When I lived on the Isle of Lewis, every morning when I woke up and opened the shutters I looked out onto the silhouetted form of a sleeping woman in the hills to the east of us. I can still so clearly remember the contours of her face in profile, the rise of her chest and the roundness of her belly (see photograph above). The sight of her always reminded me of so many other similar silhouettes, and brought to mind the old creation myths which said that that the Hebrides were created by a tribe of giant women, who lay down in the hills to rest after their labours but never awoke, and slowly turned to stone. The sight of her reminded me too that the land is animate in its own way, and that, as explorer of oral traditions Robert Bringhurst tells us, ‘Stories are one of the fundamental ways in which we understand the world … some of the basic constituents of the world.’ These old stories – those which will be a critical part of ‘Sisterhood of the Bones’ – remind us of the cycles of the seasons, and of balance. As I walked our wild and windy headland each morning with the mountains to the east of me and the sea to the west, sometimes I would talk to that sleeping form. I would tell her my stories, and she would tell me hers.
Because the only true stories spring directly from the land. They don’t come from our heads: I’m not talking about sitting down at a computer and making up fiction here, I’m talking about living stories which sprang from the real and deep connections that people had to their places, and the nonhuman others who shared their places with them. Alan Garner tells us that such stories are how a nation dreams. These are the stories that contribute to our sense of belonging in a place, and belonging springs in good part from understanding the land in all its seasons. Which in turn comes from getting out there and being in it, from understanding some of its history – not just the history of the people, but of the land itself. From understanding its stories.
In most western cultures, we’ve forgotten, misplaced, discarded those stories, unlike many of the world’s indigenous peoples, who never let them completely die. Like the Australian aboriginal people, who walk the songlines singing the stories of their ancestors in the Dreamtime, and by so doing believe that they keep the land in existence. Like the Native Americans: ‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,’ says Native North American writer Thomas King. ‘I will tell you something about stories,’ the Laguna storyteller Leslie Silko says, ‘They aren’t just entertainment/ Don’t be fooled/ They are all we have, you see/ All we have to fight off/ Illness and death. You don’t have anything/ If you don’t have the stories.’ For Native Americans like Silko, a story is an intricate part of a web that cradles all the past, present and future events, ceremonies, beliefs and traditions of their culture. In the centre of this web is the land. Each story is part of another story which is linked to yet another one, and all these stories are connected back to the very origin of creation.
But here in the west, we have lost the power of our stories. We’ve relegated them to fairy stories: stories that we tell to children. We’ve sanitised them and made them more acceptable for the linear, dualistic, patriarchal western philosophy that straitjackets our lives. We think that stories are just there for entertainment. We don’t believe in them any more; we certainly don’t believe they have any power. We’ve dispossessed our stories; we’ve disenchanted them. Max Weber talked about western Modernity as a ‘progressive disenchantment of the world’. Part of that disenchantment is the loss of our belief in the importance of stories. This is important, because it is stories that provide ways to test our hypotheses about the nature of the world, that attach us to place, to the land, to the earth. To each other, and to nonhuman others. The folk tales, the fairy stories, the legends, the myths. These are the stories that hold a real power to transform, the stories that reveal the world to us in all its complexity. That peel layers of the world away like an onion.
What can you do when you’ve lost your stories? Well, you set about finding them again. We can all participate in the process of re-storying the Earth. But this process is not necessarily about making up new stories: the old stories still have their power. The old stories never left, you see. We just need to remember them, revisit them, remind ourselves of the thousands of years’ worth of wisdom contained within them. This is what I mean by re-storying. And in that context, I wonder how many of you have read Toni Morrison’s beautiful novel, Beloved. If you have, you’ll perhaps remember that she uses a concept called rememory. Rememory is about reimagining one’s heritage. Revisiting a memory, and reconstructing it. “Rememory” differs from “memory”, which is always presumed to be independent of the rememberer. Rememory is the continued presence of that which has disappeared or been forgotten, as when the novel’s main character Sethe “remember[s] something she had forgotten she knew”. Re-storying, in the same way, is revisiting a story, reconstructing it, remembering something we have forgotten we knew. It is not only about keeping the old stories alive, but about keeping the old stories fresh by transforming them for our times. In Leslie Silko’s wonderful novel Ceremony, medicine man Betonie talks about changing stories and ceremonies, and the need for them to change as the world changes: ‘In many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing … only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong … things which don’t shift and grow are dead things.’