New stories for old – but where is the heart?

Once upon a time ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ weren’t the latest buzz words of modern-day intellectuals, but actually meant something. Now it seems you can’t read a blog or open a book of a certain kind – or even listen to the Radio 4 news – without the word ‘narrative’ splashed all over it. The world seems full of proclamations about the need for a ‘new story’ for civilisation, but it often seems to me that those who are calling for new stories have rarely understood either the implications of the old ones, or what stories are actually FOR and how they work.

There are some thoughts I’d like to offer in this respect:

First: There is, in short, no point promoting a story, new or otherwise, which envisages a ‘return to the wild’ – either inside ourselves or outside – unless you actually get out there and be in the wild. Stories spring from what you do; they’re not supposed to be an alternative to doing it. There is a certain neo-Romantic, overly intellectualised tendency these days to sit back and wish for less ‘civilisation’ and more ‘wildness’ – but there is an equal tendency not to know wild if it hit you in the face because you’re too busy sitting at your computer trying to figure out what it means. Or talking about it. Which is civilisation’s big joke, really. (Note: yes, I am sitting here at a computer writing this. I’m not suggesting that using a computer to write about wildness is bad, just that it’s not enough. To write or talk authentically about wildness you need to spend a lot of time out in the wild. Not just sit and fantasise about it or relive it in your imagination, longing for some lost golden age which never really existed in the way we imagine it in the first place. There’s no place for poetic posing in the wild. The wild sees through all that, and the wolf in the woods gobbles you up for breakfast.)

Second: Many of the people who are calling for a ‘New Story’ to replace the ‘Old Story’ (by which they generally mean the post-Enlightenment story of progress, growth, uber-rationality) don’t always seem to understand that you can’t just make up meta-narratives like that and expect the world to fall into place around them. Stories work from the bottom up. The smaller stories generate the meta-story, not the other way around.

Third: Which brings me to the question of what those stories which ultimately feed into this new and better meta-story actually are, or should be. We’re often told that the old myths and stories, which some of the older folk among us grew up hearing or reading, aren’t relevant any more. But the old stories aren’t the problem – it’s us, and what we make of them, that is the problem. Because we’ve lost them, forgotten them, forgotten what to do with them when we happen across them. The really old stories – the stories that relate to the land, to the spirit of a place, the stories that teach  – are still alive and well. It’s just that these stories relate to the land, to being out in it. These stories only begin to make sense, and newer versions of them only begin to emerge, if you go out and listen to the land’s dreaming. They certainly don’t come from sitting in front of a computer or enrolling on a workshop to try to ‘think them up’.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for transforming the old stories. Stories have always been eminently transformable – that’s part of their beauty. The best stories grow and change and adapt themselves to the times, the circumstances and the audience. But the message – the HEART of the message – remains constant. That we are part of the wild, not separate from it. That everything is animate, in its own way. That we lost our way in the woods a very long time ago, and we desperately need to find our way back. But we can’t do that purely by talking about it or writing poems about it (though such things do for sure have their place) – we also need to get out there and do it – more importantly, to BE it.

10 thoughts on “New stories for old – but where is the heart?

  1. Hmmm … well, yes and no.

    First off, there’s a lot of talk here about ‘the wild’. What do you mean by that? That’s a loose term, and we need to define it if we’re going to talk about ‘getting out into it’. I was talking to a conference of ‘eco-psychologists’ this weekend and there was some very interesting discussion of this, from people who experience ‘wildness’ as something within, not simply without. People are wild, partly or wholly, even in front of computers. It’s not an external thing, it’s part of our internal mapping too. We’re still animals. Coming to terms with out inner, perhaps suppressed, wildness, seems part of this project too.

    Something else I did recently was to look into the landscape history of Cumbria, for a short essay i was asked to write. I wrote about looking at this landscape in two ways: in the standard way with which I grew up – which is to admire its beauty and imagine it ‘wild’ – and the rather different long-duree perspective. The latter shows that Cumbria was originally almost entirely wildwood, and that when it began to be stripped back, 7,500 years ago, the landscape became not a wild place but a very large garden for humans. Looked at this way, what I see when I step outside is a barren land: perhaps what the Amazon will look like in 300 years … There’s a story that could do with being articulated.

    Also, I think you are wrong about the Romantics. I am going to have to offer you a guest blog defending them one of these days 😉 Attacking the Romantics is very common, but I don’t think their project has been properly understood in all its radicalism. Wordsworth, after all, spent more time ‘in the wild’ than most people alive since his time, and he knew it well. He was re-immersing himself in non-human nature precisely in a search for stories of landedness – which is also what his early poems were about, and they were at the time very radical in their attempt, as he put it, ‘to show that men who do not wear fine cloaths can also feel deeply.’ Men and women and perhaps nature itself. It was the opposite of being ‘over-intellectualised’ – the over-intellectualised, distanced, ‘classical’ poets being the thing that the Romantics were actually kicking against.

    Finally, something else I did this weekend was to spend three hours in the pub with Martin Shaw talking about new stories! It was very fruitful. Stories do certainly have to come from being, and doing, not simply from theorising, or they are just abstract. But personally I find it very heartening if many people are now starting to talk about ‘new narratives’ (are they, though? I’d be interested to know who.) Frankly, it’s about bloody time. What could the objection be, unless it’s just a catch-all objection to ‘intellectuals’ – who are, after all, surely going to be needed on this journey?

    Personally, I think that new stories about who and where we are are already developing, and will spring from what happens to us as the machine continues to cough.

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  2. On wild – yes, that sense of inner wildness is implicit in what I mean by wild (there’s more on that in my forthcoming EarthLines article in May). But where does that come from? You have to be very careful here. As a psychologist I know very well that people are perfectly capable of constructing a glorious experience inside their heads but when faced with the external reality (now don’t let’s get into metaphysics; we both know what we’re talking about here!) of wilderness, go all to pieces. It’s too messy, cold, quiet … So that’s why I believe strongly in the need to experience rather than just imagine.

    There’s a whole history of ‘the picturesque’ which derives precisely from the influence of those Romantics (see Jonathan Bate ‘The Song of the Earth’ for more on that) and the commodification of nature as a ‘view’ that makes me look at them with a rather more jaundiced eye than most. I’ve always agreed that the Romantic movement was a good thing at heart that unfortunately led to some negative consequences. But (and yes, with the caveat that it led to some unfortunate places …) I’ve more of a taste for the German and French Romantics than the British kind. Happy to offer some references if you’d like. I think you’ll find them infinitely more visceral than Wordsworth.

    I don’t keep a list of those talking about narrative and new stories but as someone who used to teach narrative and train narrative therapists I’m perhaps more tuned into reference to it than most. I want people to focus on new narratives; I just want them to do it well, and in an informed way.

    And I look forward to receiving the guest blog, any time!!

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    1. It’s certainly possibly to ‘romanticise’, in the popular term, everything from farming to mountain walking, and to have it fall apart when you actually try to do it. Good to avoid that. But you can’t hold the original Romantics responsible for every twee thing that may have followed. I have read Bate, but I have a very soft spot for early Wordsworth, who I think has been done a disservice, not least by himself later in life. He was one of our most original and radical writers on nature and the wild.

      Happy to hear more about some of the Germans, though, who I know nothing about (though i do like the paintings!)

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  3. Here’s just one of the latest ‘new story’ stories that contributed to my perception of a growing use of the concept of the ‘over-arching’ or meta-narrative. In The Ecologist. It refers to Dark Mountain too, Paul, so I’m sure you’re aware of it.

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    1. Yes, I did come across this one; I know Martin Palmer a bit. He’s doing some interesting work on this with the Club of Rome, which we may even get involved in.

      I think that it’s dawning on increasing numbers of people that a society driven primarily by supposedly objective science and rational inquiry, represented usually by abstract indices and arguments about statistics, is hopelessly inadequate to our needs, and that more more mythos is needed to balance out the preponderance of logos. This is not put into words in most cases, b but it’s manifesting itself in more talk of narratives and stories, in some places. Those places are still very much on the margins, of course, and i think they’ll probably remain so.

      But I’m not convinced that attacking this tendency and demanding that only the ‘right’ kind of stories/definition of stories be adopted instead is a useful way forward. It might be more of a cause for celebration, something to wrk together on. After all, if a new meta-narrative is not urgently needed, what are we all doing here?

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  4. I’m not attacking anyone, any more than I have ever declared the entire Romantic movement to be worthless. I’m simply expressing an opinion that there is a growing tendency to call for a ‘new story’ without much substance behind the call. I don’t want people to stop talking about new stories; I don’t want people to stop talking about stories at all. I want people to talk much MORE about stories, which is why I began this blog and am including oral as well as written traditions in the magazine I’m editing and why I’ve worked with stories professionally for many years now. I am not suggesting there are right and wrong stories; I am suggesting that if you want to work with stories there are good ways of doing it and bad. Bad ways (to me) include not understanding how myth and stories work. Which includes trying to develop a meta-narrative without doing the groundwork. I’m calling for a ‘bioregional’ approach to stories rather than the imposed narrative from top down. I understand that Dark Mountain has a perspective on this. There may be other perspectives, too. I’d quite like to explore them all …

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  5. I like it, and great to find your new blog, House of the Ravens was one of my favourites, precisely for the weaving together of deep thoughts and grounded reality in trying to learn to live the new/old/other way, whatever we can call it.

    This is very pertinent to where I find myself. Having grown up with rural influences, I am trying to start a community market garden on the urban estate where I live. Practicing the rural skills I didn’t quite learn as a teenager in my urban garden. Learning to parent, and to do it in a way that honours our evolutionary origins. Leaving behind the techno-gothic world in which I completed my PhD, to begin painstakingly rediscovering a homely kind of science that faciltates important functions like composting and fermenting and soapmaking.

    In the terms of Hegelian dialectic, if you’re willing to go along with me in using that frame, the thesis I perceive is the indigenous consciousness that I read about in Liedloff’s book ‘The continuum concept’, and which we can hear in the extraordinary skills of the Aleuts like this guy Larry Merculieff. Then the antithesis is the modernist, reductionist scientific/rational enquiry; it allows us to cut away some of the mythos that is unhelpful, allows relativism and an enquiry into epistemology but in its old form it left us disenchanted and so isolated from ourselves that we are caught up in the destructive engine of industrialism and growth.

    So I am seeing the Romantic movement as a foreshadowing of the synthesis: a modern mind reaching into and out from the resourcefullness of ecological consciousness; we need to re-awaken or preserve the knowing that Merculieff tells of. Taking science forward to embrace consciousness and myths as vital ground for living reciprocal relationship with the rest of earth community. Scientists who listen and work with our dreams and visions, as well as rationlist enquiries, and who act from within earth-community? Mystics who use cognitive and behavioural tools to reawaken and realign ourselves and our human communities with our ecological settings? I don’t quite know what it looks like, but it is something to do with what you are writing here: awakening into a new practice, reinhabiting the old stories so we can learn to hear, going forward with something good from what can be salvaged of industrial and scientific investigations. A new kind of rationality which recognizes our-bodies-our-home-the-earth as our primary and essential framework.

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  6. Alice: yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying! But what an excellent way of putting it. I have a strange background in that I went into science with an all-arts background, and after a successful scientific career went back into the arts. As well as a strong belief in the transformative potential of ‘the arts’, I believe strongly that science has many, many good things to offer us, and that it’s too easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bathwater when we talk about all of the bad things that we see having been bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and that we therefore think we have to reject. Rationality, effective problem-solving, knowledge … they’re IMPORTANT. It’s a question both of how you get that knowledge, and what you do with it. And for sure not all knowledge springs from the scientific method, and for sure we have gone way too far in founding an entire world-view based on that single very narrow way of looking at the world. I know as well as anyone how desperately restrictive, arid and life-leaching that scientific view can be if it is taken too far. But to argue that we can somehow go back – the primitivist perspective – is equally extreme to me. Would we want to? Would you want to give up that astonishing knowledge of what the earth looks like from space, or the quantum universe? And so we have to find a way of combining the good aspects of rationality and scientific methodology with all the beauty and vitality that we lost in that excessive pendulum swing. Rationality per se isn’t a bad thing: it’s how we use it. And we use it pretty poorly right now. So yes, let’s try a better way of being that synthesises the best of both former ways of looking at the world. Now we can take the old dreams, myths and stories, and add dimensions to them from all of the important things that we’ve learned that will make them even more relevant and potent for the future.

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  7. I love this debate, and found myself nodding all the way through, in relation to everyone’s perspectives!

    What I have found myself in 20 years’ experience of writing about and from, and, more, facilitating others’ processes indoors and outdoors in reasonably wild places (as wild as one can get in the UK/Europe) is that people are starving for reconnection of their inner wild with the outer. Change happens when we can truly draw the inner and outer together in felt experience.

    My work is to draw those territories together as they should be/are naturally, by the use of poetry, story, and time alone/together/supported in the silence (I mean silence from human inner and outer ‘chatter’, vocal and distractive; and mechanical/electronic) of the land – everything I do is focused on increasing our awareness of connectivity, of permeability, of our place in the family of things. When people have had this experience, in all its cold wet raw demandingness, they can begin to work for change from the heart – they know what it means then.

    It makes no sense to separate them (inner wild/outer wild) – as I see it, part of the problem is our dualistic tendencies, and I agree (have written about this too) that this has been exacerbated since the Enlightenment, for all its gifts.

    We absolutely have to find a unified/unifying way forward; a synthesis if we take the Hegelian model, as Alice says – and it’s true that we can learn from eg the psychological processes mirrored in alchemy that two substances can only conjoin IF they have first been truly differentiated. BUT in our culture we are stuck on the two poles, I think; we still do the either/or battle, caught in the illusion of thesis/anti-thesis, imprisoned by a sense of differentiation/separateness. (That’s the shadow legacy of the Enlightenment’s rationalism – or maybe it’s the human condition…)

    For me, my work with myself and with others is to move beyond this dualism, using tools from story poetry psychology and Zen mindfulness – outdoors as much as possible.

    I’m so glad these dialogues are possible in places – havens – like this.

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  8. Thank you, Roselle – I agree fully about drawing together the inner and outer wild. There’s another whole interesting debate to be had in this context, of course, about what it means to ‘reconnect with the natural world’ – we’ll probably be following that one over at the EarthLines blog. There is a sense in which we inevitably (because of ‘the human condition’ perhaps, as you put it, and the ways in which our brains organise perception) are separate from others, and yet it’s possible to understand, connect with and rejoice in that otherness. Perhaps some dualism in that sense is inevitable? We are in some senses always bound to be individual creatures, locked inside our own heads … and yet we can flow out sometimes too …

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