Outside on a blue-sky day, I scan the decidous forest seeking signs of Autumn: touches of yellow and brown dot the canopy; maples, sassafras, and oaks still green. Black walnut trees are mostly bare, with remaining yellow-green fruit defying gravity like ornaments on a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Two walnuts the size of my hand lie on the mossy earth among acorns. I palm one and scratch its rough surface, releasing its citrusy, astringent scent.
Tilting my head back, I spot curled brown leaves high up. Are those dying ash trees? Or is it time for them to lose their leaves? Their winged seeds droop from branches in large clusters. Yet top branches are already bare. Worried I’ll lose the many ash trees in these woods to the invasive emerald ash borer infesting the region, I implore the trees: put on a glamour, pretend you are something else. Sassafras or hickory–yes, those scents are strong. Disguise your pheromones with pungent volatiles of other tree species. Please!
I’ve already grieved the eastern hemlocks lost to the woolly adelgid. I’ve grieved for the many trees we lost during Hurricane Sandy, still lying on the ground–ash, tulip poplars, maples–pointing west, the direction of sunset and endings.
Just past deadly hurricanes and earthquakes, with men in power beating their chests in a hyperbolic race to annihilate life, there is so much to grieve in the world now.
Yet, the Equinox is a time of balance.
For all the horror, the injustice, the climate disasters, there is so much love and beauty. So much delight. From communities coming together to care for one another amidst tragedy to the splendid colors and scents of the natural world, from micro to macro situations and vistas, take time for beauty and delight. Let it feed you, strengthen you during troubling times.
Blessed Equinox, my friends (Fall in the northern hemisphere, Spring in the southern).
We think in story, we learn in story, we perceive in story. While facts and logic are useful and important, they don’t persuade unless conveyed through story. They don’t help us make meaning of the world around us.
Public relations firms know this. Marketers know this. Notice how advertisements tell a story. They don’t post facts about their products and statistics to show how they are better than their competitor. They show the family out having amazing fun with their product. They show the lonely person noticing others with their product, then magically connect with the world, all smiles. Or they have an animated, disgusting-looking germ say he’s stalking you, and he’ll do horrid things to you. The product saves the day.
Political strategists do the same. Think of slogans that work because they come with backstory to grab you. They change the frame to insert the values they want. Do you like the good old days? Do you think all the others, the outsiders (and similar codewords) have it all and you are left out? That you are being treated unfairly and being overlooked? Well then, make America great again. <whew, I could barely bring myself to type that slogan>
I refer you to George Lakoff’s research and writing on cognitive science and linguistics for so much more than I can tell you about why and how our brains are persuaded by story and not by facts. Here is Lakoff talking about how Republicans are more persuasive than Democrats because they are more skilled at selling and marketing.
The marketing profession uses knowledge about the mind, the brain, language, imagery, emotions, the framing of experiences and products, personal and social identity, and normal modes of thought that lead to action and that change brains over time. . . . In short, marketers take results from my field — cognitive science — the field that does scientific research on real reason, on how people really think. Marketers know very well that most thought is unconscious — the usual estimate is about 98 percent. They use their knowledge of how unconscious thought works. And they know that consumers are not aware of how knowledge of the science of mind is being used to sell them products that often they don’t need or may actually harm them.
Certainly science should underpin policy as it underpins life on this planet. But just presenting scientific facts or rational arguments won’t cut it — won’t persuade. People respond on the emotional and unconscious level to how information is framed (again, see Lakoff). We seek frames, stories to make meaning of our world. That is how our brains are wired. Stories are vehicles to let facts/science into our conscious minds through our unconscious minds.
Join me in telling stories that are based in science and truth.
Years ago I wrote a column for the local paper inviting people to act for wild and natural lands, particularly for trees. Instead of just asking them to do so, and giving them facts to support my ask, I wrote this:
Let me tell you a story. The story takes place in Coryell. Or maybe, it was Locks Ferry. Or maybe right in your town.
Once upon a time there was a big, old spreading tree in a meadow. That tree had been there forever . . . well, at least as long as anyone could remember, and even as long as anyone’s great-grandparents could remember.
Many people have memories of spreading a blanket and food beneath her branches. . . sometimes when her leaves were deep green and practically hid the sun. . . sometimes when her leaves were bright orange and the air cool on their skin. Always, her branches spread wide and symmetrical.
One day they turned the meadow into a bank. They cut the tree. Leveled the ground. Poured a parking lot.
Oh well. The inevitability of change.
There’s more to the story, though. Maybe you’ve seen that bank where once stood meadow. But there’s a part you don’t know. Come closer, I’ll tell you . . .
The bank opened for business. The bank manager, who has lived in the community all her life, looked out the window each morning, remembering the tree that used to stand right about where she parked her car, and sighed.
One day, when the builder came by to check a few things, the bank manager approached him and asked, You know that big tree that was here before you built the bank?
Yes, said the builder.
Did it have to be cut to build the bank?
No, said the builder.
Then why was it? asked the shocked bank manager.
Well, no one asked us to save it, replied the builder. We could have planned the lot around it. Didn’t know the bank would want that.
Oh, said the bank manager.
The end. Or was it?
Well, the bank manager started to go to the local town meetings. She wanted to make sure that in the future, builders were asked to leave the trees standing.
Starhawk used a powerful, effective story about the effects of globalization on one tiny woman in El Salvador rather than listing facts about how globalization harms people and land. Read Hermana Cristina’s Well.
Here is a cute animated advertisement for a wind energy company. This company shows Wind as a human — one who annoys people. He blows off hats, makes a mess of hair, pulls papers from our hands. But he wants to be loved and accepted. (Don’t you?) When he finds that he can make turbines turn to harness energy, he has a purpose. A useful purpose. Now everyone loves him. See how they used story to grab you and get you to support Wind (wind farms) and his newfound purpose?
I invite you to craft stories. They need not be written as a once-upon-a-time as I wrote for the trees. A simple formula for a story is WHO wants WHAT but OBSTACLE forces him to TAKE ACTION for an OUTCOME. While this is simplistic, you can use it as a beginning, as a way to start reframing arguments.
What do you want for the world and who/what opposes you? Turn this into a story, preferably by adding universal desires that people can relate to. Think of something you wish to save in this world. Something you stand for. Now create your story:
Create a protagonist to represent what you wish to save. She/he/they might be a cartoon character, or a person, or an animal. Open your creative soul and think outside the box. Perhaps you wish to save natural areas. Let’s say your protagonist is a local wildflower meadow — named Meadow of course!
What does your protagonist deeply desire? Meadow wants to feel the wind tinkle her grasses, and have the sun sweeten her flower nectar. Meadow wants bees to lick his nectar and free his pollen. Meadow wishes to be admired by all who pass by. In short, Meadow longs to live their life fully and freely, and be admired for being his/her/theirself. Isn’t that a universal desire?
Challenge/Opposition? But development is coming and some people want to turn Meadow into a paved parking lot. Killing all her grasses, his flowers, turning away their bees and pollinators. <you see, Meadow is of all genders!>
What will Meadow do? Perhaps she will call to all the small children in the area to play among her grasses. To crown themselves with his flowers. And entice their parents to watch the children revel in the beauty of Meadow. Who would want to break children’s hearts?
How might you produce your story? A letter to an editor of your regional paper? A blog or facebook post? An animated short? Read it aloud on youtube? Play with the idea, talk it up!
Earlier this week — the start of March — it was above 70 degrees in New York City. After dark, still too hot to wear a coat, I walked from Union Square downtown feeling the humid air on my bare arms, craving an iced drink.
The humans I encountered were feeling Spring, playing in Washington Square Park, strolling in sleeveless shirts, eating gelato en masse.
Yet, it is too early for Spring in this region.
In a nearby rural area, irises are blooming, daffodils poking through the soil. Wood frogs have mated more than 3 weeks early: tapioca-like masses of eggs in two ponds, the evidence they left behind. At week’s end the strong winds brought plummeting temperatures. Today it is barely 30 degrees, and tonight will yield about 13 degrees.
Record highs, record lows. Unseasonable.
What does seasonable mean in the face of climate change? How will the natural world respond? Will migrating birds find that insect blooms essential to their survival have passed them by? That the plants they count on for nectar or seed were unseasonably early — gone already?
This week in the U.S. our federal regulatory agencies under new regime halted monitoring climate change indicators via satellite, stopped tracking methane output from fracking wells, greenlit dumping unlimited fracking fluids into the already chemical-laden Gulf of Mexico and dumping coal ash in rivers, further decimated Clean Air regulations, put their heads in the sand (or in a posterior bodily cavity) because what you can’t see, you can’t track.
So in one year, two years, how much more disruption will we see in natural cycles? What level of storms will blow through? What pollinators will survive? How many more people will die from air pollution? Will the ocean’s food chain collapse from acidity and disrupted currents?
This is why I write. I speak truth through fiction, and offer a way forward to heal the world.
My novel, The Working, offers one way to turn the tide and assure a sustainable, regenerating world. I look forward to putting it in your hands.
I feel the millions on the streets today in Washington DC and around the world: the spiral of energy created by the passionate voices raised, by the connections made, blankets our planet and dissolves the tendrils of hate and greed that would tear apart the Web of Life. Dissolving all that would harm this planet and its beings. That is my novel’s theme.
Truth through fiction: a coven of witches, contacted by the Old Ones who deepen their knowledge and skill for shaping energy and making magic, seeks the Working that will save the planet from a cataclysmic event, save the Web of Life from being torn asunder.
The Old Ones showed me that the best use of my energy this weekend would be tapping into the magic afoot to charge my novel as I read my final manuscript-just-back-from-editor. That is my role in the rising tide of the Living River:
Writing, teaching, and creating ritual to create a just, sustainable, regenerating world. My passion.
I pause from my reading periodically and swirl the well water in my blue bowl in a clockwise spiral, adding my passion and sending it to those on the streets. Adding the energy from the millions who rise for truth, love and jusice and amplifying it to send back out. Strengthening the Web of Life.
We are sweet water,
We are the seed,
We are the storm winds
That blow away greed.
We are the new world we bring to birth,
A river rising to reclaim the Earth.
~Starhawk’s chant that is often used by the Pagan Cluster’s Living River: the magickal activist arm of the Reclaiming Tradition
Or did I lay down the grammar? Spelling and grammar come to me as if by the muse. Yet this one has always gotten me. I found I would randomly choose whether to lie down or lay down. Or whether lying down or laying down were the things to do.
You should see how many times I tried to come up with an alternative to using that dreaded word in my note to participants for a recent workshop. “You might like to bring a mat or towel if you prefer lying down for this work.” How about, if you prefer to work prone on the floor you might like to bring a mat or towel. Or, some folks like to stretch out on the floor to run a pentacle, so you might like to bring a towel or mat. Those sure seem the roundabout way to say it.
So I forced myself to reread grammar and style book excerpts. I think I finally got it right. “If you prefer lying down…” If you prefer lying down you might lay down a mat! I think I’ll use that sentence as my tickler for lay/lie usage. Now the problem is using the word in different tenses. Lie becomes lay in past tense. That said, I can always claim “Style!” as the reason I’m using words incorrectly.
Oh, the lay/lie conundrum! What trips you up in your writing?