Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Power of Story

A quick scan of today's online New York Times reveals the usual plethora of stories. Among them: News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch seeks to deflect allegations that he bribed British officials; Pakistan test-fires a nuclear-capable missile; ethnic biases are now shifting in South Los Angeles; and a Dartmouth frat receives a 3-term probation punishment for hazing.

Why do hundreds of millions of people each day follow the news, read fiction, watch television, and line up to sit in darkened movie theaters? In a word, stories. Carefully crafted tales enliven our senses and capture our imaginations. Full of wonder and mystery, they transport us to far-flung places and remote times, allowing us to see through the eyes of another. That featured Other may be human or animal, real or fantasy. At their best, stories are priceless word-jewels with the power to create, sustain, and transform worlds.

In my last post, I argued that nature connection must be founded on “the 3 Es”: ecology, evolution, and experience—that is, a sense of how one’s place works and how that place came to be, informed by abundant, outdoor multisensory experience. Today, I would like to focus on the second E, evolution, which I use in the broadest sense of change over time; in short, the history of everything, from cosmos to culture. And it is the story within history, so to speak, that I’m most concerned with.

My confidence in the 3 Es approach is based in part on studies of hunter-gatherer cultures—for example, the Ache of Paraguay, the Hadza of Tanzania, the Hiwi of Colombia and Venezuela, and the San of southern Africa. Over 95% of humanity’s tenure has occurred in the guise of hunter-gatherers intimately tied to their natal habitats. In addition to being steeped in local communities—cultures, foods, and social relations—people in these foraging societies have possessed detailed knowledge of resident plants and animals. They have understood local rhythms—what month of the year a certain migrating bird arrived or a particular plant could be harvested. Much of this knowledge has borne the mark of scientific investigation, involving careful observation, experimentation, and hypothesis testing. Most importantly for this discussion, these peoples (and those in many other indigenous societies) report a deep sense of connection with the nonhuman world.

In our digital world deluged with shards of information, it’s easily forgotten that, as a species, we were literally raised on rich and vibrant stories. Oral storytelling was the primary means of sharing information for all but the past few thousand years, an eyeblink of humanity’s tenure. For our oral ancestors, stories were lyrical encyclopedias, repositories of practical knowledge and wisdom accumulated over centuries, even millennia. Spoken narratives were the cultural equivalent of genes, containers of information necessary for perpetuating the group. It should come as no surprise, then, that stories still have an almost magical effect on us. And whereas cyberspace is placeless, seemingly everywhere and nowhere, oral culture is inherently local.

The oral stories of indigenous peoples tend to embody all 3 Es, fostering a connection with local nature. They tell us where we come from and what it all means; in other words, evolution. Passed from generation to generation, myths and tales offer instructions on how to live in a given place: when, where, what, and how much to hunt; how to express gratitude for a successful hunt; which plants to seek and which to avoid; where to find water in times of persistent drought; in other words, ecology. And traditional storytellers convey their narratives not just with voice but with their entire bodies, typically outdoors in a multisensory milieu, often around a campfire. In other words, these stories offer meaningful experiences.

For most of human history, s­tories helped us not only to live, but to dwell, both in place and time (1). Through storytellers we learned of our kinship with other creatures and Earth itself. We saw how the ripples of our actions have cascading effects far into the future. For the world’s oral cultures, stories were the primary means of connecting with the land. Local plants and animals become protagonists and antagonists. Virtually every creature and place on the landscape—a chirping bird, gurgling stream, or gentle breeze—became sensate and was given voice. Once a story was learned, chance encounters with animal neighbors, or merely walking by a local landmark, brought to mind the associated narrative and its practical lessons (2). In this way, stories breathed life into people’s surroundings and provided deep meaning.

Most powerful of all stories are cosmologies, cultural narratives that explain the origin and ordering of the world. Throughout human history, virtually all cultures have been rooted to their native places by such narratives—from Raven bringing forth the light in Haida culture to the Genesis story of Christianity. Although the lives of present-day indigenous peoples and most followers of religious traditions are imbued by one cosmology or another, most of us living in Western societies today represent an historical anomaly, existing largely without one. This lack of an origin story contributes to the dearth of greater meaning and purpose experienced by many of us, feeding the dysfunctional human-nature relationship at the heart of the sustainability crisis.

Yet an astonishing and beautiful account of our deep time evolutionary history has recently emerged within science. Evolution, it turns out, is much more than Darwin and natural selection, encompassing no less than the history of the Universe. Variously called the Epic of Evolution, the Great Story, Big History, or (my preference) the Immense Story, this grand narrative has potential to unite humanity and root us in deep time.

But wait. If, as advocated for the 3 Es approach, ecology and evolution must be united to generate a sense of connection, how are we to weave the Immense Story—populated by billions of galaxies, stars, and planets—together with the delicate web of streams, rocks, spiders, and trees in our local places? After all, the former deals with the grandest scales of time and space, whereas the latter is concerned with the intimate nearby. Oddly enough, this question makes sense only to Westerners. For most indigenous peoples the world over, no dividing line exists between the cosmic and the local; all are part of the same community, the same story. Their cosmological sagas feature a variety of local denizens—the trickster raven, the wise mountain, the changeling butterfly. We would do well to emulate this approach.

Fortunately, potential protagonists abound. Look no further than a sunset or a clear night sky to tell of our close bond to the stars. A local mountain, desert, or slab of limestone makes an exceptional entry point into the story of Earth and the solar system. A stately oak or vegetable garden can help convey the saga of bacteria harnessing solar energy, whereas that croaking frog in early evening is a modern day reminder of our water-to-land legacy. A crow or robin serves as a great vehicle for telling the story of dinosaurs to birds. And an arrowhead or basket would make an ideal trigger for sharing the human chapter of the evolutionary epic.

The key is that all major innovations of the cosmic evolutionary epic—stars, planets, bacteria, plants, animals, and human culture—are still present in one form or another in every place. Each telling of the Immense Story, or parts of it, can be tailored not only to local nature, but to the age and knowledge base of the audience. Indeed anyone can construct their own version of the story, choosing local characters and themes most meaningful to them.

The story of everything can be told anywhere.

Carl Sagan had it right. We are star-stuff, made of matter forged within stellar furnaces. But the real story—the Immense Story—goes much deeper. We’re also Earth-stuff, composed of the same matter that comprises our planet’s crust. And we’re Life-stuff too, every one of our human cells the product of ancient bacterial mergers. You and all other animals exist today because of a deep time cascade of ever-more complex mergings, each one dependent on its predecessor: atoms combining to form heavier elements; heavy elements bonding to make chemical compounds; compounds meshing in symphonic harmony to create bacterial cells; cells lacking nuclei coalescing into nucleated cells; and nucleated cells uniting into multicellular life. This repetitive pattern of emergent unfolding is well defined. Sea stars could not have preceded bacteria, nor could there have been water prior to oxygen. 

Although certainly a creation story, the evolutionary epic is not a true cultural cosmology. Instead this science-based saga imparts a framework to be molded into a spectrum of cosmologies, each one informed by specific historical, cultural, spiritual, and ecological contexts. Indeed the Immense Story allows for an endless medley of interpretations and beliefs, with and without God(s). Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme have argued persuasively that this story must become a central element in re-defining the human-nature relationship (3). Yet, decades later, the Immense Story remains all but absent from Western culture, ignored by scientists, philosophers, educators, environmentalists, and spiritual practitioners alike. How can it be that we, who have access to by far the most rigorous and comprehensive story of the cosmos, do not use it to inform the arc of our lives?

The bottom line here is that connecting kids to nature isn’t only about getting them outside. We need to re-nature our minds as well as our environments. Once in awhile, put aside the storybooks and renew the sensuous art of storytelling using your whole body together with your voice. Ground some of these stories in local nature. Where did those fir trees come from, and why are they so tall? Who are the denizens of the local pond, and how long have they been there? Why did coyotes and rabbits survive the last Ice Age while mammoths and saber-toothed cats disappeared? Your local natural history museums or nature center will likely be happy to provide the necessary information.

Learn the basics of the Immense Story, and tell it to the children in your life—preferably around a campfire (“A very long, long, long, long time ago . . .”). Bring the Immense Story alive by rooting it in the natural history of local characters—for example plants, animals, streams, and hills. If the whole story seems too daunting, break it up into shorter narratives (4).

Educators, think about ways to insert the Immense Story into the core of the curriculum, combining it with ecology to scaffold learning. The all-encompassing epic of evolution makes a wonderful context for teaching science, starting with the big idea and hooking on new concepts as they’re encountered. Consider having students spend part of the school year working as a team to explore the geological, biological, and cultural history of the local town or region and then write their own story. Perhaps let them decide to how to convey that narrative, maybe in the form of a play, video, website, or walking guide for the community.

It’s time to restory the places we call home and, in doing so, forge meaningful connections with those places.


1.     Sanders, S. R. 1997. Most Human Art. Georgia Review/Utne Reader. September/October, 1997.

2.     Abram, D. 2011. Storytelling and Wonder: On the Rejuvenation of Oral Culture.

3.     Berry, T. 1990. The Dream of the Earth. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco; Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York.

4.     A series of books by Jennifer Morgan tell the Immense Story in kid-friendly fashion. The first is: Born with a Bang: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story (Dawn Publications, 2002)

Image Credits (from top to bottom)

1, 2, 4. Derived from National Geographic:
3. Derived from NASA


  1. *slow clap*

    The story of everything is the story of us.

    I've been building my life around getting this story out. From student to teacher to author...communicating this is my life. Because it's frankly just an awesome story.

    Thanks for yet another great post. Off to tweet this one, too!

  2. Great post Scott.

    Great lessons and thoughts embodied within - and evocatively written too - great job.

  3. Great post Scott. I really like your suggestion on keeping an oral tradition alive. Few things are better than a story told around a campfire. My 3 1/2 year-old daughter loves to hear the story of the day she was born. I think it must be instinctive.

  4. Its just s superb story.Thanks alot for sharing this with all of us.its really superb.
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