The Art of Storying: A Naturalist’s Perspective
October 25, 2022
In June, I came to Aspen Center for Environmental Studies with wide eyes, ambitious motives, and a heart ablaze. I was set on making an impression on the influential demographic that moves through this valley. I had visions of preaching the lifestyle changes that I see as imperative amidst a changing climate. Maybe I could get people fired up about the need for a shift toward smaller-scale agriculture practices. Perhaps I could reveal a thing or two about the severity of the water crisis in the Western U.S. Better yet – maybe I could talk to a private jet owner about the impacts of their indulgent mode of transportation. I came here ignited with purpose. I was oriented towards using the disparity I’ve been holding around environmental concerns to be of consequence.
This, I have found, was a rather naive sentiment. Though I feel certain I have influenced the public’s experience in valuing the natural world, it has certainly not been through a linear avenue of communication. Instead, I learned the importance of being a bridge between the lessons I have personally received from nature and the hearts of the people I interact with every day. This can be achieved through deliberate storytelling.
Storytelling is the oldest form of education, yet it cannot be studied in a traditional academic framework. It is learned through the assimilation of experience. It draws from the powers of memory and bleeds into the art of image making, that is- imagination. The art of storytelling allows us to see what’s possible.
A good story grows from the inside and expands outward. It is rooted in the concentration of a lived experience. The humus of stories comes from a life lived with intentionality, heritage, and hard work. As storyteller and muse, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés states, “Story cannot grow to any depth in an enthusiastic but non-committed mind, nor can it live in gregarious but shallow environments. Story, in every possible way, thrives only on work – intellectual, spiritual, familial, physical, and integral.” A good story is one that is your own, that you have worked for, and is thus rightfully yours to share. As a naturalist, my relationship with the practice of storytelling is under constant development as I move through the world and taste the flavors of different biomes.
I’ve learned that storytelling’s potency comes from an understanding of discretion. When and how one chooses to share a piece of oneself radically shifts the capacity for it to be meaningfully received. The ability to intuit your audience and be discreet about their capacity to receive your stories, out of respect for the work that went into a story’s cultivation, creates a meaningful exchange. The craft of storytelling boils down to what not to do. This separates stories from entertainment and allows appropriately weighted discourse to take place.
Wild Blue Flax on Aspen Mountain. Photo by Madeline Werner.
When we take our shoes off and walk openly upon the land, we learn to pay attention to the intricacies and subtle lessons that surround us. This is exactly what our mentor, Jim Kravitz, taught us summer Naturalists when he gave us the opportunity to walk barefoot across a piece of land near Ashcroft, something that was new for many of us. Jim, with a deep knowledge of the value of storytelling, made a space for us to commune with our own interpersonal relationships of creating a memory that is story-worthy. The experience held disconcert, novelty, and eloquence. It was the beginning of a story being written.
It is in our own participation with nature that we come to understand what a story is. Story-making comes out of our lived experiences that become integrated into our voices over many years. When we delve into the world of storytelling – it’s imperative to distinguish the stories that are ours to tell from those that belong to others.
The sharing of stories outside of our learned experience or heritage is akin to drinking another man’s medicine. The stories of indigenous people hold power in their intrigue and can teach us what is possible. However, they should only act as examples.
We must create and find our own stories, our own myths, with symbols that will bind us to the world as we see and experience it. As we come to know ourselves, we can look for our own stories embedded in the landscape, trust our instincts, and begin to travel with awareness of our own ignorance. In doing so, we will better know how to live our lives in the midst of change.
Naturalists can talk to people for hours on end about the specific adaptations of an aspen tree or the unique ecology of a keystone species. We get to answer questions about wolf reintroduction, edible plants, and local history. All of this is a phenomenal part of the job. However, spewing facts certainly does not leave an inspiring impression on the people we interact with. What they will remember will not be the Latin name for mountain yarrow or the elevation of Maroon Peak. What people will remember is the feeling and intrigue they receive from a storyteller’s undeniable passion that moves through their storyline.
There is immense value in listening to the nods of smooth brome and the circular dance of the wild sunflower. In coming to know my own stories in relation to the natural world, I have been awakened to my surroundings and have witnessed the inspiration of observance. Every species and ecological phenomenon has stories to tell, and I am fortunate enough to be a messenger to others of my own experience with them. If an individual is receptive to this exchange – I have done what I came here to do. That is, to inspire observance of and appreciation for the natural world.
Through this process of intentional sharing, I have come to understand that the craft of storytelling is a profound tool in the toolbox of a passionate environmentalist with a desire to inspire positive change. It welcomes new perspectives and inspires voluntary lifestyle shifts that come from within an individual. After all, desire is the leading player in orienting our reality. Sustainable change is almost never accomplished through direct transmutation of a concept, but rather through inspiring the desire to lead a more environmentally conscious life.
The primary differences between ourselves and the people we interact with are the stories we tell and the way that we walk upon the earth. By sharing stories, we fill in the space that separates us from one another. We eliminate apathy and see people for their true nature. We cultivate a deeper sense of authentic relating and, ideally, rub off a little bit of our passion for the preservation of the world.
So, I call unto the pattern seers, intentional livers, nature listeners, and heart bridgers – to take hold of your own experiences, integrate them into your life, and cultivate the stories that tie you to a place and, in turn, to others.
And may we never grow too old or weary for the beauty of a well-told story.
-Madeline Werner, Summer & Winter Naturalist