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A Folklore of Hope: Storytelling for a Reenchanted World

Expanded from a keynote presentation to The Anthropocene and Beyond conference at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, May 29th, 2018.

My thanks to Professors Kin Yuen Wong, Amy Chan, Yee-Man Lam, and Catherine Tien-Lung Sun, and heartily congratulations to Hong Kong Shue Yan University on the establishment of the new Graduate School for the humanities. My thanks also to the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University, and the journal Science Fiction Studies.

Restorying Ourselves from Ego to Eco

The word Anthropocene, coined to emphasize the human impact on world climate, derives from Anthropos: not only a Greek word for “man,” but the ancient philosophical image of a potent disembodied mentality caught in an unconscious relationship with the natural world.

It fits. To regard oneself as we moderns do today, as masters of matter and nature, displays a particularly hubristic and dangerous form of narcissistic unconsciousness. The evidence is in how this narcissism is destroying its own ecological foundations. Narcissism is a fake individualism highly dependent for self-glorification on the very external factors the narcissist disparages: people, places, planet.

Perhaps some remedy can be found hiding in the illness itself. C.G. Jung regarded the Anthropos as an archetypal prefiguration of psychological integration and illumination. He wrote:

There is in the unconscious an already existing wholeness, the “homo totus” of the Western and the Chên-yên (true man) of Chinese alchemy, the round primordial being who represents the greater man within… (1963/1976, p. 128).

What can liberate the wholeness in the hazard, the integration in ecosystemic fragmentation, the light in particulate-darkened skies?

For the most part, Western psychological sciences exalt cognition in sense-making and undervalue embodied, intuitive, and narrative forms of knowledge. This bias parallels an overemphasis on the empirical and “evidence-based” above the anecdotal and immediate. We forget that science is a kind of story; that humans evolved telling stories; that we became human talking and listening around campfires and beside creeks and seas; that story filters everything we perceive, including facts. We never want to know just the data: we want to know what the data mean, the narrative in which the data are cast. Data and facts that collide with a pre-existing narrative do not convince.

Thomas Berry, who refers to himself as a “geologian” in his writings, has argued that our collective stories about who we are and where we are have worn out. We are, he believes, between big stories (1978). We might wonder, however, whether any story is big enough to encompass all human experience on a highly connected world. Would such a big story even be desirable? Would it not be oppressive? What about those for whom a big story would not work?

Even in a vacuum of big stories, the human capacity for storytelling goes on spinning tales. This capacity outlives the content of the stories it can produce. We can rely on it to create new tales relevant to our conflicted time, and to update old tales to find out what they have to offer us.

Let us consider three new stories based on old tales and truths: ecotherapy, which focuses on how we relate to the natural world; enchantivism, which refers to kinds of storytelling that bring reenchantment and renewal; and applied mythology, a way of retelling old myths to release fresh insights from them.

Ecotherapy: Restorying Our Relations with the Natural World

As leadership consultant Margaret Wheatley explains in the revised edition of Leadership and the New Science (2006), a spider when facing a torn web does not slice out segments to repair; she reweaves it (p. 145).

The archetypal figure of the Web or Net shows up in every mythology, often accompanied by goddesses who weave (the Fates, the Norns, Chih Nu, Frigg, Arachne, Athena). Indra’s net of jewels is an example, as is, perhaps, the Internet. The transdisciplinary study that goes by names like Systems Theory, Complexity Theory, and Nonlinear Dynamics gathers images of where the Net meets other archetypes, including Chaos. As Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein (2010) express it:

As long as a disequilibrium condition is maintained or increases, and as long as amplifications of departures from equilibrium become rife in the system, and as long as the system is constrained to hold all of this energy, more and more experiments will be tried until a threshold is reached—an unpredictable moment when the entire system may shift (p. 85).

Such a moment burst forth in the early 1990s, when a group of psychologists and environmentalists working near San Francisco met to ask: Why were their fields not on speaking terms? Why did psychology and ecology ignore each other? What would happen if they enriched each other, recognizing humans as partners in the grand web of life?

The result was a new field called ecopsychology, a field that recognized the weblike interdependency between human health (mental and physical) and that of the natural world we evolved in. For ecopsychology, it made no sense to treat human infirmity as separate from ecosystemic trauma. The two arose together, and therefore so must healing, especially for those of us who feel acutely the pain of our industrially assaulted planet.

The pivotal anthology Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (1995) was followed by Andy Fisher’s Radical Ecopsychology (2002) and a number of other insightful books.

The year 1995 was also when pastoral counselor Howard Clinebell coined the word “ecotherapy” to refer to nature-honoring approaches of reciprocal healing. While counseling clients he had learned to invite them outside to be in the company of plants, animals, and the elements and was impressed by the results.

The following year he published Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth (1996). This was followed by Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2007), Mindfulness-Based Ecotherapy Handbook (Hall, 2015), With Nature in Mind (McGeeney, 2016), Ecotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice (Jordan & Hinds, 2016), and Ecotherapy in Practice: A Buddhist Model (Brazier, 2017).

As an application of ecopsychology, ecotherapy includes gardening therapy, animal-assisted therapy, sensory awareness education, outdoor excursions, green exercise, and an array of other methods for increasing the quality and variety of contact with nature, including bringing some of it indoors. According to the research, so powerful are enhanced relations with the natural world that even the presence of a window in a hospital room can speed up recovery from heart surgery. Ecotherapeutic methods treat post-traumatic stress, addiction, conduct disorder, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, recovery from violence (including sexual assault), depression, sleep disorders, chronic pain, and high blood pressure. They soothe the highly stressed, diminish aggressiveness in dementia patients, and aid communication with the autistic (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2007).

While training as a Master Gardener with the University of California, I gave free public talks on “Gardening and Mental Health.” The garden and its plants and bugs, I told the audiences, could be heeded as mentors telling us useful things about ourselves. For example, when you plant ten seeds, you have no idea if two will germinate, five, all ten, or none. Lesson: abandon perfectionism. Some plants grow better in diverse groups called guilds. Lesson: tend your own growth by mixing with different kinds of people. Even plants of the same species come up at different rates. Lesson: everyone grows by a unique internal schedule. Composting makes fresh soil. Lesson: decay and death are needed for regeneration and rebirth.

But ecotherapy is much more than a nature cure. When people see for themselves that biodiversity brightens their mood and feeds their overall energy, they begin to see that diversity is worth cultivating everywhere. When a sensory exercise seduces us into falling in love with a forest, we become more inclined to defend it from being chopped into lumber. After breathing fresh air, a commuter forced to wear a mask because of a choking smog will wonder: Why do we put up with this? How can we work together to restore the air to how it should be?

Informed in part by netlike Systems Theory, ecotherapy moves beyond the mechanistic worldview of separate parts pushed by simple causality and into a wider world of contexts, interdependencies, and complex interactions. From this more spacious standpoint, it is obvious why the simplistic linear intervention of dumping chemicals onto crops eventually boosts, not diminishes, the evolving bugs that eat them. Nature “thinks” in the round, in highly interactive systems, in nonlinear cycles of mutual causality. Ecotherapy tunes into this by exchanging what Clinebell called the “Earth stories” of our inescapable participation in the net or web of life (1996).

In this new-old narrative, humans do not stand above nature but emerge from it, engage with it, and return to it. Realizing this instead of ignoring it propels us outward, from ego to eco.

Enchantivism: Transmutative Storytelling

“Why won’t people listen?” is a question often asked by environmentalists and ecologists trying to awaken the public to the urgency of global warming and other ecological nightmares coming true on every side.

The remedy for public inattention will not be found in further shaming, blaming, and Othering those reluctant heed the warning. Such maneuvers do not convince; they only arouse lasting resentment and opposition. Those who feel blamed will tune out the blamer (Stoknes, 2015).

The remedy is not in graphs and charts of figures and facts. Those who understand them do not need them; those who do not will not unless an informative and emotionally evocative narrative accompanies them. Furthermore, if the facts collide with a story told to oneself about what is going on, the facts will be as sea foam on the shore. The fact has not been born that can penetrate an emotional bias.

The remedy is not in doomful pronouncements and repetitive dire warnings. More than a century of psychotherapy has amply demonstrated the power of psychological defenses. Confronted with what we cannot face without adequate support, we numb ourselves and turn away (Lertzman, 2016).

All of these overused attempts to persuade fail for the same reason: they forget the centrality of storytelling to our sense of who we are, where and when we are, why we are here, and who we are to each other.

Enchantivism takes up the torn nets of aspiration, cultural change, and ecological repair by use of stories. If you are a citizen yearning to take intelligent action but not called to the activist path, or an activist burned out by the frustrations and perils of activism, or a sensitive person just plain worried about how events in the world are unfolding, this approach has you in mind. Enchantivism weaves inner and outer, reflection and action, back together again through the kinds of storytelling that can reenergize and inspire us (Chalquist, 2018).

Activism split off from sustained reflection easily slips into unserviceable aggression and moralizing. “Quit shaming and depressing people,” for example, is my frequent advice to activists deaf to the emotional impact of their words on their audiences. Bottomless gloom and dismal numbers, melting icecaps and guilt trips: with these at large, is it any wonder people with no means to deal with apocalyptic news retreat and numb out? The unreflective activist shines a spotlight into the eyes of people sound asleep and expects them to wake up and get active. Instead, eyelids close tighter. Because activists also face burnout, lack of funding, apathy or rage from opponents, misunderstanding from allies, and, very often, state violence and the lingering emotional and physical costs of it, they risk demoralization and loss of health.

On the other side of the split flies the lofty idealist who believes that meditation, chanting, or inner work will cure the world of its ills—which they have never done in any of the societies that practiced them. In the United States, where millions stretch in yoga studios and therapy jargon permeates politics, millions of others do without three meals a day as ecosystems on which we all depend unravel. When soaked in energy talk of “vibes” and “manifestation,” appeals to prismatic cosmic principles look foolish to those still on the ground. As clouds of incense rise, the ruthless seize high office, the super-rich get richer, and the tractors pave entire forests.

Inner work separated from the messy business of difficult outer change also tends to collapse when confronted with hard opposition, leaving the world stage to the shallow, the greedy, and the ambitious.

Enchantivism offers a third alternative for people disenchanted with ordinary activism or not called to it to begin with; for those left uninspired by both unreflective activism and insulated subjectivism.

Enchantivism looks upon people like these as its exemplars:

  • Nichelle Nichols was praised for playing Star Trek’s Uhura by Martin Luther King Jr. Black watchers wept with joy to see themselves represented on TV in a future community of progressive explorers.

  • Jacqueline Suskin saved a stand of redwoods by writing poems for the CEO of the logging company poised to cut them down. Later, she helped design for him a permaculture dwelling friendly to its natural surroundings (Suskin, 2015).

  • Thyonne Gordon relies on nature walks to recharge her storytelling, consulting, and community advocacy work: “What if we paralleled nature and focused on purposed giving for the time we have instead of wallowing in what was?” (2006).

  • Devdutt Pattanaik retells Hindu myths as part of increasing diversity awareness in educational and business settings worldwide.

  • Reuben Wu leaves the landscapes in his layered pictures untouched while photographing them with haloes of light that change how we perceive them (Mok, 2018).

  • Baya Mahieddine’s exuberant 1940’s paintings of radically liberated women have inspired generations of activists and artists, including Picasso.

  • In August 2017, a white supremacist/neo-Nazi rally in Charlotte, North Carolina was interrupted by clowns making enthusiastic fun of the marchers, who called out, “Wife supremacy?” and threw white flour into the air. “We’re clowns, but you’re the ones who look silly!” The would-be supremacists fled (Velasquez-Manoff, 2017).

  • Thousands of women and the men who support them have found inspiration and support in the feminist science fiction and fantasy works of Ursula K. Le Guin.

  • Environmental activists have taken heart from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (Curry, 1998).

Although enchantivism does not require a public audience, these examples share a bridging of reflection and action that arises in fantasy and flows into personal and cultural transmutation by exchanging smaller stories for larger ones. Enchantivists speak of “transmutation” because “transformation,” a popular but vague word, can refer to surface change: putting on a hat to transform our appearance, for example. By contrast, transmutation refers to deep, alchemical, lasting change; for the big problems in life are not worked through, but outgrown.

Inspiration-based storytelling also triggers less push-back. The elevation of Trump to the White House shows just how strong reactionary forces can be. It is never enough merely to oppose racism or sexism: the racist and the sexist need reeducating. The same applies to the violent.

Enchantivism draws in part on what Stephen Aizenstat calls “archetypal activism” in his book on Dream Tending (2012). The psychodynamic habit is to interpret dream images individualistically, as aspects of the dreamer: a leaping dolphin as one’s playful side, for example. Although valid to a point, this method limits its scope by placing the entire field of the dream into the dreamer. In Dream Tending, dreamers are invited to explore the possibility that such a dream might also say something about actual dolphins. Dreamers following up such nighttime hints have been led by them into creative responses to outer concerns that first appear in the dream world (2012).

When teaching archetypal activism to students and to participants in workshops and online classes, I suggest the following steps, the first of which may or may not begin as a dream image:

    1. Witnessing or dreaming about a “pressing concern” in and from the world,

    2. Heeding its images as potent metaphors in motion,

    3. Resolving to reflect on and respond with soul to the concern,

    4. Creating a support network for the effort,

    5. Viewing the concern empathically and non-judgmentally from different points of view, especially those commonly pushed to the margins,

    6. Maintaining openness and curiosity about the particularities and details of the concern,

    7. Studying them by doing cultural and historical homework on them,

    8. Staying in a space of uncertainty, exploration, and tension until new understandings emerge,

    9. Allowing these understandings to shape action in service to what is witnessed or dreamed,

    10. Taking three concrete steps on its behalf, including storytelling and work with myth (more on these below),

    11. Assessing the effects of these steps, and

    12. Either ritualizing a closure for the project or deciding on further efforts.

These could be thought of as modes of a two-phase operation: Listen to the guidance of the imagery embedded in an attention-grabbing event, and act on behalf of that imagery. In Systems terms, the moves above install a potentially continuous feedback loop for encouraging a complex social system to evolve. As we will see below, telling and retelling myths applies particularly strong feedback.

The following projects were created by participants in Stephen Aizenstat’s DreamTending™ workshops and in my Deep Storytelling and Archetypal Activism classes taught online through Pacifica Graduate Institute. All began as responses to a pressing concern that arrived through a dream or other signal event reaching across the inner-outer split to touch the heart directly.

  • After recurring nightmares about an old woman weeping near a cathedral in a deserted village, an attorney remembers this to be a sanctuary he knew in childhood. Visiting the village, he learns that an old section of it is to be bulldozed to make way for a resort. As a result of his actions and effective community networking, the cathedral is preserved.

  • An engineering manager initiates a series of informal in-house conversation circles on the topic of leadership that can inspire and mentor potential leaders. These circles stimulate coworkers and give rise to presentations that teach organizational lessons with stories built on ancient myths.

  • A middle school teacher draws on mythology to give students living in ecologically damaged areas important lessons in emotional resiliency. The students also use this safe, non-judgmental space to creatively tend images and feelings amplified by art, video, and photography.

  • A hospice volunteer adds creating and telling end-of-life stories to activities offered to the elderly, who receive deep attention and witnessing. These practices also modify public attitudes by showcasing new narratives about how life can end with warmth and grace.

  • A psychotherapist and educator designs a series of life story writing courses for an open community event where participants share one of their stories. Although the stories focus on struggles with mental health, addiction, and other kinds of trauma, the tellers are not diagnosed or required to visit a clinic. The events are open to the public and include music and food. Tellers and listeners tend the myths illustrated by the tales.

  • A museum curator combines stories about the goddesses Artemis and Diana with designs of myth-rich graphics, logos, and social media campaigns to organize action on behalf of abandoned pets, dogs in particular. She also trains animal rights activists in these techniques.

  • A rainforest aid worker solicits funds, donations, and volunteers by switching from fact- and number-based reports to telling stories about how the staff interact with the local community.

  • A writer plans an Earth-honoring holistic health center at the edge of a forest. The center includes courses on herbalism, growing food, ceremony, myth-telling, and “practical dreaming” focused on the question: How do we come home to an ensouled world?

Enchantivism always includes an aspirational component to its storytelling and image-making. Consider how every important human project begins, not in planning or data collection, but in fantasy, in imagining something better than is now available. What does a pristine landscape circulating clean air actually look like? Nourishing food? Equality and equity? Envisioning these could motivate us. Where do we wish to go? precedes the question of How do we get there?

A beauty of enchantivism is in what it offers those of us who avoid protests and crowds and public activist endeavors. It works for introverts and extraverts alike. It enlists those who would normally not consider themselves activists. It eschews the violence and force of revolution for the gentler alternative of transrevolution: deep and permanent structural transmutation homegrown through visionary activity. Enchantivism also comes with a guiding myth:

According to Taoist monk Lieh Tzu, the Yellow Emperor of China searched everywhere for enlightenment so his people and their lands would be happier. After going on long journeys and consulting with remote hermits, he came home, frustrated, only to wake one morning in joy.

Calling his ministers, he said, “I spent three months in seeking and seclusion trying to learn how to govern the country and cultivate myself, but thinking this out did not help. This morning I woke up enlightened, at last, from a dream.”

Everyone in the kingdom went to work to make it resemble the mythical land in the dream. After twenty years they came very close indeed. When the Yellow Emperor finally died, the people mourned the passing of a visionary leader.

As Eva Wong writes in her “hermetic opening” of Lieh Tzu,

On the islands in the eastern seas are immortal beings who live on dewdrops and pinecones. They do not eat grain, they feed on the wind and vapor, and their minds are as clear and still as the mountain lake… They are open, friendly, and have no inhibitions… There is no fear, no anger, no tension, and no dissatisfaction. No one is superior or inferior to anyone else. Everything is bountiful and everyone enjoys the providence of heaven and earth… The deities bless the land, and the monsters never go near it. This is the land the Yellow Emperor visited in his dream (2001).

Applied Folklore

The telling of stories, the desire to share our experiences, is what made us develop into a species with a spoken language. I think everybody has the capability of responding to a story on the deepest level. For that reason alone it’s important. –Gayle Ross (Mooney, 2005, p. 9)

Another component of enchantivism is deep storytelling. “Story” here means a meaning-making, character-containing narrative in which speakers and listeners imagine together as the storied situation unfolds. “Deep” underlines how a telling can enlist the images, motifs, and linkages within and behind the surface of the tale to illuminate a contemporary concern.

Story is primal. At age one a baby can pretend to put a doll to bed. What does it mean that we spend half our waking life in fantasy via daydreaming and a third of our entire life asleep dreaming stories? It means that we are Homo narratus, two-legged storytellers, with fictions that allow us to anticipate before we act and to reflect after we act. Imagination is not just another capacity: it makes all our other human powers possible.

Here are more reasons for favoring storytelling, at least in some situations, over arguing, debating, or lecturing:

  • Our best facts mean nothing at all without storied frameworks that give them meaning and context.

  • Actions result not from facts, but from what we tell ourselves the facts really mean. Changing the story changes what facts say. New facts offered without new stories making sense of them are usually discounted.

  • Stories allow us to explore meanings and draw conclusions without being preached at. Storied examples then lead organically to new conclusions. Nobody is made wrong, yet actions and attitudes change.

  • Anecdotal stories can reveal and disarm the hearer’s silent objections by showing how the teller worked through them. Such stories offer more guidance than fixed rules that cannot handle conflict or paradox.

  • Persuasion and argument push, and people resist being pushed. Stories pull you in. They spread long after the effort required to cajole and manipulate has dissipated. A hearer beaten down with logic is ultimately less reliable than one who makes your story of why you act their own.

  • Stories about what’s relevant to listeners inspire trust. As Annette Simmons puts it, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a story is worth a thousand assurances” (Simmons, 2006, p 5). They let you demonstrate, not just talk about, your trustworthiness and deep involvement with the cause.

  • A story character can present a different point of view more effectively than simply making an argument for it. It’s hard to empathize with an argument.

  • Stories can reach across cultural and political divides, clearing common ground where the conservative and the radical, the materialist and the spiritualist, the dreamer and the cynic can meet.

  • They also allow unexpected, non-linear solutions not calculable with charts of data. New stories can bring fresh perspectives that shrink problems without having to rationalistically analyze them to death.

  • Causal analyses that fail to take into account what people make of the causes doom themselves to irrelevant fact-chasing. They miss the opportunity to cultivate forward-looking visions that can motivate new attitudes and actions.

  • Stories are big-T True because, unlike the small-t truths of statistics and surveys, they capture the great multidimensional Truths of our existence. They show what is too complex to be charted.

  • Imaginatively living through future scenarios can offer more visceral, emotional, and intuitive information than can distant and objective-seeming strategic planning. (The audiences imagined by singer-songwriter Johnny Cash did not align with the target demographics cranked out by his record company. He left the company behind and went on to win a lot of Grammys. The company was sold off to a competitor.)

  • Big picture stories connect what people do to with what they can create together. Behold the difference between getting paid to hammer a nail and knowing that nail helps build a city. Big picture stories give purpose to frustration and struggle.

  • A single story can exert enormous impact. Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized Union efforts during the American Civil War. The Kalevala, an epic woven of folktales, solidified the independence of Finland. Roots was the most-watched film of its day.

  • When U.S. President Kennedy stated, “We choose to go to the moon!” the naive thought him blinded by naivete. His critics were ignorant of how symbols and aspirations—not facts and figures—drive us, especially in a “mythless” culture divided by huge voids of meaning. To act differently, people must think and feel differently, and those require new stories that prompt and inspire.

  • Inspiration is key. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream,” not, “I am a victim.”

  • Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs leaves out Fantasy. You can last three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food, but you can’t make yourself go one hour without a fantasy. Prisoners fantasize. Poor children growing up in a dump also play there. People about to die prepare by imagining what death—supposed nonexistence—will be like. We imagine, therefore we are; and we are to the extent of what we imagine.

Maybe that’s why we evolved, or why our stories evolved us: not just for our own complexification, but for theirs. Maybe they use us to deepen and proliferate. Our stories might even outlive our species.

At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in the laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. Fantasists, whether they use the ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist—and a good deal more directly—about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived. For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope. – Ursula K. LeGuin (1973)

Folklore is the general term for the earliest stories we know: myths, folktales, fairy tales, and legends. What Joseph Campbell, Karl Kerényi, Thomas Mann, Lu Wei, and many others have demonstrated for myth is also true for folklore in general: it contains far more than outdated explanations for weather. Within each of these stories is embedded a complex imagistic snapshot of what the unconscious of a culture is up to. That is why these stories cannot be reduced to language structures, mores, superstitions, or anything else that is simpler than the stories themselves.

Like dream, folklore bears a compensatory relation to daytime consciousness: it brings back what is missing for psychological balance and wholeness. In ancient Greece, for example, where women enjoyed few rights and were expected to stay indoors and out of politics, the hidden strength of women burst forth in collective imaginings of powerful goddesses like Athena, Hera, and Artemis.

A myth can be described as a collective, entertaining, and imaginative tale of the existential conflicts and relations between grand, more-than-human marvels or mysteries and human beings, at least implicitly, and as such, is a sacred story believed in by most hearers but held as instructive or metaphoric by wisdom teachers (Chalquist, 2018, p. 30). To this could be added: the stories take place in a timeless present, the marvels and mysteries are often personified and named (unlike folktales and fairy tales that deal mainly in roles), various realms of being are described, spiritual entities are present, as is coded ecological wisdom, and the myths tend into groupings we call mythologies (unlike folktales, which show up singly). In my classes I offer a second definition: A myth is a collective oral mystery story that is traditional, fantastic, highly personified, archetypally rich, once believed in, and often sacred.

A fairy tale is a piece of folklore in which magical beings are predominant and events happen long ago or in some unspecified time. If a dilemma is present, it is usually solved by magic. A folktale is a folkloric narrative understood to be fictional, often introduced by a traditional formula (“Once upon a time…”), and populated by generic characters (the princess, the woodcutter, the genie, etc.) who use cleverness to get out of a dilemma. Set after the creation of the world, a legend is a tale taken to be true for a time but eventually treated as fictional. Also, it is usually local. Example: the Loch Ness Monster.

Western scholarship tries to jam these storied entities into neat and separate categories, but as Chinese mythologist Yuan Ke observes, myth overlaps with folktales and other kinds of folklore (Yang & An, 2005). The distinctions are not tidy. For example, the figure of Guan Yu, a heroic and loyal god known to frequent Hong Kong, can be considered a mythic figure. Like many such, he may have formed long ago and layer by layer around a historical person: in his case, a general. However, not everyone believes in Guan Yu. For some, then, he is more a being of folktale. But he is also local, which is true of a legend. So which is he? It depends on whom you ask.

As Sean Kane notes, folklore often contains implicit ecological knowledge, as when Greek myths about Demeter and Persephone disclose seasonal planting cycles (1998). The stories also recommend how to harmonize ourselves with the natural world. For example, beyond making a literal temple offering or sailing in a figure eight, reverence for Tin Hau can include respect for the powers and mysteries of the sea, reminding us of our place: that of a single fragile species on a large and watery planet. When we thank the goddess for fish, we also thank Earth. We need not be believers, as the fieldwork of Yang Lihui showed in northern China, where she interviewed reverent visitors to the temples of Nuwa, temples attended even by the skeptical (Yang & An, 2005). Dragon gates in buildings (see image above) still proliferate in Hong Kong, although few if any still believe in dragons sailing from ocean to mountain and back again. Alive somewhere between fancy and fact, the tale still works emotionally, imaginatively, and ecologically.

We are ready now for a definition of applied folklore: myth, folktale, fairy tale, legend, and other varieties of folklore retold or reenacted to clarify a contemporary issue in need of our attention. Applied folklore can be used to illuminate psychological or family dynamics, the behavior and mentality of organizations, and virtually every major realm of modern experience, including ecological concerns, even planetary ones.

For example, the realm of finance is usually held as one of objective analysis. What room could there be for folklore? However, financial terminology bulges with mythic images: angels and dragons and unicorns, white knights, Morningstar, bulls and bears and balloons and bellwethers, phantom gains and vulture funds, Invisible Hand hovering over the Big Board below the blue sky, dogs of the Dow, witching hour, scalping and capitation, castles in the sky, money as mood (Moody’s investments, depressed, recessed, inflated, devalued, deflated, volatility, crack-up boom, identity theft, cooling off period, misery index, break point, internalization, summer doldrums, after hours high/low: better go see your analyst).

Religious motifs in business include money as the root of evil, as the fount of salvation, angel investors, dark money, Alpha stock, Omega leveraging, evangelize, secular, savings, Redemption, Confirmation, deed, Mecca, charity, welfare, debt, conscience fund, guardian, good will, grace period.

What does this tell us? That, among other things, money itself has gone mythical. From trade goods, money has shapeshifted into metal and paper (beginning in East Asia), signatures on checks, and now digits in computers pulsing at each other across the globe. Trickster gods in particular express speed, risk, persuasion, gambling, clever maneuvering, boundary-crossing, opportunistic law-evading, and get-rich-quick scheming, all characteristic of international finance at its most shadowy.

Folktales bring many kinds of life lessons. To take some examples collected by the Brothers Grimm:

  • One can make music even in hell: “The Devil’s Sooty Brother.”

  • A hardy spirit can deal with adversity: “Good Bowling and Card-Playing.”

  • Disenchanting the magic in life brings negative consequences to the disenchanter: “The Beam.”

  • Placating the greedy only increases their demands: “Rumpelstiltskin.”

  • An embarrassing feature can be reimagined as a mark of distinction: “King Thrushbeard.”

Many folktales contain lessons about how to get along with the natural world. In the Grimms’ story “All Kinds of Fur,” the daughter of a lecherous king escapes from his control by disguising herself in a cloak woven from the fur of local animals, leaving behind a corrupt and unnatural hierarchy to return the woods and meadows. In “The Queen Bee,” a young son who prevents his brothers from destroying an ant hill, some ducks, and a bee hive goes on to accomplish three difficult tasks with help from ants, ducks, and a queen bee, even reviving his two brothers after they were turned to stone (Grimm et al, 1850/2014). Today we might know this as biomimicry: regarding nature as a mentor (Benyus, 2002), as when engineers study how termites build mounds that withstand earthquakes and regulate their own internal temperatures.

In the Hungarian folktale “The Grateful Beasts,” a young man blinded and lamed by envious brothers overhears crows talking about the health-restoring waters of a nearby lake and the sight-restoring dew covering an adjacent hillside. After healing himself, the young man uses the waters to heal a wolf, a mouse, and a bee. This looks like what ecotherapist Howard Clinebell called the Ecological Circle of mutual healing between human beings and the more-than-human world (1996). In the Korean tale of Princess Bari, the wood and water she carries turn out to possess the medicines that save her parents from death. How many forests do we lose every day that bear irrecoverable medicines?

Telling and hearing these kinds of tales can build appreciation for both the natural world and our own place of responsibility in it. When climate scientist and Jungian analyst Jeffrey Kiehl gives presentations on global warming, he starts with the Greek tale of Erysichthon, the greedy king who cut down the sacred groves of Demeter and used the lumber to build his palace. For this act of hubris he was cursed by Nemesis with insatiable hunger, causing him to eat all the food in his kingdom, then all the citizens, then his family, and then himself (Kiehl, 2015). When Chinese university students visited the school where I taught in San Francisco, I reminded them of the tale of Nuwa, who drew on nature’s power to save the world after Gong Gong, an ancient counterpart to the mountaintop removers of today, butted his head against Mount Buzhou and made the sky go dark. Where is Nuwa’s wisdom today? Akin to that perhaps of the science showing us how soil bacteria can serve as an antidepressant? “My grandmother told me to touch the soil often,” said one of the students; “turns out she was ahead of the scientists.” So was Nuwa.

When astronaut Taylor Wang looked down from orbit and saw Earth, he chose a Chinese folk tale to express the epiphany: A beautiful princess was waylaid by robbers determined to cut the jeweled rings from her fingers. But when they noticed her beauty, on the spot they swore to become her protectors (Kelly, 1988).

Mythology too takes on new relevance in an applied folklore approach to contemporary ecological concerns. In the story of the self-absorbed girl Psyche, put through an arduous initiation by Venus, she must humble herself and accept help from insects and animals in order to proceed. Embracing these extra-human relationships shrinks her narcissism, as is the case for people for whom trees, meadows, rivers, and animals have become persons through intimate association.

When the bees disappear from the hives of arrogant Aristaeus, he must sacrifice meat in order to bring them back. This ancient prescription gains new meaning in light of how meat production intensifies global warming and, indirectly but powerfully, Colony Collapse Disorder. The remedies within nature-evoking myths vary, but most of them insist on a decentering maturation from anthro and ego to eco.

Earthdreaming and Earthrise

In his letters, J.R.R. Tolkien coins the word sarumanism to denote the customary belief that only money, power, and publicity create change in the world (2000, p. 197). He firmly disagrees with this belief. It is (he points out to one fan) not the great generals, armies, or wizards who save Middle-earth, but the determined actions of little hobbits. And so it is in life.

Change on a large scale does not depend on huge, spectacular programs so much as on more modest actions performed soulfully and with devotion. Telling one myth at a time, for example. Writing a poem, like the one that saved a stand of redwoods. The novel Black Beauty improved the lot of taxicab drivers in London. The impact of such actions grows when they are linked, especially in chaotic times when a whisper can shake an entire complex system. Star Trek gave a message of optimism to millions of viewers, as one can see at any convention packed with people from all over the world wearing a common set of symbols—including the IDIC, the Vulcan emblem of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Science fiction and fantasy are contemporary faces of folklore.

My own blend of the above approaches and others too, including ecopsychology, depth psychology, dream studies, and Family Systems psychotherapy, goes by the name of earthdreaming, a body of imaginative Earth-honoring practices for enriching our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the natural world. It is a deep psychology not only of humans, but of everything we interact with. Combining interior exploration with responses we craft to address outer concerns, earthdreaming can be done in bits, as a phase of life, or as a life path. All the techniques, methods, and approaches mentioned previously belong within an earthdreaming regimen.

“Dreaming” can mean sleeping in an imaginal world at night, sinking into colorful reverie, or envisioning positive futures. The “dreaming” in earthdreaming refers to all three. And perhaps to a fourth, less tangible, sense too, as when Australian Aboriginals and Thomas Berry refer to the dreaming of the Earth.

One Christmas Eve long ago I went to bed in a terrible depression deepened by bad news on every side. The world was falling apart. But in the dream, I sat on a grassy hillside of the future and looked out into the most beautiful valley I had ever beheld. Crossed by clear streams alive with glowing fish, punctuated by lush green pines, the valley was dotted by earth-colored homes blended perfectly with their surround. This, I saw, was how we could live here on Earth. The sense of hope I woke up with has never left me.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, Earth rose like a dream image above the rim of the Moon as seen from Apollo 8, whose mission patch was an infinity sign. The first response of the astronauts was esthetic rather than objective, a moment of awe at the shining blue beauty of our homeworld.

Might the image of Earthrise be a new mythic image (Campbell & Moyers, 1991, p. 41), the archetypal beacon lighting the next step on the human journey into maturity? A step into realizing that the world is already an enchanted place, if only we had the eyes to see the beauty all around us?

The real ceremony begins where the formal one ends, when we take up a new way, our minds and hearts filled with the vision of earth that holds us within it, in compassionate relationship to and with our world (Hogan, 2007, 40-41).

In our day it’s trendy to disparage hope as unrealistic. For the ancient Greeks, however, Hope was a daemon or goddess, the power that could sustain us when all the infirmities from Pandora’s jar assailed us. The false hope of denial, apathy, or spiritual bypass prevents us from taking action where we must—but that action depends on being hopeful enough to imagine new ways forward. The Spanish word for hope, esperanza, bears the implication of moving from passive waiting to active expectation.

Things can be better because we can be better. And we become better when we outgrow disillusionment and circulate a folklore of hope.


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