I have recently returned from the Michna Palace in Prague where I was at an inter-disciplinary conference on Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative. It was a purposefully small group, by conference standards – perhaps 80 at most and all delegates at some point were speakers, presenting their ‘stories’ or research from a variety of different contexts. We had social workers, architects, educationalists, therapists and photographers amongst others, who discussed the use of stories, storytelling and story gathering from these varied perspectives.
It’s the first inter-disciplinary conference that I have attended and the mix of people brought a richness to the discussions which followed, helping me to form new ideas and connections that might not otherwise have occurred to me. As well as being inter-disciplinary, the organizers banned power point, citing the never-ending text filled slides as the reason why. So it surprised me, that instead of finding some other creative way to impart research about stories, a large number of the delegates decided to read out their papers, verbatim. It seems paradoxical, that those who have embraced the art form of story telling, were not able to create stories of their own research. If I wanted to read someone’s paper, I could have downloaded it from the conference website without leaving the comfort of my own home. I had a go with a Prezi and you can access it here although you’ll need to read the paper here, to make sense of it.
Of course not all of the delegates fell into this category. There were some truly excellent performances – not least from a Suchitra Mathur from India who discussed the portrayal of men and women in Bollywood Film or the presentation on Andrei Bitov, by Marina von Hirsch about how the Pushkin drafts have been recited to an accompaniment of improvised jazz. We heard 2 minutes of this and the result was really powerful. Although hard to put into words – there was a deep resonance with something almost primeval – perhaps because the focus for me was on the sound as I don’t speak Russian. It reminded me of a Radio 4 programme, which I listened to on the way to the airport, presented by Robert Winston on the Science of Music, where he suggests that our first language as cavemen was sound or music, rather than words.
Later that afternoon, another presenter, Joanna Coleman suggested in her presentation on the Role of Fairy Tales in Environmental Education, that actually our first language, before sound, was body movement. Her presentation put forward the often, alternative Western view that we humans are linked with animals, communicating through mind, spirit and movement as well as sometimes sound. Giving examples from American Indians, she argues that it would do us well to reconnect with this notion. She convinces us to,
put aside our human voices and speak in the tongues of the wild world, or take off our skins and enter the fur of the forest-dwellers. As the impending environmental crisis urges us towards a change of thought and heart, we are confronted with a paradox; how is it that we empathize, to a large extent, only with our own species, when our tales remain those in which courtesy to other species is, according to Marie Louise von Franz, the only consistent moral imperative?
Here she is talking of the role of fairy tales and with delegates from around the world, many shared reflections from their own cultures – particularly from India and South Africa.
And it made me reflect on how I have changed since we have had our house in Mpumulanga, where we can open the door and a lion might be walking past or hyena might circle us a night whilst we cook outside on the campfire. I have always been interested in nature and have felt ‘in touch’ with the natural world, but the intensity and relevance of this has increased ten fold since we’ve had our house. I listen for the oxpeckers flying overhead, warning us of potential danger, the impala bark telling us a predator is close by or when the frogs stop croaking, suggesting that a leopard is walking past. And I listen to the animals talking to each other, the honey guide and honey badger, the dwarf mongooses and the hornbills and I wonder, how do we attempt to join in the communication with these animals and birds? What do we give them in return for what they give us? Perhaps a sanctuary away from those who choose not to listen, who have thrown away their connection to the wild, those who have lost the story of who they really are.
Coleman, J. (2013) Storytelling and Harmonious Dwelling: The Role of Fairy Tales in Environmental Education Available from http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/probing-the-boundaries/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Coleman.pdf last accessed 23rd May 2013