The following text is an introduction to a 4 Returns online session around “Storytelling for Landscape Restoration” read by Tom Lovett. You can watch the introduction here.
Like many of you here today, I find storytelling important
Storytelling is hard-wired into us and it is as ancient as we are. Long before the written word, we were telling stories. We use stories to entertain, to encourage, to engage, to laugh, create hope, instil fear, to pass on cultural values and norms and traditions.
Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, writes:
“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution — more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.”
That’s because stories are powerful. They challenge and change perspectives. Stories build our understanding of the world. Kings and Queens used to fear poets for the power of their stories. Stories guide how we think and they shape who we are.
Storytelling is transformative – we change as we hear, transform as we read. Stories weave the narrative of reality together. Stories allow us to create, imagined worlds, and the stories we tell ourselves often become manifested in the future.
The problem is, we have forgotten when we are being told a story.
Within the context how we relate to land – We were told the story that industrial agriculture will feed the world. That chemical fertilizers increase yields. That farming needs more space. That diverse, integrated food production should be replaced by farms that look like factories. Because food should be cheap. Profits should be big. Productivity is paramount. And exporting food globally is critical to the economy. That this is all business as usual.
The world in which we now live is a manifestation of these stories. A world in which biodiversity numbers plummet. Where most of Europe’s waterways – lakes and rivers – are polluted. Where, globally, 75% of livable land is degraded. A world in which cheap food costs the Earth. Where the agriculture that is supposed to feed us, destroys the very ground under our feet.
These issues described are well documented and have been well-known by the scientific community (and beyond) for half a century.
And yet – we remain in an awareness crisis. Many people just don’t realise what is happening, where their food comes from how they are intimately connected to their local environment and to forests half a world away, or the simple things they can do.
When there is communication around this topic – it is often through big facts and data.
For example, I recently read that insects have declined by 75% in the last fifty years. Their disappearance would create an apocalyptic scenario. Especially given that 1/3 of our food relies on pollinating insects like bees and wasps.
The big facts and data only make it harder for people to really grasp what’s going on. Because big numbers are abstract and they make the challenges we face harder to comprehend. People respond to human stories more than data.
Yuval Noah Harrari – author of Sapiens – writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
“Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings. When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what my particular role is in the cosmic drama.
So we need storytelling to share and connect a broad range of experiences.
When I talked to my mum about the decline in insects she told me that when she was young and went out into the garden be surrounded by butterflies: Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Large whites and the now endangered Purple Emperor. A multiverse of colours floating on air.
It crushes me to think what we lost. I yearn to be surrounded by a cloud of butterflies and instead, I think of vast landscapes devoid of insects. The eerie silence stretching to a horizon. That image feels like a crack, a deep black gorge inside me – of shame, sadness and remorseful nostalgia of what could have been. Living in an age of mass extinction sucks. If only we’d be telling each other the right stories. Stories about how everything we know depends on thriving biodiversity.
Like many of you, I’ve also visited areas full of life. Farms that absolutely brim with biodiversity. Where, as you walk between almond and olive trees, you brush your feet in the wildflower meadow, you hear the insects between aromatic plants like rosemary, thyme and lavender. Insects flourish because the farmer knows that insects smaller than you can see predate on pests and plagues that would otherwise threaten their harvest. And because of the insects, you see cornbuntings, larks, sparrows, gold and bullfinches flitting between the trees – signing a symphony – while vultures circle high above. You feel the rich earth beneath your feet.
It feels incredible to walk in such a farm. And if you stay for lunch, you taste the landscape in the vegetables, the herbs, the meat, the olive oil and the wine.
We desperately need to tell the stories that build awareness that it is our ecosystems that feed us three times a day. That the plants and trees we see are the air we breathe. That waterways and wetlands are our drinking water. That the hum of insects we hear is the foundation of a food chain.
We need stories that help to overcome fear with the courage, hope and the awareness that we can mitigate and adapt to the so-called “perma-crisis”.
We have to throw ourselves at the crises with a big hug of defiance – through stories of denial, shame, guilt, with the recognition of what we have created – while sharing the stories of hope, optimism, joy, and resilience – the stories that feed a re-emerging way of being in the world.
What future would we create if we all starting sharing these stories? If we replaced the dread of our newsfeeds with. what it feels like to watch a landscape transform? How it is to listen to nightingales return to a village? The stories of community collaboration, connection to nature and the possibilities of regenerating our planet.
My colleague Zlatina says that “Everyone has a story – the same story told from different perspectives allows us to gain deeper understanding of the system we are part of and discover dependencies, relationships and leverage points that were not obvious at first.”
Because stories are powerful. And sharing stories is what we are going to do today.
Feature image: A team of changemakers host a workshop for stakeholders in Sweden as part of the Bioregional Weaving Labs program