The role of story and myth in our troubled times

(This piece was written for and originally published at – an organisation I work with developing ecosystem-based agriculture.)

by-the-fire-storytellingA Bosnian man who’d moved to the USA after the war wrote of all the difficulties he had had in adapting to a new culture. There were things that he just couldn’t understand like why Americans would leave the house with wet hair, when everyone knows that if you go outside with wet hair it gives you encephalitis! My boyfriend tells me this story with a certain level of self deprecation as we walk barefoot on the beach. I’ve been laughing at him for worrying about me getting cold feet after having had the flu. “I think it’s good for me!” I protest, but then he is Spanish, and in Spain it seems you can’t even go to the toilet in the night barefoot and not be told off. God forbid you walk down the street with no shoes, unless you seek disapproving looks from the Señoras that pass by. But then my boyfriend recalls when he was a child many people still could not afford shoes following the Spanish civil war and had to go barefoot.

The reasons we believe what we believe run deep, often so deep in the past we have no access to the original reasons why. The Bollywood director Shekhar Karpur once said “we are the stories we tell ourselves” and indeed societies and cultures are constructed almost entirely upon stories. Of course there are other powerful forces at work, but what the general populous buys into are stories. 

For example, why does chemical agriculture remain the dominant food growing method in the world? Well, there are number of commonly held beliefs, stories that are told to uphold this idea. The dominant one being that we have no other option, that we couldn’t possibly produce enough food any other way. I have, until recently, struggled greatly with this narrative. It made me feel I was being elitist wanting to eat organic food and promote organic agriculture in the world. Why should I eat food free of chemicals when millions can’t afford to? And how are we going to feed the world otherwise? But I have always had an instinct that this story we are living by just isn’t true.

Then I met Leontino Balbo, a Brazilian farmer who grows 1/3 of the worlds organic sugar. He has spent 30 years figuring out how to do so without chemicals, without burning the cane and with the help of all the living systems and organisms within nature. As a result his sugar estates now yield 24% more than the surrounding conventionally grown sugar. This alone is impressive, but it is just the start. The health of the water cycle on the land has returned, the streams from the farm run clear into the muddy rivers and new springs and water courses have arisen which have been planted with trees to protect them. Perhaps most exciting of all is the return of biodiversity to the farm.

Meeting Leontino has allowed me to believe in what deep down I already knew, that working with nature not against her, holds the solutions for the big problems facing humanity. And it is here that we might dive a little deeper into the role of stories. 

Storytelling is as old as humans themselves, telling each other tales around the fire at night is something humans always did until relatively recent times. But were these just tales told in order to entertain and hold oral histories? Well yes, but I believe they went much further than that. Storyteller Martin Shaw describes ‘myth’ as “the language in which the world thinks.” A strange concept to the modern scientific mind to whom myth has come to mean an untruth. For animist cultures, the idea that myth is the language that lies between all things is not strange at all. For they know how to listen to the subtle influxes that are available to those who are tuned in.

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