A light breeze from the south had taken the edge off the overnight chill as we embarked down the slender, steep path to the valley below. Underfoot, the snow speckled earth, as yet unfrozen, beckoned caution as footfalls greeted its soapy surface. “Gentle, be gentle”, it called. “There is no rush.”
We had taken this way before, perhaps two long months ago, enveloped in the gloriously rich and vibrant colours of the change in seasons. Today it was different. Today, the uncertain sky, strewn with hues of grey, tumbled through the tangle of bare branches overhead. And yet, there was no threat, only a growing anticipation of what we would find in the short journey ahead.
As we descended deeper and deeper, I could sense the faint gurgle of water beckoning through the scraggly thicket ahead. As we took the final step downwards we were greeted by a tiny forest of icicles gingerly clinging to a branch that had fallen into the tumbled stone rivulet. I gazed at the crystals and asked myself: “What is your story?” The moment shattered as a branch fragment thudded onto the rightmost one smashing it into pieces, sending it it on its own journey beyond. Children playing.
We continued on the snaking trail and soon enough entered the old growth White Ash forest that had once graced the lowland. I say once because now these majestic trees lay strewn in chaos, ravaged by the Emerald Ash Borer. Trunks, violently snapped at their bases, big enough that I could not get my arms around, littered snow flattened marshland grasses. And I thought: “What is your story? What is your story of decimation? What is the story of the people who lived this and live now with you? What happened to you?”
The Emerald Ash Borer is a beetle which was first found in North America in the surrounds of Chicago in 2002. It rapidly made its way into Ontario, where I live, and it’s colonisation has been fueled through its devouring of the Ash forests. It is thought to have come over from pallets carrying goods from China and can kill trees in as little as one year. Yet, anyone who has the inclination could Google this and retell this almost instantly. This is how to know what happened, but it is not a story.
A story is something else. A story is what connects the experiences we have with meaning.
It was Jerome Bruner who penned: “[Story] deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience and to locate the experience in time and place.”
Stories are about people and allow us to connect with what is around us. Stories live in imagination, they are not bound by “truth”. Their purpose is not to “tell truth”. Rather, stories allow us to consider how we are connected to the world that has existed before, to the people in that world then and in our world now. The product of stories, as Walter Benjamin asserts, is not information, it is wisdom. It is not the story itself that matters, but that we put ourselves and others in the story that we create and through that begin to see possibilities that may be.
I am an educator, a teacher if you prefer. For me, such perspectives as Bruner’s and Benjamin’s have profound implications. I am interested in young people understanding the world that exists and, through this, their place in it. I am interested in them having an awareness that connections in time and space are part of what is and that they themselves are a part of the gestalt that is. I also know that information, or what we call knowledge, that is embedded in such an awareness is far more likely to be known, to be remembered, and to be understood when it is connected to something with meaning. When it is embedded in a context, when it is part of a story.
I recall, not too long ago, hearing a friend ask of rock encountered in a little stream: “What is your story?” The same question I posed as I sat in the midst of the forest.
And so, I ask of you who read this. Whenever you find yourself in a place where you may be able to ask this question, to yourselves or to others, do so. Please.