The meaning and use of shared stories about our personal connections with nature

by Erlene Woollard

As Suzuki Elders for the Environment, we often think and debate about how our roles and actions can be most useful in helping to provide positive social change. We ask ourselves how we might make our stories useful and even essential to providing encouraging pathways for younger people and help them to manoeuvre the natural and political environments they will inherit from us. We, in turn, rely on each other and the many “others” we are engaged with for encouragement and guidance. Scholars and “doers” happily share their wisdom and observations and offer to communicate to us by “quotable” quotes that we can choose to enhance our journeys through this complex business of living well but lightly on the earth.

I want to share some of those quotes that I have sought or stumbled upon recently, starting with one by Nancy Lubin:

“In the long run, numbers numb, jargon jars, and nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart. If you really want to connect with our audience, give them what they’re waiting for, what we are always waiting for. Tell them stories.”

Taking this to heart, more than thirty Elders have recently written stories and this project is described in other documents. Ten of these Suzuki Elders are now working with a group of high school students who have shown more than a passing interest in our stories. We are seeking to capture the essence of the stories through conversations, planning meetings, interviews and an upcoming video to further capture this work.

This has led me to look back to the work of Marshall Ganz whose tools of telling stories (of me, we, now) has been a guide for communication staff at the David Suzuki Foundation who have thus guided our SE process. I note that Ganz’s work was inspired by Alexis de Toqueville’s quote:

“In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.”

On seeing this, things fell into place for me as I realized this important act of combining is often missed. When we look upon our stories as being an important part of a community seeking to connect as a system devoted to social justice and positive change it becomes more obvious how our stories can help.

The current system has its own storyline perhaps best captured by poet and philosopher Wendell Berry:

“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and less wasteful.”

This quote can help us define a way to change current public discourse from consumption, violence, death and jobs at all costs to a more balanced discourse of respect and love of a more natural life where we can combine leadership, inclusive discourse, thoughtful change and humanity while building community.

In order to offer encouragement in these times, when calls for civil disobedience seem our only resource, our stories may offer positive actions to complement them. This leads me to reflect on the life of Henry David Thoreau, the American guru on civil disobedience and his essays about his life, actions and observations.

His quotes that resonated (among others) were the following:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” 

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” 

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” 

Our stories and any other actions we choose to take as elders have the potential to encourage a better public discourse to inspire ourselves and others to make sure our song for a healthy world is sung loudly and clearly, long before we die.

This reflection linked back to Ganz’s concept of “combining” and led me to seek a better understanding of Ubuntu, a South African philosophy translated broadly as a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity. Molefe offers two maxims that have become popular definitions for ubuntu. The first is the Mbitian maxim:

 “I am because you are and since we are, therefore, I am”.

The second is the Nguni aphorism (in English)

 “a person is a person through other persons”

…..and suggests that one’s relationships with others are the foundations of one’s personhood or humanity.

In this completion of a circle I am led back to de Toqueville, then Ganz, then to the Suzuki Foundation and ourselves and our work with the community and those younger than ourselves. My passionate hope is that if we can keep this circle vibrant, the world will benefit from our work in a way yet to be determined…….

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