Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Telling Nature’s Story: A Manifesto, By Boria Sax

Posted by lisagbrown on January 12, 2009

nilaslogoNature in Legend and Story (Nilas) is an academic list serve that caters to scholars and storytellers who engage in the narrative of nature, animals and human culture.  As described on the Nilas website, “H-NILAS is a moderated internet discussion forum sponsored by the Nature in Legend and Story Society (NILAS). NILAS is a group of people dedicated to understanding relationships between human beings and the natural world, through the mediation of stories, poems, legends, pictures, and other cultural products.”

The group’s founder, Boria Sax, recently posted an essay that I thought would be of interest to Animal Inventory readers. Sax has graciously allowed me to post the manifesto, which also appears on his blog, Raven’s Wing.

Telling Nature’s Story: A Manifesto

Stories are not confined to human beings. Every animal, plant, stream, or mountain has a story.

Scholars are storytellers, who must now help to tell the story of humankind, of the earth, of the cosmos, of the troubled marriage between Mother Nature and Father Culture. These should be told in a language that can convey both intellectual nuance and emotional intensity, together with high drama, humor, pathos, adventure, and romance.

To tell the story of a tree or a butterfly is to grant it what is sometimes called “personhood.”

The majestic protocols of scholarship add authority and dignity, but they should not become the reason why we write. Documentation should enhance, not overwhelm, the story. Noting special cases should add interest and variety, and qualifications should enhance suppleness. But the accumulated mass of detail must not distract us from the line of narrative.

Language is not confined to human beings, though our language is like no other. There is also the dance of a bee, the changing colors of an octopus, the architecture of a bower bird, and the howling of a wolf. There is the language of the genetic code, with which strands of DNA speak to an embryo, or of plants as they bend and turn to share the sun.

The laws of physics are the grammar of a language in which the stars and galaxies communicate with one another. Are we speaking metaphorically? Sure. But that is how our language works.

Computers also have languages. We may use their languages when we communicate with them, but human beings do not use computer languages to talk with one another. We also do not habitually dance like bees or bark like crows. That is because our language is not simply an accessory. It is a basic part of what we are.

Humankind does not simply have a story; humankind is a story. While that story is still told, humanity will live. When the story ends, humankind will be no more. Our DNA, if it survives, will be one more monument alongside Stonehenge and the paintings in Lascaux.

What is Nature? All things that we are not. It is our beloved partner and adversary. Nature is a spider, gazing at a boy as she turns, with each of eight arachnid eyes, hanging from a filament catches the sun momentarily and then seems to disappear.

Didn’t Aristotle point out that things are opposite only through the qualities they share. The story of nature is our story, just like the reflection in a pond is our image, in reverse. Without Nature we could not live, in fact we could not even die.

By Boria Sax

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