by NED OLMSTED
In Galicia—in Spain’s far northwest corner—heavy soaking fogs roll inland from the Atlantic, keeping verdant year round the pastures and patchwork fields of corn and rye that lap up the sides of the conical hills. The countryside rises and falls like languid emerald sea swells; its granitic soils, deep estuaries, lush vineyards, and eucalyptus plantations lie almost equidistant between Catalonia and County Cork, but approximate neither quite exactly. Scattered across this ancient Iberio-Celtic landscape stand as many as fifteen thousand imposing structures that bear eerie resemblance to coffins on stilts. They house, or at least they used to, not the dead, but gleanings from the adjacent fields.
Horreos, elevated corn cribs for drying and storing un-shucked cobs were built from local, rough-hewn granite. Six or eight tapering stone columns hold aloft a pitched roofed and slat-sided sarcophagus the size of a school bus, the purpose of which was to provide secure, well-ventilated storage for the fall corn harvest. A particularly clever architectural touch rendered a horreo rat-proof as well. Inserted horizontally in between the top of the columns and the floor of the crib, like giant stone washers, large diameter disks of granite (vira-ratos) effectively blocked rodents from ascending into the stores. Fore and aft, two stone crosses often adorn a horreo’s roofline, making the whole improbable structure resemble, perhaps, the mythical stone boat which, according to legend, bore St. James, or Santiago, from the Holy Land across the Mediterranean, out into the Atlantic, and up the coast to Compostella so that he might help deliver Christian Spain from the Moors.
Such fortified storehouses so vital to a community’s food security have been around since the early Neolithic. The Ancestral Puebloans sealed their granaries into cliffside perches in Mesa Verde, allowing them to build reserves of yellow corn, amaranth, and pinon nuts. The Incans constructed multi-tiered grain storehouses terraced into the Andean mountainsides at high altitudes. Alaskan homesteaders in the bush hoping to keep a smoked caribou haunch out of reach of scavenging wolves still erect caches on top of tall scaffolds of Douglas-fir. Humans have always had to be ingenious when it comes to protecting food supplies, partially as a hedge against proverbial rainy days, but also for reasons of emotional well-being, a sense of place, and the common good. These stockpiles needed to be both handy and secreted away; they were places to be visited reverently and drawn from sparingly, but also to be celebrated in song and thanked for in prayer.
Humans have been sustained, as well, by their stockpiles of stories. Few would argue that the restorative and invigorating effects of storytelling have helped our species through some tough times. For myriad reasons, we’re probably hardwired to craft narratives. They’re a balm for our sorrows, a spark to our creative impulses, an expression of our identity, and a way to codify our most important values. Without them our lives would be bereft of enchantment, our imagination impoverished, and we would starve. Of course, the medium through which we convey stories is ever evolving. Cave paintings eventually gave way to oral tradition; that, in turn, bowed to the printed word, which now is bending to the will of social media. Whether precision of language, oration, deep listening, and attention spans may be dwindling in the Digital Age remains to be seen, but the fundamental urge to share our stories is as constant and irrepressible as ever. That said, I can’t help but question whether we are considering carefully enough the power—for both good and ill—that we wield through storytelling today, whether we’re sufficiently protecting the art and integrity of stories well told, and ultimately whether storytelling, especially as a means to explore and honor our interconnectedness with the natural world, is a sufficiently inspiring, instructive, or radical vehicle by which to confront the enormity of environmental crises we’re facing.
Neo-environmentalist critics often dismiss the place-based story, especially the Thoreauvian narrative, as a naïve and toothless corrective to contemporary threats like climate change and habitat loss. I acknowledge that it’s easy to be cynical about the efficacy of storytelling as a catalyst for environmental conservation (or, for that matter, political activism, social justice, or cultural healing) in an era of climate denial, fake news, vitriolic Tweets, and digital privacy abuses. I wonder whether humility, honesty, and compassion in our storytelling voices can mitigate even a tiny fraction of the rancor and divisiveness that pervades so much of the environmental discourse. Can individuals telling stories about places which have left their mark on them really buttress the cultural, spiritual, and ecological narratives we need to sustain our communities and planet? There’s no doubt that some of our most cherished and blindly held storylines reinforce myths that continue to abrade the social fabric, give lie to our nation’s democratic values, and permit us to ignore the grave harm we do to the earth. Many of these narratives have spoiled and need to be culled, but critically examining cultural narratives requires patience, a long view, and a level of discernment that watching newsfeeds on our phones doesn’t tend to reinforce. I worry that storytelling is being subverted by partisanship, hamstrung by political correctness, and co-opted by technology. We can store our stories in the Cloud for safekeeping, and while this may be handy, it’s doubtful that we’ll visit them there with much appetite or reverence. If we trivialize and abridge the narratives we thread, permitting our stories to become more and more reactionary, shallow, and untruthful, then we risk fracturing the vital compact that exists between storyteller and audience.
British writer Paul Kingsnorth, in his book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, poses what seems to me the most pressing and confounding question of our day: What is the right response to impending environmental collapse across our planet? Kingsnorth ponders, “What (actions), at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?” He provides no easy answers for living in what he calls a “dark ecology,” but suggests a form of withdrawal that emphasizes simplicity and human-scale technologies, the preservation of nonhuman life, and the building of refuges. Kingsnorth pointedly asks his readers, “Can you think, or act like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?”
Like Kingsnorth, I no longer believe we possess the will to stem the tide of environmental devastation, and I fear indeed we are headed towards a dark ecology, one in which we’re going to need all the fortified granaries we can construct. In and of itself, storytelling isn’t going to forestall the losses that lie ahead; it promises neither greater wisdom nor immunity from suffering, but that doesn’t mean it’s an impotent response. Scott Russell Sanders, in his essay The Power of Stories, describes some of the enduring gifts stories can offer. He argues, “Stories entertain us. They create community. They help us to see through the eyes of other people. They show us the consequences of our actions. They educate our desires. Stories help us dwell in place. They help us dwell in time. They help us to deal with suffering, loss and death. And they acknowledge the wonder and mystery of creation.” Storytelling is an expression of generosity and hope, and it may be one of our best bets in preventing the ineffable flame of human spirit from being snuffed out altogether.
On the other side of Galicia bordering the province of Asturias, the terrain is pitched at a higher angle, the flavor of the land a little wilder, life subsistent rather than plentiful. The steep uplands are covered in broom and heather, slate and schist more common than granite. There aren’t many horreos here, but if you look closely, sometimes you can spot on south-facing slopes another example of human ingenuity: bear-proofed apiaries called albarizas, which from a distance resemble miniature Bronze Age ringforts. These circular drystone enclosures, now mostly abandoned, were accessed through a wooden door set into the high perimeter wall. Atop the wall, massive flagstones cantilever outwardly all the way around the circumference, their purpose to thwart Cantabrian brown bears from climbing up and over to get at the hives inside. In the abundant sunlight, the bees carried on through the spring and summer, unmolested by bears, all the while producing heather-scented honey to be gathered in the fall by Gallegan hill farmers.
Unlike most other natural resources, the supply of stories is infinite. Given the opportunity, we will keep telling them for as long as we endure. Stories are resilient and have long shelf lives, but they are vulnerable to exploitation and should be kept out of reach of predators. Bear-proofing stories means holding them close to our hearts, telling them with empathy and open-mindedness, trusting them, and passing them on to our children and grandchildren. As a child, the poet Leslie Marmon Silko recalls being counseled by the elders in New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo Reservation where she grew up, “If you can remember the stories, you will be all right. Just remember the stories.” Stories help us name what we love about living; they give voice to our travails, triumphs, and inner wildness, and as Sanders says, “They teach us how to be human.” We need to savor and safeguard them. But most importantly, we need to believe in them, because if all else fails, we may need to use them to intercede with the gods on our behalf.
Ned Olmsted teaches writing and environmental literature at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, where he is an assistant professor. In his career as an educator, he’s been a TESL instructor with the Peace Corps in Afghanistan, a community development volunteer in a Newfoundland fishing outport, a high school history teacher in Spain, a college study abroad director in Scotland, and a trail crew leader and instructor for the Student Conservation Association. He is a fan of unstructured play (for both children and grown-ups), deep reading, canoe tripping, and quietude. Ned lives with his wife and daughter in Westmoreland, New Hampshire.