More-than-Human Beings as Storytellers
May 17, 2020
As the seasons of the year at Cheakamus/Ch’iyákmesh changed, I began to see how the comings and goings of the more-than-human beings created natural rhythms in the landscape. It began with the bears preparing for winter, feasting upon the early spawners. Next, came the salmon swimming home. Then, the eagles, perched high in the branches, as they gathered to overwinter along the Cheakamus/Ch’iyákmesh river.
In these unfolding rhythms in the landscape, I could see the m-t-h beings connected together in a relationship of reciprocity. It was then that I began to realize I was witnessing a centuries-old narrative being played out right in front of me. With this, came a shift in my perception, as I suddenly understood that the landscape was full of stories. The challenge in coming to appreciate these was to know when and how to listen. So, I began seeking ways to find the narratives within the landscape and possible teachings from these relationships with the natural world.
Martin Lee Meuller (2017) describes how the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe have learned to translate the voices that emanate from their entanglement with the present into human dialect. He writes of how “the Klallam seem to receive their language from the texture of the living land itself, from gusts and blasts and howls, from splashes and spray and splatter, from growls and screeches and barks (2017, p.166).Today, our capacity to hear and understand the languages of place in this way, and the dialogues between the m-t-h communities, has certainly changed.
More recent studies have identified common terms, used to describe the natural world, that are now beginning to lose their significance as they make their way out of children’s dictionaries, in favour of more technological words. Language such as bluebell, acorn, buttercup, and kingfisher, are now being replaced with wifi and cut and paste. Juxtaposed against the living, moving and breathing languages of Indigenous groups, such as the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, it is easy to see how our language is becoming increasingly denaturalized, as it separates itself from our natural world, alongside our disconnection to the landscapes around us. I wonder what it might take to relearn a language of place in a way that is “intimately linked to and motivated by the immediate physical and cultural landscape.” (Carbaugh, 1999, p.257)
What is the purpose of language? Should it be used to objectify the world we live in or deepen our connection to it? As I explored Gillian Judson’s work around Imagination Ecological Education, I started to consider the ways language can be used to deepen our connection to, and engage our imaginations with, place. As I witnessed the salmon building redds, and swim to their spawning grounds, or as their tails and bodies flexed back and forth while they moved upstream over fallen logs, I could see the salmon modelling the very heroic qualities Judson refers to. Generosity, hard work, life-giving, resilience, responsibility, bravery, adaptability, patience, perseverance, sense of community, selflessness, and strength. (http://ierg.ca/teacher-resources/teacher-tips/ )
I began to understand how courageous and heroic salmon are. Not only had they undertaken perilous journeys across the Pacific Ocean back to their spawning grounds, but they had become symbols of perseverance, enduring extreme tiredness and starvation, until, at last, exhausted, they reached the upper spawning channels where they would selflessly give their lives for their young. Describing the salmon in this way gave them agency and allowed the students to engage with the landscape through their imaginations while deepening their ecological understanding of place.
There are many authors attempting to write in ways that engage our imaginations by somatic narrative which has the power to ignite a perceptual awareness and deepen understanding of place. Meuller (2017), for example, writes in both an animated and sensuous way that brings the experience of the salmon fry to life.
She writhed her tiny body from between the pebbles, and she kicked and kicked, and she wriggled from the river bottom and up to the water’s edge, stayed there just as long as necessary, and then hurried back again. It was treacherous but inevitable. She had consumed nearly all that was left in her yolk sac. It was either take the risk or starve to death. It was the first time she felt that ravenous appetite, that single-minded focus on food. She was hungry, and so she had to go to the boundary of her known world. When she got there, she opened her tiny mouth, and she inhaled a deep gulp of air. The air gushed into her, and she felt its small turbulences gather within and congregate down along her upper back. She became buoyant. A breath of air, and she was weightless, able to fly in water. She was ready to hunt! Her first true migration, her first metamorphosis. (p.135)
In a time of Covid-19, as we all find ourselves confined to a place, I continue to search for the narratives around me.
What language presents itself? What stories are present?
I am lucky enough to watch as the birds build their nests and the salmon berries ripen, and I am discovering many magical narratives with the change and energy of spring. I hope you too can find solace in the stories of the places around you during these challenging times and continue to discover new ways to deepen your connection to this beautiful land we call home.
Recommendations for Educators:
- Invite students into relation with the places they are in by going out into them and actively searching for the stories being created by the natural rhythms in the world around them. "The Goodness of Rain", by Ann Pelo, offers a wonderful structure to follow during time outside, while also helping students develop an ecological identity.
- Walk the land
- Practice silence
- Learn the names
- Embrace sensuality
- Explore new perspectives
- Create stories
- Make rituals
2. While in place, explore the following place-based inquiry questions, inspired by Aldo Leopold, as an entry point to begin searching for stories.
What has happened here? What is happening here? What should happen here?
3. Seek out, and come to know, the Indigenous stories of your place. Use resources such as: http://squamishatlas.com/ What can these stories and place names teach us of what it means to dwell in the place we are in?
Carbaugh, D. (1999). “Just listen”: “Listening” and landscape among the blackfeet, Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports), 63:3, 250-270,
Meuller, L. (2017) Being Salmon, Being Human : Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild United States of America White River Junction: Vermont. Chelsea Green Publishing