- Published: 09 December 2015 09 December 2015
Re-acquainting ourselves with the timeless, universal world of myth may seem to be the opposite of what’s required when facing the very contemporary problem of climate change.
(‘This text was written for a project and exhibition at The Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol in November 2015, called: Back to Where We Have Not Quite Been, created as part of Bristol Resilience Lab.’ The image is Ancient Landscape, Fourthland 2015.)
But the transformation we face represents such a sea change in how we understand our identity as a species, such a deep and overwhelming re- orientation, that heading into the world of folktales, myths and wonder-tales, is more than just a comforting diversion.
The prospect of climate change, challenges us humans to look very deeply at who we are. It requires us to re-calibrate our collective compass. Tranformations on the level we’re facing, as far beyond the everyday as they can possibly be, cannot be encompassed by ordinary thinking and states of mind; we need to go to the most fundamental and profound level we can; we need to look towards the bedrock on which human culture is based, to look for where the cultural ‘stem- cells’ live that define how a society grows and develops. Potential doors to this level are the universals of human experience: sensory and tactile experience, music and storymaking.
Myths, fairy tales, and wonder-tales can evoke what Martin Shaw calls ‘Bone memory’; and the telling of and listening to such stories, evokes a particular state of being. "This is participation mystique. This is a time-wrestle; when as a teller you know things you should not know, bear witness to the moment where the horses of past, present and future all drink from the deep trough."1
The call for a ‘new story’ by Thomas Berry, catholic priest and ‘Ecotheologian’ has become a rallying cry for many; as has the idea that there is an underlying narrative at a cultural level, which is responsible for the destructiveness of our behaviour. This is sometimes interpreted to mean that one new overarching story needs to be found, a new myth that we can all live by.
But it is, I believe, not the wrong narrative that is the problem, but the shallowness of our engagement with narrative, the loss of story diversity, and the loss of contact with the ‘mythic’ realm itself.
To draw on a Permaculture analogy, the single narrative, or new story represents something like a mono-culture, whereas what’s needed is a forest garden, a diverse, resilient, multilayered community of stories alive with possibilities for cross pollination.
This shallow engagement has caused us to lose our skill and adeptness at engaging with story at its mythic level. If we lose our powers of discrimination about stories, forget how to recognise the true or the ‘pseudo’, we become prone to being swept along by a ‘psuedo myth’ that promises much but offers very little. "We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind.....The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them...."2
A corpus of stories passed down in an oral tradition is usually in the form of a lattice, an interweaving body of connected stories, which present multiple pathways and possibilities. This kind of storytelling, which has composted down over generations, is multi-layered, and often puzzling, allowing a hint or glimpse of a mystery beyond.
The telling of stories such as ancient myths or wonder-tales, is a collective undertaking. The teller and the listeners create something together in the space between them. This opens the door to an experience of profound collective understanding; a transformative experience of deep collective awe or ‘communitas’ to use the anthropologist Victor Turner’s term.
The ancient world it seems understood the need for rituals of this kind to enable communities to connect deeply and evolve, becoming more than the sum of their parts, weaving a matrix of symbolic understanding out of which the shared emergent reality could begin to take form. The problems of climate change require a level of collaboration and collective decision making the like of which has never been demanded of us before. Our mythic story heritage has much to offer here.
The new world dawning, one in which we come to full awareness of just how much damage we have done, is as yet largely unexplored. While the planet runs out of uncharted places, we have created a whole new undiscovered landscape called... the future.
We will do almost anything it seems, to avoid taking an imaginative step into this new landscape. We continue to believe that what’s to come will be acted out in an environment very much like the one we’re accustomed to. We now know that this will not be so; we know and yet it seems we don’t know, because our actions do not reflect that knowledge.
We have to explore it, this painful territory, we have to reveal and face its realities, its wastelands and devastated areas. Our chances of psychological survival in this future will depend on the quality and quantity of these explorations, these expeditions into the unknown. Unless we familiarise ourselves with this land and face it squarely; creating new paths across it, telling stories about it, envisioning and visualising it in as many different ways as possible; it will remain unthinkable’ and the probability is that then, when its reality bites, we will just not be able to bear it.
Creating new paths across the unexplored future requires storytellers of every kind to engage in depth with the mythic. It needs artists film-makers, writers, and visionaries of all varieties to spin tales across the void, weaving together old and new narratives to create a new (and old) resilience.
1Martin Shaw, West Country School of Myth Blog: Curating Echoes
2Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
Sarah Deco and Julian Manley participated in the exhibition by Fourthland - 'back to where we have not quite been' - at the Arnolfini in Bristol over the weekend 28-29 November 2015. Sarah contributed with a paper on "Resilience and the Mythic” and by telling three "wonder tales.” Julian facilitated a visual matrix, where participants are encouraged to find links and connections between their experiences of the exhibition and the meanings that might emerge around the theme of resilience.