At Orion Magazine, authors William Cronon and Michael Pollan share a stimulating conversation about how language shapes our world. They cover questions such as “what is wild?”, “what is cultivated?”, and “what can these ideas teach us about our relationship to landscape?”. What I found most compelling was the last part of the conversation where they talk about the power and importance of storytelling:
Bill: Right. Ecology, storytelling, history—they all render connections visible. We make that which is invisible visible through story, and thereby reveal people’s relationships to other living things.
Michael: Stories establish canons of beauty, too. There is a role for art in changing cultural norms about what’s worth valuing. One hundred fifty years ago, certain people looked at a farm and saw what you might see if you look today at a nuclear power plant or some other degraded landscape. Part of the reason we tell stories is to create fresh value for certain landscapes, certain relationships.
Bill: And stories make possible acts of moral recognition that we might not otherwise experience. They help us see our own complicity in things we don’t ordinarily see as connected to ourselves.
Michael: Yes, exactly. That recognition can help remove the condescension in so much environmental writing by showing us that, look, these things we abhor are done in our name, and we are complicit in them, and we need to take account of them. It was Wendell Berry’s idea that the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. The big problem is the result of all the little problems in our everyday lives. That can be a guilt trip, but it doesn’t have to be. You can tell that story in ways that empower people.
Storytelling can also help us find hopeful solutions. For example, when I was writing Omnivore’s Dilemma and I went to Joel Salatin’s farm in Virginia, I learned how his grazing worked—intensive rotational grazing—and he explained to me what happens under the surface, how every time the ruminants come through and shear that pasture and reduce that leaf mass, a roughly equivalent amount of root mass is broken down and turned into soil. I learned that he takes vast amounts of food off this pastureland, without subtracting anything. To the contrary, the sun is feeding the grass, and the grass is feeding the ruminants; the ruminants are feeding us, and they’re also feeding the soil.
I suddenly saw a whole other way of conceiving our relationship to nature, that there are systems that exist, and could exist, that are non zero sum. There is a free lunch in nature: it’s solar energy, which means it isn’t necessarily true that for us to feed ourselves we have to diminish the world.
When you tell an audience that story, it fills them with hope and a sense of possibility, and that’s a function of storytelling. But, of course, it isn’t always so neat. There are questions of scale, and if you eat meat, there are problems with cattle. But I’m always looking for stories that refresh this narrative about nature that we’re so stuck in.
Bill: Messy stories invite us into politics. They also invite us to laugh at ourselves. And those things together—the ability to laugh, to experience hope, to be inspired toward action at the personal and political levels—these strike me as the work of engaged storytelling in a world we’re trying to change for the better.
Michael: I do have a lot of faith in the power of stories to do things. My greatest thrill as a writer is when I see people changed by the work, when people tell me that they’ve changed their behavior in some way because of something they’ve read.
One of the things I’ve fought very hard to do with my editors is to talk about alternatives when I talk about problems. For example, if I’m writing an incredibly dark story about industrial meat production and following a cow through the feedlot and slaughterhouse, I really want three paragraphs on the alternative to this system, which is to say, grass-finished beef. Those three paragraphs have more impact than anything else in the piece. And I still hear from ranchers that it was on the day that an article on that topic came out that we began to see the stirrings of a new market for grass-finished beef. “We no longer send them to the auction barn right away,” they tell me. “We’re finishing on grass now.”
Bill: That’s a good story about storytelling.
Michael: You have to pass through the dark wilderness of the feedlot before you can get there, but I think that there’s an appetite for hope that journalists don’t often satisfy.
I’ve met people, in their twenties especially, who really hate the model of the investigative article that tells them how messed up things are and doesn’t point to some alternative. True, the alternative you’re proposing can seem tacked on, and it can be incommensurate with the scale of the evils—but I think people want hope, a course of action they can take. This is something many journalists are missing right now. I think if our writing doesn’t include that dimension in some way, we lose people.
Bill: It strikes me that you’re pointing to a great tradition in the environmental movement, which is the power of good storytelling, going back to Rachel Carson.
Michael: She was incredibly effective rhetorically. Silent Spring is a very sophisticated piece of work.
Bill: It’s stunningly done.
Michael: It’s stunningly done. And it speaks to the power of fictional ideas like wilderness. Carson understood that, even if you’re writing about science, narrative is important. The trick I learned from her is never to talk about “neurotoxins”; instead, you tell the story of the molecule in the cell. Because there’s a narrative everywhere, even at the level of molecules.
Bill: Maybe that’s a good note for us to end on, don’t you think? The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said that “the world is made of stories, not of atoms.” When we lose track of the narratives that human beings need to suffuse their lives and the world with meaning, we forget what makes the world worth saving. Telling stories is how we remember.
Read the complete transcript here: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7811