part of the life-death-life cycle isn’t working properly. Here, in our quest for human omnipotence, we have accidentally interrupted the processes of death; precisely our subconscious desire. And here we will discover that with the end of death there can be no future life.

Image Removed

The destination of this argument is I hope becoming clear: we must accept and surrender to the cyclical nature of things and to taking part in the death part as well as the life part of the cycle. To trigger such a cultural shift, we must embrace our fear. Fear may have driven us out of the forest but we can’t machete fear away; it will grow up behind us. We must turn and acknowledge it with love, humility and courage; blend with it and become part of all that is complex and unknowable, because all of that is part of us.

The only way we will invert the criteria for our decision-making and reverse the destruction of our social and ecological communities will be if we give ourselves permission to re-ignite those feelings of love, humility and courage and rebuild a conscious, cultural connection with the emotional landscape of life.

Stories can lead the way to those long-buried sets of feelings for the living world, and for ourselves as mortal components of it, which we must tap back into achieve this turnaround.

Stories remind us that forests are not just places of wildness, predators and decay, but also bringers of life; moderators and regulators of climate. There are new stories that show this, as well as traditional ones, but they are rarely told, which is a travesty and a missed opportunity.

There are stories of people reforesting a landscape, replenishing stark, eroded hillsides or greening a desert, and, grand though it may sound, thereby changing the course of ecological history in that place. For just as deforestation results in reduced rainfall and desert where before it was green, the corollary can also apply. Increasing regional forest cover can bring about a local shift in the climate, due to increased ground water retention, evapo-transpiration, biodiversity and soil fertility.

Bringing back the forests brings back the conditions for forests. Life creates the conditions conducive to life. Humans, once they have overcome their desire for status, money or immortality, can be agents for and participants in this process.

The greatest story

Now that’s what I call a story: the story of how human beings undertook the greatest hero’s journey, out into the wilderness of separation, and once there overcame a deep and inexplicable fear of their own innate nature to become conscious agents of life rather than unwitting agents of death; of how we brought back forests, protected oceans and restored the life-death-life cycles to the parts of our planet that remained amenable to this, of how we surrendered ourselves to that very process of transformation, willingly and with purpose.

Won’t this, and the sub-stories within it — the stories of how our young people became liberated, of how work became redefined, of how economies became restructured — won’t these be the most beautiful stories ever?

Could they not seed the beliefs, feelings and behaviours that might trigger the emergence of that systemic change so urgently required (and which has been my obsession for the last two years)? Could they not unleash the flood of energy and emotion that’s required to counter this most psychopathic of civilisations?

The stories we rebroadcast determine the reality in which we live. I am a writer, a journalist and an editor. I commit to rebroadcasting the stories that will create a different reality.

Thank you for indulging me in my long period of vacillation and introspection. This will be the last piece of this nature for a while. There will be more writing, but from here on in it will focus on action, description and of course, stories.

Vanessa Spedding

I am a journalist by training, sometime scientist, intermittent community activist and avid reader of all things that might explain how our treatment of the planet and ourselves reached such a low point — and what we must do to correct it.

Tags: building resilient communities, cultural stories, social movements, storytelling