Air Date: Week of December 19, 1997
David Abram is a philosopher, ecologist, and magician who has traveled the world in search of the stories of indigenous peoples. He has lived with nonwriting communities in Nepal and Indonesia. In his book, “The Spell of the Sensuous,” he argues that the advent of the alphabet has had a profound and mostly unnoticed impact on our perception and our treatment of the natural world.
CURWOOD: Every year around this time we break from our usual format to bring you stories to usher in the winter season. This year, we begin by talking with a man who has thought a lot about storytelling. David Abram is a philosopher, ecologist, and magician who has traveled the world in search of stories of indigenous peoples. He has lived with non-writing communities in Nepal and Indonesia, and he has written a book, The Spell of the Sensuous, in which he argues that the advent of the alphabet has had a profound and mostly unnoticed impact on our perception and our treatment of the natural world. He says storytelling ties us to the land. And for nonwriting cultures, it is the means by which knowledge is passed down the generations.
ABRAM: All the basic knowledge that one needs regarding how to live and survive in a place has to be preserved somehow. For us it's very clear. It's written down, we go to the library, we find the right book, look it up, and there's the information there on the page. How is this knowledge preserved in a culture without writing? And the answer is that the knowledge must be preserved in stories. The stories are like the ancestral encyclopedias of a nonwriting culture.
CURWOOD: I'm really curious. Could you tell us about some of the stories you've encountered on your travels?
ABRAM: Well, yes. There's one of the stories from the Swampy Cree people of northern Canada. The story is about a trickster fellow who's walking along, and he finds a wishing bone. And this wishing bone enables him to sort of wish up things any way that he wants. So he says, "Well, one day I wished all the squirrels had their tails pointing North. I made them point North just by wishing it. I walked along a trail and saw squirrels on the ground and up in the trees, all with their tails pointing North. It was as if a great wind was blowing North and trying to take those squirrel tails with it. "It's so weird you would do this to us," one of them said. "Well, I got lost once," I told them, "and I couldn't find my way North. If that happens again, I'll just follow your tails." Then the squirrels called someone for help. It was a skunk. I wasn't too happy about this. I was standing just North of that skunk, kind of close to him. He said, "Let their tails go, and I'll show you which way North is." Then he pointed his tail North, right at me! I wished the squirrel tails back their old way. But that skunk still had his tail pointed at me. I tried to get away but it was too late! I ran South shouting, "He sprayed me!" For days, everyone knew in their noses (sniffs) which way South was. Because of me. So this simple tale, it carries all sorts of useful knowledge for the culture. Knowledge about knowing your directions, and the importance of knowing your directions. About not being too cocky, because it can backfire upon you. Knowledge about the other animals in one's terrain.
CURWOOD: So in other words, in oral societies, storytelling is really about survival.
ABRAM: Indeed. If it didn't engage in storytelling all the time, the culture would fall apart.
CURWOOD: What role does land play, and nature play, in aboriginal storytelling?
ABRAM: Well you see, for nonwriting peoples, the question remains how, if all the knowledge is carried in the stories, how are the stories preserved and remembered? It turns out that they are remembered by being associated very often with particular places, particular sites in the natural landscape where those stories occurred. And when a tribesperson encounters those places, he remembers the particular events, the particular stories associated with those places.
CURWOOD: What happens then, when you develop a phonetic alphabet?
ABRAM: You see, the intimacy between language and the land begins to break down. Once writing comes in, and the stories begin to be written down, they are stripped from the creeks and the boulders and the clusters of trees that once held those stories. And they're stripped off those sites and inscribed on the page. The page and now the book becomes the primary memory trigger of the stories. And so the stories can now be carried elsewhere and read in distant cities and on distant continents and the place-based character of those stories, their rootedness in the particular ecology, is easily forgotten.
CURWOOD: All right. How do you propose that we reacquaint people with storytelling?
ABRAM: Well, I think it's something that is layered so deeply into us, and into ourselves as it were, we were all of storytelling cultures for so many millennia. It's really just a matter of scratching the surface of our skin to begin to remember what it is to tell and to listen to stories. Children know this, and it's only once they learn to read and write around the age of 6 or 7 that they begin to learn and accept what the adults are saying, that the tree itself does not really have its own awareness. And that the boulders themselves don't really have a life of their own. But I think it really is our spontaneous, ordinary human experience of the world to feel that everything is alive, and indeed that everything has the potential for speech. We don't only need to go to the movies to find a good story or pick up a book, but we can actually begin to tell stories ourselves, even improvising stories in the moment. Taking our kids out of doors and walking them over to the forest edge and telling a story, weaving a story with them about what happens just inside this forest every full moon. It's a beginning to weave stories about the places where we live. Is to begin to plant language back in the land and to begin to renew this ancient reciprocity between language and the landscape.
CURWOOD: David Abram, thanks for taking this time with us today.
ABRAM: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: David Abram's book is called The Spell of the Sensuous. It's published in paperback by Vintage.
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