“Everything is held together with stories…That is all that is holding
us together, stories and compassion.”
The late Australian eco-feminist, Val Plumwood, was uneasily returning from exploring crocodile-infested waters of the East Alligator River system in the Northern Territory of Australia, when the floating stick in front of her grew beautiful gold-flecked eyes that ‘glinted with interest’ before launching the first great blow at her frail canoe.
Abruptly she felt her status undergo a profound shift—from person with a defining and unique life narrative stretching consolingly behind and before her, to prey. She managed to leap towards a low-hanging branch but before she could haul herself high enough, great-toothed jaws burst from the water and grabbed her in red-hot pincer grip before whirling her underwater in the first of many death-rolls.
She finally managed to survive the massive injury she sustained in repeat attacks by the huge crocodile, and was eventually rescued back into a sense of being a self in possession of a continuing story “from the inside,” as she put it. But she was transformed by her searing glimpse as if “from the outside” of an initially alien, incomprehensible world in which the narrative of self was abruptly rendered profoundly irrelevant.
Yet even such a vertiginous realization of “no-story” is immediately recuperated into a profound moment in a story that enters the repository of stories we tell ourselves in order to tell us ourselves. Who are we? What is this, where we find ourselves? Imagination has a vital role to play in the great story of braving up into reality.
Likewise the Buddha’s great moment of self-extinction was not the end of story. Instead, it ignited a story powerful enough to endure for 2,500 years. A story of waking up, and then walking and teaching the path of waking up, itself creates a way—an enduring songline you might say—for human beings to tend and walk into real depth of clarity in a precious human life.
In one sense the story of yielding the self to the fullness of the unknown by degree in meditation is significantly different from the story of a complex human being abruptly facing the fact of becoming mere meat for a giant saurian! And yet both point to the great awakening shock of dropping (or having to drop) the endless opinions generated by a sense of self that is fundamentally separate from its circumstances and frequently up in arms against them.
In both, the self-talk that creates a confining story-line abruptly fell away to reveal a reality emptied of all self-serving distinctions. While the Buddha willingly offered himself to such merciful self-extinction, Val Plumwood had less choice in the matter. Nevertheless, over the next twenty-three years until her death she set about turning her profound shock of alienation from a trusted narrative of self into a healing crisis of consciousness—one that ushered her into a far deeper understanding of ecological wholeness and species equality.
Stories hold us together, yes, and they also hold us in our letting go.
Once upon a time…
Human beings are the story-making species, secreting stories the way oceans secrete fish. Story is our communal, human way of approaching the unapproachable and of touching the inconceivable—life, death, nature, self, animal, earth, universe—and how all these generate minutely intricate fields of relationship that compose our humanity, our being and our world. By so memorably telling us ourselves, the stories we tell and re-tell subtly inform what we can recognize and think.
A story is by nature memorable, allowing the portion of inconceivable that it holds to be something you cannot forget, even if you cannot yet put the intimation you have received into words. A little like a burr, the story sticks, and can be passed on to others. Even if you cannot yet penetrate the discreet seeds of wisdom hidden in the burr of an unforgettable story, they come along with you.
But while stories may impart vital insight into the humanity that holds things together, at least in the human world, they can also confine us to narrow “realities” painfully remote from the fullness of what is real, locked out from the awareness that everything moves together, that your life is also my life—the very basis of compassion.
Happily ever after…
An old Scottish fairy tale told of a fortunate village to which the fairies had given a magic wine cask in return for some good turn. Any time there was something to celebrate (and in time that turned out to be quite often), you just turned the tiny spigot and the wine and communal goodwill would flow, inexhaustible. Everything went along beautifully until the day a curious housemaid decided to see just exactly how it all worked.
She unscrewed the tiny spigot and took a peek inside. Nothing there but dust and ancient spiderwebs. And from that time on, the fairy wine cask yielded not a single drop of magic wine.
There are many ways to read this story in the light of our time. One is that we must never look too closely at what produces the magic flow of plenty we dream will continue forever. Look inside at its dark workings, and you will not be able to love what you see. The happy dream of “forever” will be shattered. Scarcity, dust and ruin are waiting to be discovered inside it.
Another is that the earth sustains our life with its magical weave of infinite relationships of mutual dependency with all other life forms and the elements that sustain them—water, air, soil, minerals, sunlight… Some call this peerless magic “ecology” or “Nature.” Others may see it as the grace that animates creation. Failing to trust and protect this perpetually self-renewing gift, attempting instead to exploit it as a bounty earmarked for our exclusive use, we tear the web of life apart.
And there’s no report in the story of the happy fairy-barrel village ever sharing its great luck with any neighboring villages. The fortunate village felt secure in its superior good fortune, no doubt. What could ever go wrong with the gift of plenty? But a fairy gift can be very double-edged. Misuse exceptional good fortune and the world becomes cold and alienated, poverty-stricken in ways you may not even notice. Until the next time you try to turn the tiny magic spigot, and find—the supply of all that really mattered most has run out forever.
One final warning the story offers. There are some things—such as the spirit of a gift—that cannot, should not, and even must not be reduced to the “understood.” As Robert Aitken once remarked, “Our practice is not to clear the mystery up. It is to make the mystery clear.” A story not only shares that same character, it can be a powerful tool in making the mystery clear.
In the beginning…
Creation stories pass down enduring cultural DNA that once may have fitted our survival needs but now can blind us dangerously to the global reality we are in. This is especially so for those that, like Genesis for example, see us cast out of wholeness and frame the earth as an alienated and somewhat beautiful, but personally dangerous, place, one that merely houses a collection of inert things given to us to exploit. Instead of invoking a deep and poignant love for the earth and her amazing gift of life, they have allowed us to dare contemplate letting her die.
It is urgent that we catch sight of our confinement by the thinking that shapes us in this time of truly global environmental crisis. For the beginning of release from a deadly mind-set lies in knowing we are not yet seeing beyond its confines.
But perhaps we can also place some measure of trust in the constricting power of the frame itself, to force us to go beyond ourselves. When the “Handless Maiden” of the old Grimm fairy tale of that name sees her beloved infant fall into a well. In that instant, the sheer, dire exigency of her situation causes a new pair of hands to grow on her arms to reach and catch the baby.
And when the story of the self in its nine hundred and ninety-second tired re-run finally wears us out, the great wave of no-self and no-story can finally wash in bringing the world whole with it.
If we are listening, earth has her stories too—all fragments of a masterpiece.
The time of the dinosaurs was an epic of the earth. Our ever-increasing impact on the earth is another, still in dangerous progress. Here’s yet one more, a tiny and yet vast story that shows how nature meets our aggression with an ingenuity that is masterly and will always finally prevail over our excesses, even if it means prevailing over us.
Be warned that there’s always pain in such stories. And the mercy they disclose is one that appears only when we shift the frame and take a longer view, to see beyond the viewpoint of the small self and how insistently it would have mercy always arranged to best suit its own needs. To hear the earth’s stories we will always have to look past our selves to the larger self, the perspective of the whole.
The now abandoned Berkeley Pit Copper Mine, an open-cut mine in Butte, Montana, is an open scar on the land. It was several thousand feet deep and had yielded over a trillion tons of ore when the Anaconda Mining Company stopped digging in 1982. Now the scar is slowly filling with water, blood red and metallic, a truly lethal brew containing a wide array of heavy metals in great quantity, and an acidity level that will burn flesh. Tourists flocked to marvel at the spectacle, perversely beautiful in its toxicity. The pit became a popular tourist attraction, with paid entry to a viewing platform, and of course, adjacent gift shop.
In 1995, a flock of migrating snow geese caught in a fog bank were forced to land on the lake. They drank the water and quickly died from internal and external burns. Three hundred and forty three geese dead and decomposing in the water. Necropsies showed their insides were lined with burns and festering sores from exposure to high concentrations of copper, cadmium and arsenic.
Against all odds, organic matter has now been discovered living in the deadly soup. New fungal and bacterial species have been found to have adapted to the harsh conditions in the pit, after producing highly toxic compounds needed to improve their own survivability in such a hostile man-made brew. Some, such as the berkeleydione, berkeleytrione and berkelic acid isolated from these organisms, show potential in the treatment of cancer, which may be good news for humans facing that old foe.
But the good news extends to the natural world and the global environmental crisis now facing us, as well. It has been found that one of the “slimes” that now live in the lake is a yeast that has the ability to extract heavy metals from the water at a rate nearly seven times more efficient than the average yeast can manage. This yeast has until now only been isolated once before, when someone discovered its presence in the rectums of geese.
The dying snow geese, floating on the red, misbegotten waters of the lake, left a legacy. Life lost becomes life found.
The complexity of this unfolding may elude the usual calculus of human “mercy,” “kindness” or “love.” But it reaches us with the speed of light the moment we realize “creation” is not some singular, past event but is continually arriving whole and complete with every breath drawn on earth as well as every death conceded, in a pattern far, far too rich to “read,” brutally fatal to try to “engineer,” and impossible to not rejoice at unless you’re dead to the world.
A story like this joins up seamlessly with the vast, unending story of the universe, and brings us to wonder on a scale that can wake up the mind, whole, that may even rouse us enough to save us from ourselves.