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CREATING NEW ENVIRONMENTAL STORIES

By Kevin Strauss, www.naturestory.com

(This material was produced in part with a Brimstone Grant from the National Storytelling Network, www.storynet.org)

 

Why develop new environmental stories?

You many want to develop an original environmental story if the stories that you can find:

 

—Reinforce negative and counter-productive animal stereotypes (wolves and snakes being “evil” or mosquitoes being the ashes of a cannibal giant)

—Are set in too “foreign” an environment

—Are too anthropomorphic

—Simply don't exist

 

What a Story Needs

All stories from folktales to fiction books to movies need a few important things to be effective.

All stories need:

1. Lively and interesting Characters

Stories are about characters. The best characters for any story are those with whom the audience can relate. The audience needs to find a connection with a character to enjoy a story. Characters are often likable underdogs, because we often feel that we are underdogs and want to succeed. In the case of animal characters, most audiences seem to like stories in which smaller animals outwit larger “bully” animals.

2. A Crisis or Change (the "dangerous opportunity")

If a narrative doesn’t include a crisis or a change, then it isn’t really a story; it is just a recitation of events. The change can be external, like a beaver getting a flat tail or people cleaning up a polluted lake, or internal, in which a character learns an important lesson.

3. A Beginning, Middle and End ("bones" of story)

Aristotle said it over 2,000 years ago, but it still holds true today, most stories need to have a beginning, middle and end.

a. The Beginning sets the time and place for a story (sets the scene) and introduces the characters.

b. The Middle of a story is where the action takes place. This is where the crisis appears and the characters struggle. This is the “body” of the story.

c. The End of a story is where the characters resolve the crisis or experience the change. This is also where we learn how story is relevant today (why the sky is blue, why children should listen to their elders). Stories need to have "a point," a reason to be told: Does it teach a lesson? Make you laugh? Inspire you?

Creating original nature explanation stories

There may be times when you just can’t find a useful story to illustrate the concept of “adaptation” for a nature program. These "why" stories explain how an animal or plant got to be the way it is today. Stories like "Why Bear Has a Stumpy Tail" and "How Birds Got their Colors" fall into this category. Remember that explanation stories can explain a physical feature, like a wolf's sharp teeth, or a behavior, like why the sun lives in the sky.

If you can't find the right kind of explanation story to suit your purposes, take the opportunity to create an original one. The creation of new stories can be daunting for beginning storytellers, but with a few simple steps and practice, you can develop explanation stories that are as compelling as traditional tales.

Sometimes it is easier to work backwards to create stories that explain things like a beaver’s flat tail or bear’s hibernation.

 

Model #1: The Nature Explanation Story-Builder

Start by drawing four large boxes on a piece of paper. These are your “story boards.”

1. Decide what you want your story to teach. Put that at the top of your page. (Do you want a story about how wolves got sharp teeth or why beavers build dams?)

2. Decide on the ending for your story. Draw a picture of this ending in the last box on your paper (i.e. now beaver has a flat, scaly tail).

3. Decide how the animal looked (or acted) when the story started (i.e. "Once beaver had a round, furry tail like fox and squirrel…).

4. Decide why the animal's body or behavior changes in the story. Did its tail get burned? Or frozen in the ice? Try to make this step logical or at least imaginatively possible. Whatever happened to the animal should be both unexpected and appropriate.

5. Then go to the beginning of the story and write the beginning and middle so they meet up with your ending.

When you prepare to tell your new nature explanation story, don’t begin by telling the name of the story, since that gives away the end of the tale. You don’t want your listeners to know what the story will be about too early, since that ruins some of the mystery and excitement of the tale. Once you have developed your story, tell it over and over to hone and craft it with a live audience.

Example Story: Sun and Moon

Long ago, Sun and Moon were the best of friends. They would go for walks together and play together and talk together. But as time went on, Moon began to fell overshadowed by her friend. It didn’t matter if she were around, since Sun gave so much light. So Moon decided to go somewhere where she might be noticed. She traveled to the other side of the world and from that day to this she has lighted our nights.

 

Turning Natural History Into Stories

History provides great examples for environmental and science stories. These stories demonstrate how past human choices affect us now and they can make it easier to illuminate the importance of conservation and pollution control today. They can also demonstrate examples of science concepts like the food chain or predator/prey relationships. Often magazines like Audubon or International can give you ideas for natural history stories and stories about how ordinary people have worked to make a difference in the world.

 

The Danger of Using Environmental Urban Legends

But we must be careful about taking some of these “natural histories” at face value. According to storyteller Fran Stallings, in her research for environmental “fact tales” she found a great deal of fake environmental history stories on the Internet. One example is “Parachuting Cats Into Borneo.”

You can find this story all over the Internet, and that should be your first clue that it probably isn't true.

“Parachuting Cats Into Borneo” is a wonderful story that seems to explain the impact of pesticides on the food chain. Unfortunately it isn't true. Stories like are a kind of environmental urban legend. Some of these stories are so good that they spread like wildfire in the environmental education community, often being recorded in nature center lesson plans and even textbooks from the 1980's. The only problem is that like the urban legends of “Spiders in the Hairdo” or “The Choking Doberman” that we all heard as teenagers, these environmental urban legends aren’t true, even though they are often presented as factual history.

Just as it would be inappropriate for a high school history teacher to teach fake history like "slavery never occurred in the United States," it would be inappropriate for storytellers to tell fake natural history, no matter how well-meaning they may be.

Spreading fake natural history stories may seem like a way to build support for environmental stewardship or to help students understand science lessons, but doing that builds a house of cards. Once listeners discover that a particular "natural history story" is really just a fairy tale, they will begin to doubt everything else that you told them. Do yourself a favor and maintain your credibility by researching your natural history stories. Besides, with so many documented examples of how humans really are affecting their environment, there are plenty of real natural history stories to tell. It is important that natural histories be history and not another kind of urban legend.

 

How To Avoid Environmental Urban Legends

To avoid perpetuating environmental urban legends, look for a reference on any supposed “natural history story.” Most wildlife, science and nature magazines provide well-researched information.

Factual natural history stories should have references to a doctorate-level researcher and a university or scientific journal article to back them up. Also, ask yourself is this story “too good to be true.” If it is, perhaps the story isn’t true. You can also look for frauds and urban legends using "urban legend" websites on the Internet.

Two of my favorite web resources are from Science News magazine: www.sciencenews.org/ as well as www.sciencenewsforkids.org.

 

Developing Factual Natural History Stories

 

To develop your own natural history stories, follow the steps below.

1. Choose an animal or plant to be the center of the story.

2. Research your organism. Find out what it eats, how it lives and how it protects itself.

3. Then use one of the two options below:

 

Model #2: Animal Encounter Story-Builder

Develop a story based on an encounter your organism has with an enemy or danger. If you choose to tell your story from the organism’s perspective, try to do so without being anthropomorphic (i.e. The Three Little Pigs).

Example Story: Deer’s Run

One day deer was walking through the forest when she smelled something. It was a strange smell, but one she recognized: wolf. She looked left and right. She didn’t see a wolf, so she did what she did best—run. She leaped over fallen trees and around tree trunks. Deer heard the sound of animals behind her. She put on even more speed as the gray shapes closed on her. She put on even more speed as she approached a fence. She could see the strands of barbed wire. She leaped up and over that fence, leaving the wolves behind. The pack probably could have jumped the fence, but the smell of people nearby made them cautious and they turned back to the woods.

 

Model #3: Species Recovery Story-Builder

Research a real natural history event, such as the extirpation (local extinction) and recovery of beavers in North America or the impact of Dutch elm disease on elm trees and forests in the United States.

Example Story: Dutch Nightmare on Elm Street (Natural History)

In the 1950s, towns and forest in the Midwest were covered with the graceful arching branches of elm trees (Ulmus americanus). The elms grew so thick along the main street of my hometown that their branches interlaced over the street, making a tunnel of green leaves and shade on the hot summer days.

But then it happened. The forester began cutting down the sick trees, hoping that would stop the problem. The lab scientists found that a fungus had infected the elm trees. They called it “Dutch elm disease.” The fungus came from Europe, probably on tree trunks or the backs of bark beetles. This fungus ate trees from the inside out. Bark beetles carried the fungus from elm tree to elm tree. Soon most of the elms in the town had turned yellow. Sunlight streamed down onto the streets. Urban forests of elm trees became a graveyard of dead trunks.

Now nature has its cycles. The elms were gone. But after the city forester cut down and burned the dead trees, he planted new trees in their place. But he didn’t plant elms. He planted sugar maples and oaks and ash trees and spruce. Today, some of these trees are very large. They don’t reach their branches over the street to make a shady tunnel in the summer, but they give us a bit of shade. When we asked the forester why he planted so many different kinds of trees in town, he looked at us and said, “diversity is the key to stability,” and went on with his work. Never again has a disease stripped our town of its trees.

(Source: Several books and websites describe Dutch elm disease ad its effects on cities. One source is from the University of Minnesota Extension Service http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/naturalresources/components/3765a.html)

 

Model #4: The Environmental Issues Story-Builder

1. Choose an issue (like deforestation, over-fishing or global climate change).

2. Research at least two sides of the issue with book resources or on the Internet. Look for scientific evidence for what will happen in the future if human actions don't change.

3. Choose a character and location or your story. Tell your story through the character's eyes, whenever possible. The character may be a human, animal or plant.

4. Choose a concrete problem or crisis that you could discuss in a story. Create a turning point or tipping point in which we see the effect of this environmental problem.

5. Decide on an ending. It could be a solution to the problem or a "cliffhanger" in which you stop the story and let listeners look discuss solutions to the environmental problem.

Example Story: Birch Tree Migration (effects of Global Warming)

She didn't know what was happening. She held her white branches in the air and dropped her yellow seeds every winter. Humans called her a "paper birch," but that didn't matter to her. Each year she grew taller on the hillside watching the sun rise and fall. But as the years went by, she noticed fewer and fewer of her sisters growing in the valley to the south. The summers grew warmer and warmer every year. Soon her seeds wouldn't sprout in the too-warm soil. New bugs and diseases began to take her sisters one by one until she was the only birch on the hillside. She could still see a few sisters on a hill far to the north. The trees that grew up around her looked different than she did, with their thick brown bark and acorns. Tall grasses sprouted up at her roots as the north woods faded and the savannah spread across the hill.

(This is an example of a story that "could be true" given about 50 years. Already more oak trees are sprouting in parts of northern Minnesota that used to be the exclusive home of more northerly species like paper birch and white pine.)

 

Model #6: The Environmental Hope Story-Builder

Environmental stories should motivate people to care for our natural world. I try to tell stories that show how humans have successfully solved an environmental problem that they caused earlier. Stories about the reintroduction and recovery of endangered species like the gray wolf and bald eagle are great examples of humans protecting and restoring the natural world. These are the stories that we must tell if we want people to care for the natural world. People need to see that it is possible to fix the problems we are causing in the environment. People need to know that things can get better and they can help. People should feel empowered by stories and believe that they have the capacity and opportunity to affect change in our world.

Example story: The Eagle’s Return

Eagles used to soar up and down the mighty Mississippi. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s, people saw fewer and fewer eagles soaring and diving to grab fish in their talons. Researchers found that eagle pairs where hatching fewer and fewer eggs, because of poisoning from a chemical called DDT. Politicians passed laws that banned the chemical and protected eagle habitat with new laws. At first eagles were still rare. But then year after year, more and more eagles appeared in the banks of the Mississippi. Now, in the winter, you can see hundreds of their birds flock near Winona, Wisconsin, soaring over he water and diving to grab fish in their talons.

 

Turning personal events into environmental stories

Our lives and personal histories are a goldmine for environmental stories. You can use a childhood nature encounter or real-life animal encounter to explain environmental education concepts. You can tell a story about a special outdoor place from childhood, or a memory of what happened to a favorite forest or wetland when developers turned them into strip malls or housing developments.

Be careful when developing these stories that you do not create an “us versus them” image in which conservationists are always “good” and developers or corporations are "bad." This simplistic interpretation of the world ignores the complexity of environmental problems and will more likely either make people feel guilty or push people away from conservation messages. Instead, focus on the emotional impact of changes that you see in the environment. How did those changes affect you personally? How have you changed your own lifestyle to conserve our resources? Remember, developers build houses for us and farmers grow food for us. We are part of the problem and part of the solution. It will cost all of us more time and money to take better care of the environment. The question is, do we make that investment now, or in 10 years when the problems will be worse and cost more to fix.

 

The Danger of “Doom and Gloom” Environmental Stories

As a naturalist and a storyteller, I dislike how some environmental activists use “gloom and doom” stories to frighten people into recycling, conserving water or banning a particular pesticide. Those scary stories often leave listeners feeling helpless about the current state of our world.

When telling natural history or personal nature stories, I avoid creating “doom and gloom” stories with themes like “If we don’t conserve energy, all of our lakes will turn to acid (from acid rain),” or “If we don’t recycle, we will soon be buried in garbage.”

These catastrophic story lines can often leave listeners feelings overwhelmed and powerless. While fear can be a useful motivator in some cases, it only works if a listener can do something personally to alleviate the crisis. Environmental problems, by their very nature are too big for any single person to solve them. We need to work together to find and implement solutions.

When I am telling environmental stories, I want to help people connect with and care about the natural world. I also want to encourage people to change their behavior to take better care of our home planet. Stories that make people throw up their hands and give up won’t succeed at either of these goals.

Contact Us:

Environmental Storytelling Institute

kevin@naturestory.com

Phone: (507) 993-3411

Portions of this website were made possible with a grant from the National Storytelling Network. www.storynet.org

(c) 2006 Tales with Tails Storytelling Programs

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