The narrative landscape

Mau Piailug was not yet five years old when he first felt the pull of the Pacific Ocean: he was splashing in one of the rocky tide pools, of which there were so many on Satawal. Yet Satawal was only a tiny coral island among many others in Micronesia. His grandfather Raangipi, later his father Orranipui, taught him the art of traditional navigation, which was almost extinct in much of Oceania. Mau, whose name means “the strong one,” went through the Pwo ceremony at eighteen, where he was initiated as a master navigator, held in the highest esteem in Polynesian culture.
On 1. In May 1976, Mau boarded the Hōkule’a in the small harbor of Honolua, Hawaii, for its maiden voyage, a 19-meter-long two-masted sailing canoe of traditional Polynesian design. The crew had no charts, no compass, and no other technical aids on board for navigation; they had only mau. A master navigator needed no aids, for he understood the language of the ocean.
The shapes of the clouds and the peculiarities of the swell that could be seen in the distance and felt in the hull of the boat were enough for him and at night the stars showed him the way. Day and night, through heat and storms, Mau navigated the open sea. On the 4. June, after 35 days at sea, they arrived at the destination port of Pape’ete – in 4.Tahiti, 200 km away. Half the population had gathered there, 17.000 people welcomed the crew to the Hōkule’a-and with it, the resurrection of a great cultural heritage. For it was voyaging canoes like this one that people used in the 11. The first thing he knew was that in the sixteenth century they must have left Tahiti to colonize Hawaii.

The telling landscape

This incident provides a very impressive example of what can be imagined by a “narrative landscape”. Admittedly, the term “landscape” may seem a bit strange in connection with the open sea. But apart from that, most of us would only see water, sky and clouds on the open sea anyway and feel the ups and downs of the swells. Of course, Mau saw and felt the same, but unlike us, he received additional (apparently very precise) information with these impressions. How can this be?

First, Mau had received appropriate training and had the knowledge, skills, and years of experience in wave navigation.
Second, Mau was endowed with a very distinct and well-trained perception.
Thirdly, and this is a crucial point, he accepted that the sea spoke to him.

In this context, it is important to note that members of oral indigenous communities have a fundamentally different understanding of “language” than does linguistics.
In modern Western civilization, a very anthropocentric worldview prevails. There is, for example, a clear separation between man and nature, and consequently “language” is considered a human communication skill. This is not the case in the earth-based philosophies of indigenous peoples. Here, humans are only one of many expressions of nature and, consequently, everything else in nature, in addition to humans, has some capacity for expression, a “language”.
Cultural anthropologist David Abram puts it this way:

“The narratives of such cultures thus testify to the unique power of particular bioregions and to how particular habitats appeal to the human community in each of their own ways. However, such narratives often provide clues to specific sites within these larger regions. In the world of orally shaped, indigenous peoples, narratives that conceal where these events took place can already be considered powerless and ineffective.
The unique magic of a place becomes visible in the events that take place there and in what happens to oneself or to others in the environment of that place. To tell about such events always implies to tell about the specific power of those places and to participate in their expressiveness. The songs belonging to a site are united by a common style and a rhythm corresponding to the pulse of the place, attuned to the way things tend to happen there […].
Each place has its own dynamics and patterns of movement, and these patterns engage and connect the senses in particular ways and evoke different moods or states of consciousness, so that in scriptless oral cultures it is rightly said that each place has its own mind, its own personality, its own intelligence.”

Without places no orientation

Aside from the practical utility of navigation, however, history also provides a good example of how intense people’s connection can be to the place or region in which they live. And it is precisely this quality of connection that seems to have been largely lost to our contemporary way of life.
In any case, in a globalized, digitized, highly mobile world, places with their idiosyncrasies hardly matter at all. This is disastrous, because digitization and artificial intelligence really don’t need a specific location. Humans, on the other hand, do.
Computers work just as well on the moon or in orbit as they do on earth. People do not.

A basic knowledge of ecological relationships and an understanding of the consequences of our visions, plans and actions for the earth, which we obviously need to live despite all the technology, should be very beneficial to our survival.

Such an understanding is largely shaped by stories and by the way we tell those stories.
When, for example, the German government declares “We want to help set international standards and better manage global tasks through digital innovations” and this strategy is presented as “without alternative”, the story is this. If in the future our children are forced to walk around with VR glasses in school “so that they are better equipped for the challenges of the future”, this is about the way this story is told.

Physical places or anything at all, with which we could connect ourselves, do not play a role in it, however, and for the clarification and appreciation of ecological connections there are undoubtedly other (we believe: more sensible) approaches, which do not need any “virtual reality” at all. And that’s both about the stories and the way we want to tell them.

Other ways of looking at the earth

“Can it be that that view of the world that is suggested to us while using a GPS navigation profoundly shapes our idea of what the earth should be?”, asks geographer Stefan Sylla in issue 53 of Oya magazine, and goes on to reflect: “Numerous examples of indigenous peoples show us that there are ways of looking at the earth that are based on a high degree of conscious connection with the places they tell about. Today, however, when I look at Polynesian descriptions of ocean currents several thousand years old, or Australian Aboriginal songlines, or painted landscape narratives of North American First Nations people, they seem inaccessible to me, because I don’t know the stories and don’t possess the eyes necessary to understand the world from these perspectives and discover the deep knowledge that lies hidden in them.”
Indeed, our strangely placeless stories of technology startlingly quickly lose their radiance when we become familiar with some of the problem-solving strategies of various indigenous peoples – those cultures whose members had a very intense connection to their fellow world, resp. Have. To stay close to the examples Sylla gave:

The nautical art of the Polynesians (Oezania)

The navigator is highly respected in the Polynesian culture. The art of navigation is a well-kept secret that will be passed on to the next generation in a process lasting several years. While we use technical aids such as nautical charts, compasses, or satellite navigation to navigate at sea, a trained, experienced indigenous navigator can actually orient himself based on the swell alone!

During training, so-called staff charts are used to prepare for the trips, the staffs of which indicate the swells around the islands, e.g. as they are bent, deflected or reflected by the islands. Choppiness (the clash of different swells) creates areas of choppy seas that are unique and unchanging to a particular area, like a fingerprint. Although they are often covered by local winds and storms, they are never completely obscured. The routes then usually did not lead to the destination in a straight line, but along the ridges of two intersecting swells.

The Songlines of the Aboriginals (Australia)

The cultures of the different aboriginal peoples are probably the oldest still existing human cultures. The earliest Australian finds are dated to an age of 40.000 to 60.000 years estimated. With rudimentary tools (mainly digging stick, boomerang and hunting spear), indigenous cultures in the inhospitably hot and dry outback have maintained an almost unbelievable durability (only the settlement by the British brought them into great distress).

According to the creation stories of these cultures, the entire continent is crisscrossed by so-called “songlines” (dream paths) where, in the Dreamtime, ancestral beings “first awoke from their slumber below the earth’s surface and began to sing their way across the landscape in search of food, shelter, and companionship,” as Abram describes.
Yet dream time is not the past, but an entirely different kind of time, “hidden beyond or even within the obvious, manifest presence of the landscape. It is a magical temporality in which the forces of the world around us once found their place and took on the visible forms through which they are still familiar to us today. It is a time […] that still exists and continues to exist beneath the surface of our waking consciousness.”

Since the ancestral beings “sang” the names of things and places to the land as they migrated, a songline is something like a “sound track” that traverses the land. Abram describes this as “an extended epic chant whose stanzas tell of the many adventures of ancestral life and how once the many places along the path came to be”.

A songline always has the same basic melody and the different geographical sections are found in the form of different verses. These, in turn, contain myriad other information in addition to the aural description of the topography, such as e.g. about which medicinal plants, water sources or sleeping places can be found on the respective section and even what rules of conduct are appropriate in the area through which the songline runs. This knowledge has been preserved and passed down for thousands of years. Occasionally, the members of the clan of a songline meet at a certain place and study the entire song cycle of all sections together.

The ‘Agodzaahi’ Stories of the Apaches (North America)

Place names play a very important role among the Apache peoples who live in the American Southwest (Arizona). It is not simply a name like e.g. “Berlin,” but rather around entire sentences whose visual descriptions, as concise as they are precise, bring the place to life in the mind’s eye. For example, a place name might be “Tall cottonwoods spread their branches here and there” or “Water streams down a step sequence of flat rocks”. The Apaches love such place names and can recite whole chains of them. By saying the names, they feel transported to the place in question, and chaining the place names together is, in a sense, a “journey in the spirit,” much like reciting a songline among Aboriginals.

Furthermore, in Apache culture, the landscape is a regular authority that regulates people’s behavior. Abram describes, “The moral authority of the landscape – that power of the land to ensure mindfulness and respect in the community – is transmitted through a whole genre of stories that are regularly told in the village.”These short stories (‘agodzaahi: that which happened) each begin and end with a place name and describe incidents involving people whose disregard for the rules of conduct or tribal morality brought them severe misfortune. “Today, such stories are recited whenever someone in the community violates tribal mores. If the ‘Agodzaahi story is told correctly, it acts as a rehabilitative measure on this offense. […] In this unique form of communal sanctioning, a topographical location becomes a guarantor of behavioral correction, a visible presence that reminds one of past missteps and encourages more mindfulness in the future. Through the telling of an ‘Agodzaahi story, an almost familial bond is forged between the people targeted by the story and particular places or natural landmarks. […]
For an oral culture, a particular place in the landscape is never merely a passive or inert background to the human events that occur there. The place is an active participant in these events. Because of the underlying and encompassing presence of the place, it may even be experienced as the source, the original force that gives expression through the various events that unfold there.”

These three examples are far away from Central Europe, both geographically and culturally. We do not want to glorify foreign cultures or criticize technology in general. We want to draw attention to the way we in Central Europe live our culture and use our technology. We also want to make clear the stories that lead to this way of life and show that we can just as well tell others:

The sound of the cold (Daniel)

I am a winter child, born in February. Maybe it was because I loved the cold when I was a little boy. Freezing cold also meant bright sunshine, and besides, I could sled around on the frozen garden pond or watch the birds at the bird feeder, which never came so close in summer. I always knew when the frost was coming, because the cold had a certain sound in our house. In the evening, after brushing my teeth, when I was supposed to be going to bed, I would sneak back through the porch, unlock the front door, stand at the top of the stairs, and listen out into the dark, cold air. At night the sounds carry differently than during the day and when I stood there and heard the distant, dull roar of the highway, I knew that now the frost was coming.
This was simply because in our area the clouds and with them the mild and damp weather almost always came from the west and the dry cold, which I loved so much, always came from the east. So when I heard the roar of the highway that ran through the fields to the east of our village, I could be sure that the frost would come in the night.
Of course, as a child I could not have described this process of perception. Moreover, I only became aware of it much later, namely when I lived somewhere else where there was neither a landing nor a highway.

The language of the trees (Kathinka)

Even as a child I was fascinated by nature, I wanted to ride like the Indians on naked horseback, to sleep outside and to feel dewy grass or sun-warmed stones under my feet. At the appropriate age I took part in an initiation rite in the Black Forest according to Indian tradition. This was pretty much how I dreamed it would be: it smelled like a fire, there were teepees in the meadows, there was good food, and we were outside all the time. For all the enthusiasm I brought with me, I was nevertheless suddenly faced with a major challenge:
We were sent off with a red ribbon, told to let a tree find us and tie the ribbon to it with a wish. And every time we took something from a tree, a branch, a few leaves, we should first ask and wait for the answer, and then give thanks.
I felt fear and uncertainty rising in me: How am I supposed to know if it’s right? How does a tree choose me? How does a tree answer? What if I get the tree wrong? All the questions I didn’t have the answers to and all the questions I didn’t dare to ask because no one else did. So I just ran. I didn’t know whether I felt something or whether I was just imagining it, sometimes perhaps deliberately deciding that the tree had said “no” even though I had no idea at all.
For me, these were the first tentative attempts at understanding and speaking a foreign language. Slowly, over many years, I began to develop a sense for places, for trees – and learned to trust that sense.

Beyond words

These stories may not be as impressive as those of the master navigator Mau, but they are about the same thing: the sensory experience of our surroundings – which is hardly possible with our modern lifestyle today. In any case, the increasing speed of our lives distances us further and further from the patterns and rhythms of nature. What we are left with is the freedom to live “unfashionably” on occasion. This doesn’t sound very comfortable, but it opens up a chance for us to feel the “pulse” of the earth again, as described by British mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw in an interview for Oya magazine:

“When an animal sends out a call, an echo is returned that can give even a nearly blind creature a sense of its surroundings. This is exactly what the earth has always done. She sends out a pulse – and waits for an echo. Storytellers are the ones who can hear and respond to this call: Perhaps the call reaches an Inuit fisherman crouching by an ice hole, maybe a hiker on a country lane in Wales, or a woman taking advantage of the early morning summer sun to garden. We can listen to this pulse for how we should live.”

If we want to convey more than words in our stories, that is, if we want to “really” learn storytelling, then we should address the way of listening. What Shaw describes is a very deep kind of listening and it is the foundation of storytelling.
When we learn to listen in this way, we accept that everything in nature has expressive capacity, whether rivers or clouds, rocks or plants, people or animals. If we learn to listen like this, in time our language will change. We will develop ways to literally evoke the changes we want to see in the challenges of the 21st century. Dreaming of the 21st century.

Storytelling in times of change

Through applied storytelling, we support people in awakening connectedness and creativity in their environments. We will collect and tell stories from a wide variety of cultures based on sustainable ways of thinking and living, each seeking its own ways, appropriate to local culture, to shape the interrelationships among people, places, and narratives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *