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

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The 3 Es of Nature Connection

In just the past couple of weeks, the children-in-nature crisis has been featured in the New York Times, the LA Times, and on the BBC wireservice. Driven by the heroic work of Richard Louv, the Children & Nature Network, and many others, high profile media coverage is getting the word out. Childhood in this country is dysfunctional, even broken—and so too is our society. Rampant obesity, attention deficit disorder, and diabetes; depression, skyrocketing school dropout, and ever-diminishing environmental conditions; these and other interlinked problems threaten both our children and the places they live. At stake, some say, is the persistence of humanity. Drunk on technology with the pedal to the metal, we race toward the precipice with our heads down, texting.

Although connecting children with nature is certainly no panacea for the world’s ills, it may be the closest thing we’ve got. The freefalling biosphere is not, first and foremost, an external crisis of environment, but an internal crisis of mind. Our dominant worldview sees nature as resources to be exploited rather than relatives worthy of respect. Sustainability—humanity living in a mutually enhancing relationship with the rest of nature—demands that we adopt a strong sense of compassion for the nonhuman world. As biologist Stephen J. Gould once claimed, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”(1)

Yet a fundamental question remains. How exactly do people form a meaningful, lifelong connection with nature? Critical subsidiary questions include: What kinds of knowledge and experience are most effective in building this connection? How does the process change as children grow? What is the role of adult mentors, and digital technologies? How can we engage kids, with their ever-shrinking attention spans, in the slow pace of nature? What kinds of nature—from television documentaries to city parks to wilderness trips—are most effective in fostering lasting connections?

Although the science of nature connection is in its infancy, a clear signal is emerging. A bond with the natural world does not explode into one’s consciousness in an “Aha!” moment or a sudden wash of emotion. Nor is it the product of learning a list of facts, like the rules of algebra or grammar. Instead, a meaningful connection with nature arises organically over many years, the result of a spiraling loop of positive feedback that interweaves affective experience with intellectual understanding.

Traditionally, the strong place-bond experienced by hunter-gatherers and many other indigenous peoples has been rooted in an immersion within local nature. So how are we 21st Century urbanites—separated from local landscapes by concrete, air-conditioning, and packaged foods—supposed to establish a deep sense of attachment with the natural world?

After years of research, consternation, and direct parental experience, I have come to the conclusion that the process of nature connection should be grounded in a trio of key ingredients: experience, ecology, and evolution—the “3 Es.” That is, a meaningful bond with nature requires abundant, multisensory experience outdoors together with a deep understanding of how that place works (ecology) and how it came to be (evolution). I invoke the latter pair of E-words words advisedly, knowing that both are burdened with connotational baggage. So let me explain briefly.

Ecology is used here in its most expansive sense—the study of relationships between organisms and environments. To be ecologically literate, or “ecoliterate”(2), means to understand something of how your place works. Where do your food, water, and energy come from? Where do your garbage and sewage end up? What are some of the plants and animals native to your region, and how do they interact? What are the major weather patterns, and how do they shift throughout the year? What does the local ecosystem need to thrive?

Similarly, evolution, regarded broadly as change over time, encompasses nothing less than the “Immense Story,” the cosmic, biological, and cultural epic stretching from the Big Bang to this very moment. To be evolution literate, or “evoliterate”(3), means to know something of the story of your place and your role within that story. How did the land form? What kinds of plants and animals lived here in past ages, and which are locally represented by fossils? Of the plants living in your area today, which are considered native, as opposed to invasive newcomers? Who were the first indigenous peoples to call this place home, and how did they make a living? When did Europeans arrive, and what kinds of commerce was this place built upon? As Thomas Berry eloquently told us for decades (4), we need a story. (An earlier blog post of this topic can be found here.)

Whereas ecology is concerned with the workings of a place at a given snapshot in time, evolution provides the story of that place through time.

The final E-word, experience, rounds out the trio. A meaningful connection with nature is forged first and foremost on experiences, from abundant unstructured time in the backyard to weekends in the park and occasional visits to wild places. We need intimate contact with the denizens and landscapes of our local places. Yet education too must be experiential, in and out of the classroom. Scientific ideas are far more memorable and meaningful when we perceive and reflect upon them directly with multiple senses. A deep understanding of nature must be absorbed through our eyes, ears, nose, and pores, as well as our minds. Above all, we need to engage children in natural settings. Aided by storytelling and other dynamic communication approaches, experiential learning offers the most effective means of communicating big scientific ideas like those embodied by ecology and evolution.

Education’s traditional emphasis on the “3 Rs” of Reading, (W)riting, and (A)rithmetic has provided students with essential tools useful in a range of situations. Yet if children are isolated from nonhuman nature by four-walled classrooms and homes, they miss the meaning and beauty of changing seasons, of birdsong and rainstorms. They ignore the ugliness of the built environment, and remain blind to deteriorating environments. For most of us, education has little relevance to our day-to-day lives beyond the self-serving hope that we will one day become wealthy, or at least earn enough for “the good life.”

Together with the 3 Rs, then, education should include liberal doses of the 3 Es. Rather than tools, think of ecology, evolution, and experience as a robust scaffold for building knowledge. The horizontal bars in this metaphor are ecological connections, how the place works. The vertical bars are the unified evolutionary story of local nature and culture. And the scaffold’s nodes, the intersections where horizontal and vertical bars meet, can be envisioned as firsthand experiences. Experience is the X-factor, the secret ingredient that synthesizes ecology and evolution, making this knowledge immediate, alive, and engaging. United, the 3 Es provide a grand context for understanding the world, a framework of big ideas upon which additional knowledge can be added for a lifetime. To be connected to nature, then, is to expand one’s awareness and become native to place.

But how are we to bring about this place-based revolution? What can we do as individuals to transform the children-in-nature movement from a grassroots effort to a tsunami of cultural change? Plenty.

Parents and educators can begin the process of taking back the outdoors, making it a commitment to give kids abundant time in nature. The growing numbers of family nature clubs can aid in this transition. Educators can connect kids with local nature by embedding the 3 Es in the core of the curriculum. We desperately need more research from neuroscientists, psychologists and educators on how best to foster nature connection. Those with extra funds can support these efforts, and those with influence can forge productive connections. All of us, from parents to city planners, can work toward augmenting the green spaces in our lives—adding native plants to backyards, schoolyards, and city parks. We can all learn more about the places we live, including the stories that give our homes deeper meaning. Sound like a pipe dream? Maybe, but some dreams come true, and this one has necessity at its back.


1. Gould, S. J. 1993. Unenchanted evening. Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. Norton, New York. (quotation, p. 40)

2.Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley.

3. Sampson, S. D. 2006. Evoliteracy. Pp. 216-231 in J. Brockman (ed.), Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement. Knopf, New York.

4. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.

Image Credits (top to bottom)

Images 1 & 4. Scott Sampson

Image 2.

Image 3. National Geographic Photography: