A World Made of Stories

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Gary Snyder had a terse response to the person who asked him what to do to be a good environmentalist: “Stay put.” Of course, this creed is harder to keep than ever for many people, even the bioregionally inclined. I think about the impacts of mobility, both forced and chosen, because I think often about the importance of place: how our values, our affinities, and our loyalties are interwoven with specific landscapes.

Getting my bearings is on my mind. As a necessity of my new job with the Center for Humans and Nature as the Director of Midwest Cultures of Conservation, I’ve (once again, though gratefully) moved to a new place. This place is not totally foreign. I know prairie. I grew up in that band of tallgrass, blackjack oaks, and walnuts that spans middle America north to south. I was too young and scientifically naïve to understand this biome ecologically, but I knew it somewhere deeper down. During my move to Chicago, I dug up an old poem that I scratched down some years ago.

I dream in prairie gold
rusted soil and muddy roads
artillery thunderstorms, and a pale sky
stretched out forever on a clothesline

Being a part of a major metropolitan area offers a different view of the skyline, of course, but Chicago—“the city of Big Shoulders”—is a landscape that carries many stories. Every morning, the Purple Line (“L”) train whisks me along its tracks and deposits me near the Chicago River. Not far from where I begin my walk to work, the North Branch joins the South Branch. Opposite Merchandise Mart, on the west bank of the river, now stand some high-end condos and penthouses known as Riverbend. But other buildings, with other names that reflect the place, have preceded that one. In 1832, just a year before Chicago was incorporated as a town and the first anti-pollution ordinance was issued on the river’s behalf, a simple, log-cabin watering-hole called “Wolf Point Tavern” occupied the same bank.

The name Wolf Point Tavern caught my attention. My dissertation research focused on the symbolic, cultural, and religious importance of wolves in the United States. In this city of 2.8 million, it is hard to imagine wolves roaming the banks of the river. Yet they did, and not too long ago. The Midwest—at least, the northernmost part of Minnesota—was actually the only place gray wolves managed to maintain a presence in the continental United States following the government-sponsored eradication campaigns of the twentieth century.

Arguably more than any other species in this country, wolves—once a wilderness varmint, now a wilderness icon—dramatized a conceptual transition occurring in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries about what land was for and what our responsibilities were to this land. Animals we can’t easily control raise a lot of issues, including the fundamental one of how humans are related to the rest of the natural world. Wolves challenge us to consider how much space we’ll allocate to other creatures who don’t often share our immediate interests. When European immigrants first crossed the Atlantic and for a long time thereafter, “the howling wilderness” was an unacceptable affront to human dominance. The label “New England” tells us something about the landscape the colonists were striving to shape. Competing visions of humanity in relation to other species preceded that one and have since emerged in different forms. Perhaps by now there are a sufficient number of Americans who have “stayed put” long enough that the idea of humans as “plain members and citizens” of the natural world, as Aldo Leopold phrased it, not only makes more sense but is considered requisite to the health of our communities.

Existentialist philosophers, cribbing from Heidegger, sometimes describe the human experience as one of being thrown into the world. Think parachute (or emergence from the ground, if you prefer). We stand up, take a look around, get our bearings, then we set to work on the labor of ordering our environments, adjusting our outer landscapes to meet the demands of our perceived needs. Reality, of course, is not so individualistic or isolated as this metaphor would have it. We’ve got others helping us figure things out, communities and cultures we’re “dropped” into, conceptual frameworks and social norms that provide a scaffolding for navigating our surroundings and connecting to others.

This is where our grandest stories—the way we narrate our origins and relationships to the non-human world—play an essential cultural role. Because my academic background is in religious studies and my Ph.D. was in religion and nature, I think a good deal about how sacred narratives (and here I include cultural worldviews that function as sacred narratives) gather and bind our experiences and communities together. My research has involved teasing out the relationships between these larger stories—which sometimes go by kindred names like worldviews, myths, or cosmologies—and what people do on the ground, and more to the point, with and to the ground.

These stories may be the source of some of the most deeply rooted and deeply impacting assumptions about the world: they bind our communities together with a shared understanding of where we came from, give us a common purpose for acting, and tell us what goals we should be aiming for. Perhaps this is why American poet and political activist Muriel Rukheyser claimed, “The world is made, not of atoms, but of stories.” Atoms do matter, of course. You can hardly breathe a story. But I like the thought of a world made of stories because it suggests that there is something more going on in the world than the physical collisions of various substances on the periodic table. We give matter meaning based on how we learn to perceive it. And we learn how to perceive our worlds—many times unconsciously—through valued stories.

All peoples have stories about the natural world, tested by time. People—and entire cultures—may also cling to the explanatory power of a story even when it does not directly cohere with feedback from their environment (see, for example, Jared Diamond’s Collapse; or for the more anthropologically inclined, see Roy Rappaport’s Ecology, Meaning, and Religion). These stories are, to use the words of philosopher Mary Midgley, “the myths we live by.” But, unlike the books in a cardboard box in the attic or on the shelves of an office wall, these stories do not stay put. Nor are they simple, benign tales told to pass the time. They spill out onto the landscape where they shape and constrain the life histories of other species.

This is a half-truth; the flow is not unilateral. Our built and natural landscapes shape us, and therefore our stories, as well. If we are interested in the relationships between human ethics and effective conservation, we should always bear the following question in mind: How can we achieve greater fidelity between our cultural narratives and the ecological contours of the land, knowing that each depends on and shapes the other?

This is, I think, what Snyder had in mind when he declared “stay put”: explore your place, learn how to listen, strengthen your relationships to the denizens of that place, build something durable and adaptable. If you do, you’ll have stories worth telling, stories worth living, because they’ll be part of a larger dialogue.

Easy to say, much harder and messier to do. Simple answers about how our cultural narratives and ecological realities can be better aligned are unavailable. However, let me conclude with a final, prairie-inspired thought. Conservation-minded folks are likely aware of Wes Jackson’s work in Kansas. Wes is trying to selectively breed deep-rooted perennial grains. His goal is that our food mimics the prairie grasses that once held all of that rich topsoil firmly in place. Instead of the one-sided extraction, ongoing erosion, and chemical infusions characteristic of the vast majority of crops grown across America’s breadbasket (now corn- and soy-baskets), Wes is aiming for something close to reciprocity. Everything is held together in its mutual relations: the soil benefits, the wildlife benefits, the grain benefits, and we benefit.

It starts with the roots. Like the prairie grasses, we are seeking viable cultural roots once again. Roots that reach deep into the earth, hold it together, and mimic what worked before in a new way and for a new time. Unlike the “waving wheat” and “the fruited plain,” we have a measure of choice in this. To a certain degree, we can cultivate our own roots—as individuals, as regional communities, as cultures. We can retrace our stories, see their impacts on the landscape, and reflect on whether they are sustainable, whether our cultures are well integrated with our landscapes. With this freedom is a great responsibility: to build and nourish “cultures of conservation,” which are never a given, always an ongoing achievement.

One piece of the work at the Center for Humans and Nature is an exploration of our cultural roots, making sure that we don’t lose sight of them despite the current fads or fashions, or the dominant modes of discourse (for now) in policy, science, law, economics, and so forth. We explore these foundational roots because the cultures we build are only as enduring and fertile as the type of intellectual and moral soil from which they draw sustenance. Yet the Center doesn’t stop its inquiry there because there is also the literal soil under our feet. Our moral “roots” must be tethered to these more literal roots, must see and cultivate the interdependencies between the two.

As the Wolf Point Tavern reminded its thirsty visitors, wolves were once a part of the fabric of what would become Chicago. The city seems eternal, but we’re relative newcomers here, after all. There are stories in and under the concrete. How might we integrate our ways of living within this larger fabric of place? We might do well to look back at the living stories of this place, seeking to recover and to stitch our own stories into this place, and by doing so envision and express a new kind of story. A story worth telling, a story worth living—not just for us as humans, but for all the other creatures, who, given the choice, would like to “stay put.”

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for Humans & Nature Press Books. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of the award-winning Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Humans & Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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