Four years ago when I was researching Manatee Baby in the Colombian Amazon, I stayed with a remarkable woman, Sarita Kendal, founder of the conservation organisation Natutama. Sarita and her co workers had changed a community from one that was increasingly exploiting the resources of the river without thought, to one behaving sustainably. Fisherman who had hunted manatees for years, stopped, aware that the animals were declining and that they wanted their grandchildren to be able to see the river as it had been in their youth. And once they had begun to see their small, remote village on the river, as part of a bigger world, where nature was besieged, they began thinking about other species too, from the big, slow growing fish to the trees along the banks.
All of that was achieved through stories, telling and listening. Sarita’s weapons in her struggle to save the endangered Amazonian manatee, were coffee, biscuits and a big homely kitchen table where people could sit and talk. She listened to the fishermen talk about their lives, and about the manatees, and in exchange, she told them the stories she knew about how slowly the manatees breed, how they had entirely disappeared from other stretches of the river. There were no accusations or recriminations, but the two story streams blended, and the fisherman came up with a new narrative on their own and a new identity for themselves, as guardians of the river’s biodiversity. They began to tell older stories too, the traditional stories of the indigenous people of that part of the Amazon, that encourage sustainable use of natural resources and connect humans to animal and plant species, as fellow beings.
The stories we tell shape us. They shape what we do and how we think of ourselves. And what we do and how we think of ourselves, need to change. The natural world is not an optional add on to our getting and spending world, it is our world, our life support system and our spirit sustaining system. Nature isn’t other, but everything. Biodiversity isn’t some obscure scientific concept but the miraculous net that holds us, and all life above the abyss of oblivion.
How do we change our stories? One way is to change the kinds of characters that take centre stage. The wonderful Grayson Perry suggests in his book The Descent Of Man that our concept of masculinity, that of the archetypal alpha male solving everything with force, is wrecking the world and men with it. Not a lot to be said about that except ‘yes, that’s right.’ I’m not suggesting we replace strong characters with limp ones who can’t make a decision to save their own, or anyone else life. What I’m suggesting is a different kind of strength – the strength to beat force with guile and intelligence, the strength to turn from a path that leads to conflict before it gets to fisticuffs, to win through communication. Some people would label this type of hero as heroine. But that kind of ‘men do this and women do that’ thinking is a part of what got us into this mess. Hero should be a gender free word.
We need heroes of all different kinds, and heroes who collaborate, who build strength cooperatively. We are too used to stories of ‘one man against the odds’ , too used to dividing the world with unhelpful duality, male /female, strong /weak, clever /stupid. Real heroes, real humans are a mixture, each one a unique cocktail of attributes and failings, defying any kind of simple label.
Plots too are stuck in a simplistic a rut…sad to happy, everything wrong to everything right, the chosen one with special powers triumphing over all.The real world is more complex and more compromising. There is no happy every after, and happiness is a transient state anyway. What there is, is growth and change and the confidence to delight in those things, to share them and snatch happiness while we can. The real joy of being human, the real core of our nature, is more complicated, more subtle and more wonderful than the plot of an action movie can encompass!
Nature is complex, species are infinitely connected and interdependent, growth and change are integral to all natural systems. Let’s tell some stories that reflect that and our place in it And if intelligence and communication are the attributes of our new protagonists, then perhaps the best 21st century super heroes are storytellers?