The Ecology of Storytelling

Fable seeds for unfamiliar times

What Questions & Assumptions Shape How You View Your Environment?

How does this impact your writing?

by Kate Schapira

Kate Schapira has been offering Climate Anxiety Counseling to passersby for five years in Providence (and environs), where she also lives, writes, teaches, runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and is currently trying to stop a natural gas liquefaction plant. She’s the author of six books of poetry, most recently FILL: A Collection (Trembling Pillow Press, 2016), a collaboration with Erika Howsare. Her prose has appeared in Catapult, the Rumpus, and the Toast.


What can you imagine?

 “Story” is invented and experienced. We order our knowledge of what happened, or our hope or fear or curiosity for what could happen. Somewhere in there, cause and effect enter, emergent properties and emergent relations, until it’s the relationships as much as the elements that rule what happens and what never does. You have a town, so you have to have people. You have people, so they have to do something. You have actions, which must lead to something, even if it’s not what you expect, even if you reject it, even if it cracks you open, makes you wonderfully and horribly continuous with the rest of the world.

That continuity is our vulnerability and our strength. Telling stories is part of how we make the world, how we comfort or unsettle ourselves within its conditions. And as the whole continuous world—“the climate,” yes, but also everything else that the climate changes—alters in ways that fully displace or interrupt or destroy our lives and how we thought they worked, the stories we tell are changing too.

Today every bud that made it burst into flower at once. We walked in circles, following the paths taught to us by our bee teachers, dead now, until we too fell at the roots.


Why is that what you can imagine?

But what do you expect? Are the people human? What do they breathe? What hurts them? Who else is there? We’re exposed to stories; they expose us as we tell and retell them. Woven into every story, of any world, are assertions of how things work in that world, whether we work with them or against them. Sometimes these are there on purpose, the writer’s purpose, with readers in mind. Sometimes they’re there by accident, or by default: habits of thought or feeling, cultural parasites, stowaways. Strange or familiar, where they land, they grow. And where they grow, they make a way for other feelings and thoughts to live and die.

The relationship between our lives and our stories isn’t a closed loop, a simple set of causes and effects. But as within stories themselves, the relationships are where life happens, and death: what we bring to a story interacts with what we find there, shaping what we can be brought or bring ourselves to think and feel. The meaning that we make together may free us, or frighten us; if it’s the latter, we may not even let ourselves see it.

Today the desert came to visit the plains and overstayed her welcome. The desert had her own house but she wanted the plains’ house, too. She stayed and stayed, eating them out of house and home.


What sticks in your mind?

An emaciated, abused, dark-skinned boy, shackled to machinery: N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Tove Jansson’s Groke, dancing the edge of the water to ice. The high-flown sequence, “I have given my love to what is worthy of love. Is that not the kingdom and the unperishing spring?”–that’s from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore. These come to meet me when I think of fear, and change, and endings. Other images, other phrases, fill me with yearning for livable futures and presents: the tender not-Cleveland of Kevin Czapiewski’s Fütchi Perf, some of the visions in Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, a few different articles detailing the ways that trees speak together underground, Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s description of their book M Archive as “a training for unlearning the capitalized New World from the perspective of what remains at the bottom of the ocean.” And others don’t seem to point me in any direction at all, but linger, making changes in me that I can’t see yet: quarantine protocols in Sofia Samatar’s short stories, falling and convulsing bodies in the A.O. Movement Collective’s collaborative series of alternate timelines. Those are the ones that found, in me, their growing conditions.

Sometimes, we stick to what we know, the phrases we’ve heard repeated and the implications that go with them. Carbon footprint. I’m only one person. What we’ve gathered; what adheres to us, like burs. We’re screwed. Or, alternatively, We’ll be fine: sometimes we go with what Le Guin calls “wishful thinking,” the thing we think would be nice but don’t really know why, the cherrypicking of cause and effect, leading to a story like a monoculture lawn, with total wilful ignorance of how it got that way or what it cost. What she calls “imagination” is different because its roots are deeper, digging into the aquifers and the sewage outflow pipes, the rocks and the foundations, of what’s possible—widely and variously possible, down past our expectations and assumptions. Sometimes what sticks is a glimpse of possibility, the gleam or ooze through a crack in the hull of a seed or a ship: it beckons you to write into how it could be true.

 Today, long pods appeared on the neighborhood trees. As we watched, they unfolded into insects. They sang songs inviting us to eat them.


How do you know how the world works?

 The world is telling us how it works all the time, speaking to us in ways we hear and overhear. Some of its messages blare, some whisper; some reach us in languages we don’t recognize as languages, a current of air on our skin, a green taste in our mouth, a dead nestling on the pavement. The world tells us lies and truths about what we can and can’t control, about how alone we are or how continuous with others, about where our attention should go, about what we should fight or accept. Writing imaginatively is a way to sort those out. Whether we’re writing, reading, or just living, it’s a mistake for think that the only thing that needs grounding, questioning and explaining is the version of the world that we’re making different. Asking why and how about the world as it is can offer us another door into imagining how it could be, what we might make it and what it might make us, however drastically different from now the places where it might burn or bloom. Thicket of stories, running along the dendrites—the trees—of your nerves. Piercing your heart.

Today, a person with a wounded head laid their head down among the roots. The fungi sent out their hyphae to them and spoke with their skin. The wound healed, and the person changed.


What would change your knowledge?

 Writing imaginatively is also a way to face massive movements and losses in what we think of as the world—to practice facing change, changing, being changed. “God is Change,” Octavia Butler’s heroine Lauren Olamina declares, but Butler’s most powerful story of change is her Xenogenesis Trilogy, in which transformation itself is the central figure, the driver, of the story. These novels are stories of colonization and domination—and like many of the stories that stick with us, they are also stories of loss and grief and mistakes, in which the characters are charged by their circumstances with finding ways to live.

This is the charge that all of us have, whenever we happen to be, and when we happen to be is now. As writers and storytellers, we have a peculiar opportunity to respond to it and a particular skill set with which to meet it: by arranging words, we can build pathways, tunnels, bridges to visions of the world that begin in the one we know and lead Elsewhere, or toward what theologian Ashon Crawley calls the  Otherwise, “a concept of irreducible possibility,” which “presumes that radically different relations have and do already exist.”

Today we met with the whales to change the shipping lanes, and to ship fewer things less often, and to ride without lights.


Why repeat a story? Why change a story?

 We might repeat a story in order to bring it into being. Or to guide its adaptations to new conditions. Or to get it talking to another story. Or to share the delight it brought us. Or the reverse: “Smell this, it stinks.” Or in the hopes that the person we’re telling will tell us it’s not true, we don’t have to worry—to “delay the collapse of the ground” (as William Vollman writes in “The Blue Wallet”) because “you want the comfort of solid ground back so much that you will keep to the thing that is not right.” Or because we want the person listening to be moved in the direction in which we were moved. Or because we believe it to be the literal truth.

We might change a story because the reason it came into being has changed, or because we don’t like who it was serving, or to better satisfy our sense of what we’ve learned a story should be, or because new evidence has come our way, or because we want practice for changing something outside the story.

 Today twelve table servers, five cooks, six bussers and a hostess burned down the restaurant where they had been working. Two states over, forty-seven human people walked off their jobs, shouting. Together, did we say together? Forty-seven human people walked off their jobs together, shouting together. The eardrum of the job split.


How can a story change you?

Fables (and myths and legends and fairy tales) are stories that teach us, through indirection and an expansion of our sense of the possible, lessons about the world and the way it works. Probably for each of them there’s one person who got it started, but the rest of us don’t know usually know who that person was, or praise them or condemn them; instead, we change and add to the story, killing some parts and letting others live, shaping it and being shaped by it each time we pass it along.

You will have figured out by this time, probably, that the boldface sentences here are fable seeds: not stories themselves, but beginnings (or endings) that you can plant in your brain, or in someone else’s, and see if they grow. The thing about seeds is that sometimes they don’t. They aren’t right for the conditions, or the conditions aren’t right for them; a growing zone has shifted, or there’s too much industrial residue in the soil, or a catastrophic rain has fallen. Stories can die because they’re not what we want, or not what we need. I don’t know which, if any, of these seeds will take root in the dirt of your mind, but I invite you to write them. Maybe they’ll self-sow, proliferate, adapt, their origins forgotten; maybe they’ll travel; maybe they’ll not only be changed, but change where they grow. I hope that this is not wishful thinking, but imagination.

Today we walked the borders of our land with the very last children, the ones after whom there would be no more, and each step undid the border as a border, and we listened to the air, the light, the undivided ground under our feet.