“This story will bring you to a place where you can take of yourself” a traditional Chehalis storyteller might tell the child to whom they gave the gift of a story. “The place where you can take care of yourself” entailed the ethical knowledge communicated in that story. That story might teach the particular history of the land (e.g. Sme’um, the place on Grays Harbor where wildcat stole fire), but it also taught the ability to step into the place of the “other”, as they went back to the time when everyone– animals and people– spoke the same language. Stories allow us to step into other times as well: they give us history as if, as a Chehalis grandmother told me, “You are right there seeing it happen”.
We need such stories more than ever today-like the story shared with me by a group of middle-management executives, students in my professional ethics class a few years back. They related how they had been participants in a seminar given by a CEO whose success was meant to inspire them to “reach for the top” themselves. As the excitement in the room built, one man asked, “And when you reached the top, what did you see when you looked back?”
The seminar leader blurted out, “It was dead bodies all the way down!”
He meant to boast of all those he had bested to get to the top of the ladder, but his statement had an unexpected result. The atmosphere in the room shifted as the audience registered the image of a man standing alone at the top of the corporate ladder seeing only the bodies of those he had stepped on to get there. After the stunned silence, the talk turned to how to avoid such an outcome.
Emotional honesty of this type–even accidentally stumbled upon– is obviously rare in those who make it to the top by pushing others– or using them for their own ends. That makes this an especially good story to remember and retell.
But I found such honesty among many working people ready to pass on what they had learned from their experiences at the end of their lives. Loggers who helped take down the old growth forests that once dominated southwestern Washington around the turn of the nineteenth century told me such stories. There was challenge and comradeship in those wild woods as two men cut through a tree so many times larger than themselves with a cross-cut saw, a man on either end. It was a dangerous business and a rough and tumble outdoor life, full of adventure.
But when it was all over and they looked back, some saw what the executive above did: the fallen bodies of whole forests in their wake. After their great green companions had died by their own hands, it seemed they had vanquished a whole way of life. And so one logger in his nineties kept track of the changes in weather that had come from taking of trees from the land. He recorded the rain and the wind daily in a small notebook likely no one else will ever see. But he told me how much windier it was since the trees he helped log came down and how much more unsettled the weather seemed with its rain.
This was in 1974. He was not among the scientists who had begun to talk about global warming, but he had his own perspective on things. And we could have used his story.
Another logger I interviewed had worked in the woods all his life, and won numerous awards in sawing and bucking contests. But when I asked him about the story of his life, he did not talk about taking any trees down. Instead, he told me the story of three trees whose lives paralleled his own.
The first of these was a pear tree. His mother had planted it for its fruit, to give her children. Probably it or its seed had come across the Plains on a wagon, and once in this new place his mother had set into the ground. And how it had grown, taking root here! This was good land for orchards. By the time he could scramble up a tree as a young boy, that tree was there for the climbing. High in its branches grew the best fruit, where the sun hit it. He climbed it year after year to bring that fruit down. His mother loved that tree, and as it was his mother’s favorite tree, so it was her children’s. It was set down in rich bottom land where you would plant a good tree; but it was also land where the river had its way. Each year the river came closer and closer to that tree, lapping at its roots, until shortly after his mother died, the high water came up and took hold of that tree and swept it downriver.
After that her sons searched for their mother’s tree. When they found it, they brought it back and tried to re-plant it, but after she was gone it would never grow again.
The second tree was a cherry tree he himself had planted. He loved that tree as his mother loved her own. It grew straight and tall and bore well: but he never got out to see it anymore.
When I interviewed him, it was the old ash tree outside his window that held his attention. That year it had a season like no other; the blooms and then the berries that filled its branches were more numerous than its leaves. The birds came to take away the berries bit by bit, and the burden of that old tree got lighter and lighter as he watched. Now it was fall, and its leaves had gone. Only a few berries were left, but the birds were still coming.
And so the man who had lived his life by taking down trees kept watch by the trees he now saw as echoing his own cycle of life. He expressed their grace was his own–as was their coming and going.
The two men above were not unique: Ron Finne’s documentary Natural Timber Country is full of such stories. Stories that we need to hear and remark in order to learn to take care of ourselves on this land.
We can’t say for sure that the traditional practice of inhabiting stories might have saved these men their sad look back-and our world the results of their actions. But such stories give us a start in analyzing the consequences of our actions–and taking care as we as we make our own choices.
We need to tell these stories of the past rather than recording the triumphant history of the “winners” as one pioneer family put it. We need to tell the story of those who “lived it”: “The winner write history– and the rest of us just live it.”
The stories of “those who lived it” allow us to slip into the skin of another time and give us the wisdom to learn from their mistakes. They tell us how to become a “guardian of the future“, working for a world that stretches abundantly before our children and grandchildren.
Then at the end of our own lives, we will be able to tell a different story than the one that looks back at dead bodies all the way down”.
Filed under: Ethics, Folklore and Oral Tradition, Forest and farm, Northwest History and Culture, Our Earth and Ourselves | Tagged: how stories pass on ethical lessons, Oral Tradition and ethical teaching |