By Jack Maguire.
In “The King Has Horse’s Ears,” a traditional Irish story, the king’s barber tells the secret tale behind that title to a tree, the only confidant he can trust. Later, a harp is made from that tree, and, yes, the harp itself sings that tale to a throne room full of the king’s courtiers, causing a positive resolution of the whole problem. Similar stories abound in the Irish tradition as well as in other cultures, including tales in which the hero simply shares a special story with a favorite tree or a spot of land, and, as a result, both the teller and the listener prosper.
Something about telling stories to nature appeals to me profoundly (which helps explain why I like to rehearse stories in the woods). I often recommend it to my child or adult listeners: Go out to a natural place you love and tell one of your stories in full voice, as beautifully and enjoyably as you can. Pretend you’re a bird or a coyote, singing a song to your territory for the sheer joy of it. It will help make you—and your environment – much more alive.
When we do this kind of activity, we are investing the place with what Tibetan Buddhists call “drala energy,” the spirit that makes a place sacred. No one place is inherently more sacred than another. We transform places into sacredness by treating them with loving kindness, by honoring them with our attention and care. Using the same approach, we restore places by re-storying them.
Today when the earth is profoundly threatened by the pollution and depletion of its natural resources, we can help heal it by using storytelling in a more activist manner. As I’ve already indicated, one very personal way to do this is by telling stories in, to, and for the natural places we love. Other ways include:
- Adding more nature-related tales to our storytelling programs and prefacing these tales with well-crafted pleas for greater environmental conservation;
- Participating as storytellers in more events that have environmental themes;
- Organizing such events on our own, whether it’s for Arbor Day, Earth Day, Winter Solstice, Midsummer’s Night, or National Raccoon Week.
We can also become better activists for nature in our storytelling lives by undertaking our own “Guardian Project,” something I describe more fully in my upcoming book, Loving Where You Live. Here’s how the Guardian Project works:
- Choose a natural place in your neighborhood to “study” for at least a month. It could be a tree, a section of a local park, a waterfront area, a swamp, the southeast corner of your backyard, whatever. For your own convenience, choose a place that is relatively close, fairly limited in size, and easy to monitor with all five senses.
- Go there deliberately to be a “guardian” for at least one-half hour, three times a week. Establish a base where you can sit comfortably and simply observe with each of your five senses plus your brain all that is going on. Don’t let your mind wander to other things, instead, stay focused on your place. If you want to walk around the place a bit, that’s fine, but it’s usually easier to concentrate if you settle down in one spot.
- Gradually let the place reveal and inspire stories. Some of the stories you ultimately develop may be factual ones about what really happened there or what happened to you as a result of going there. Others might be more imaginative stories based on, but not limited to, the facts of the matter. The main point is to allow these stories to emerge naturally, rather than forcing yourself to come up with story ideas right away. You may even want to let a week or two of pure observations go by before you start thinking consciously about story material. The beauty of the project is that you can trust yourself, your place, and the mind’s narrative powers. If you do, stories will inevitably emerge.
- After you develop your stories, go forth and tell them, especially in your neighbor- hood! The famous American theologian and naturalist Thomas Berry wrote: “We have before us the question not simply of physical survival but of survival and development into intelligent, affectionate, and imaginative persons thoroughly enjoying the universe about us, living in profound communion with none another.” Nature- based storytelling gives us an ideal means of answering this question and, at the same time, healing the earth, the human community and ourselves.
This article originally appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 3, Spring 2002.
Jack Maguire is a storyteller based in Highland, NY. Among his many books are Creative Storytelling (Yellow Moon Press) and The Power of Personal Storytelling (Putnam). He currently performs special storytelling programs on Johnny Appleseed and John Burroughs.