I’m currently working on a new novel. It’s set close to my home in France, in the forest and the protagonist is a herbalist. It’s set on one day—Summer Solstice, June 21 2065—in a world devastated by a more serious pandemic than Covid as well as further ecological disasters. It’s a story about hope in a fragile and dangerous world, about community and connection against the odds and how we live as though we are part of this earth’s matrix of life rather than its separate overlords.
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech the remarkable Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk, says:
The climate emergency and the political crisis in which we are now trying to find our way, and which we are anxious to oppose by saving the world have not come out of nowhere. We often forget that they are not just the result of a twist of fate or destiny, but of some very specific moves and decisions―economic, social, and to do with world outlook (including religious ones). Greed, failure to respect nature, selfishness, lack of imagination, endless rivalry and lack of responsibility have reduced the world to the status of an object that can be cut into pieces, used up and destroyed.
That is why I believe I must tell stories as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part of it.
to see things differently
I am convinced that, for all the plurality of species and appearances of fragmentation, the world is a living, single entity. And I believe that stories are powerful. We don’t simply tell stories, we inhabit them. Since language began, we’ve been storytelling animals. Every time and culture has dominant stories that shape us, whether they are stories from religion, ideology or the market-place. Sometimes thee stories have such a grip that it’s hard to see beyond them, yet alternative stories can change the world.
Amongst the dominant stories of our age are so many that are leading us down blind alleys or into destruction. In her retelling of the Ragnarok myth A S Byatt portrays the gods as stupid, selfish and short-sighted. They deserve to die. They can see the end of the world coming, yet they do nothing about it. It’s a powerful warning of ecological disaster, but could also be a story of soured relationships with others or with the self. It’s a call to change and, like all good stories, asks us to shift our perspective, to change how we live.
Of course, for the world to shift significantly efforts would have to be on a global scale and involve the giving up of so much power and luxury. Perhaps it’s naïve to imagine that could ever happen, or could happen fast enough. Perhaps we have to be on the other side of worse years than Covid and worse years of wild fires and desertification and extreme weather before we change as a species. But whether the shift comes before or after disaster, I believe the stories that champion it are worth telling and writing because in stories, we dig deep into archetypes and in doing so we bridge the personal and the universal. We recognise ourselves as connected with the world we inhabit, an intrinsic part rather than something ‘other’.
to connect with other lives
Stories increase empathy and build shared experience. They help us navigate better ways to live, even in the midst of a crazy and challenging world. And they help us to make meaning, right now and where we are, rather than living in fear or cynicism, because stories help us to connect and to dig down to truths that aren’t always available as ‘facts’. As Ursula K Le Guin says in her essay, ‘Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’
It is in such statements as ‘Once upon a time there was a dragon…’ such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.
In the story I’m writing the forest and its members are living, conscious and communicative, but not in the way humans might conceive those things. I’m challenging myself to find ways into these voices that push at the boundaries of language, that tell story differently. And I’ve been reading a lot about theories of consciousness in plants and mycelium. The scientist Nicholas P Money puts it like this at the end of an essay on the concept of the fungal mind:
Studies on mycelia and mycorrhizas have encouraged the concept of the forest as a kind of super-organism with a “wood wide net” formulated by fungal connections between trees. This awkward allusion to the World Wide Web has some usefulness as a metaphor, and is an attention grabber, but it does a disservice to the fungi. In this brief essay I have considered fungal expressions of consciousness, including sensitivity, decision making, learning, and memory. This rich behavioral repertoire allows fungi to adapt in real time to changes in environmental circumstances. Our internet shows none of this inherent flexibility. It is a network of pathways that generates nothing on its own. Life outshines the limitations of this drab technology in every cell. With the wealth of research revealing the sensitivity and responsiveness of individual hyphae to their environment, coupled with the novel studies on mycelial learning and memory, now is a fruitful time to recognize the study of fungal ethology as a distinctive discipline within mycology.
Moreover, stories don’t only lay the universe before us so that we feel it, viscerally, enabling us to open ourselves to the lives of non-human animals or plants or the earth itself. Story also offers a way through when we’ve made a mess or life seems unbearable.
to connect acrosss time and place
Writing in The Guardian, Brian Doerries has discussed what happens when people use ancient stories as mirrors for what they’ve experienced. He talks about how Greek tragedies were:
the collective witness of human suffering.
And goes on:
In 2008, after a performance of Sophocles’ Ajax –a play about the suicide of a great, respected warrior—for an audience of Marines in San Diego, a military spouse leaned into a microphone and said, “My husband went away four times to war, and each time he returned, like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into our house. The war came home with him. And to quote from the play ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’
The more I have listened to these audiences respond to Greek tragedies, the more convinced I am of their relevance to our lives. And what I have seen in the faces of audience members – night after night—is a palpable sense of relief to discover that they are not alone: not alone in their communities, not alone across the world, and not alone across time.
During the Covid pandemic, Doerries theatre company, ‘Theater of War’ went online, performing extraordinary versions of such plays as Antigone (exploring the rold of nurses and front-line workers) and Oedipus the King (exploring plague in the face of ‘arrogant leadership, ignored prophecy, … and ecological collapse). Other plays have been the catalysts for exploring domestic violence, police brutality in the wake of Black Lives Matter, dementia and more…
Story can change and save lives. Story is magical, transformative. But story, like so much, is both a culture we live in and a tool. Any culture can degenerate. Any tool can be used for harm. We all know that Hitler was a first-rate story teller. The stories he wove were evil and the results so horrifying that the world still resonates with the suffering caused.
Transformation isn’t always for the good. If stories are powerful, and they are; if stories shape societies, and they do, then we need to choose our stories with care. We need stories of hope, kindness and community, old and new. We need stories that expand our vision.
Rollo May puts this powerfully in The Cry for Myth:
The person without myth… is a person without a home… The loneliness of mythlessness is the deepest and least assuaged of all. Unrelated to the past, unconnected with the future, we hang as if in mid-air.
because it’s always personal
Story and meaning are of a piece; they are not just good for us, they form the environment in which we live and move and without them we are adrift. If the story we live in is bankrupt or destructive, it’s time to tell new stories that expand our ability to think and feel. And this is transformative because the best stories are not instruction manuals or propaganda, but work in our guts and souls as well as our thinking. Stories take us back to the possibility of wisdom. As T S Eliot asks.
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in infomation?
And this wisdom needs to include the story that we are one with nature, inextricably part of the earth. Whether for our personal journeys, our communities or the world, we need to write and become a different story. Writing my current novel, I’m aware that to have the slightest chance of capturing something of the perspective of the plants that populate the story, requries me not only to read about how mycelia communicate or devour every book I can find on the lives of trees, but also to immerse myself in the world I’m writing about. Daily forest walks are currently artisitc practice, and forest walks during which I’m not thinking about the demands of work, the next part of renovating a house or what we’e going to cook for dinner… As I walk I’m trying to immerse myself in the sounds, scents, colours, senses of the forest, to be present to that place and these very different lives.
Olga Tokarczuk writes about how she inhabits every object as she writes and goes on:
That is what tenderness serves me for―because tenderness is the art of personifying, of sharing feelings, and thus endlessly discovering similarities. Creating stories means constantly bringing things to life, giving an existence to all the tiny pieces of the world … Tenderness personalizes everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed. It is thanks to tenderness that the teapot starts to talk.
I’m enchanted and fascinated by this notion of tenderness at the heart of writing. It has the quality of truly paying attention—it requires that we linger, listen and connect. Tokarczuk goes on:
Tenderness is the most modest form of love. It is the kind of love that does not appear in the scriptures or the gospels, no one swears by it, no one cites it. It has no special emblems or symbols, nor does it lead to crime, or prompt envy.
It appears wherever we take a close and careful look at another being, at something that is not our “self”.
Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. … Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.
Walking in the forest each day, I’m aware more and more of the importance of such tenderness that flows from attention. It’s changing what and how I write this novel and it’s changing how I see and interact with the world.
Here’s to the tenderness of our stories.