Alida Gersie’s Earthtales (review)

412eh8b4itl._sx292_bo1204203200_Alida Gersie’s celebrated Earthtales is, in large part, a collection of traditional tales that have to do with the earth and its creatures. Most are from cultures that have been endangered by the imperialism of Western modernity, which by the same token are cultures with a long history of coping with ecological challenges. Thus they come mainly from Africa and indigenous America and Australia, a few from Asia, just four from Europe.

But. as the subtitle – Storytelling in Times of Change – hints, the book is much more than a collection of tales. The introduction and the sequencing of the stories in seven sections frame the material for use with groups of people who are engaging in some process of change. Alida’s approach to the challenge of environmental crisis is distinctively that of an arts therapist who works with groups. She sees the roots and solutions of our ecological problems as existing in the interface between the psychology of individuals and the necessity of cooperating in some form of community. Storytelling, and storymaking, provides a vehicle to address processes of change at a simultaneously personal and collective level.

To that end, each story in Earthtales is followed by a structure of group activities, including talking, writing, movement, painting, and sound-making. These follow the same design that Alida previously introduced in Storymaking in Education and Therapy: the aim is that through following the exact sequence of activities presented in each structure the group undergo a participatory experience that’s therapeutically analogous to the journey of transformation narrated in the story. The group and its members thereby get the opportunity to experience change right there in the groupwork, which may then carry over into their lives and relational dynamics beyond the group.

The introductions to the seven sections of stories, taken together, outline a metanarrative of group change, from the formation all the way through to the final dispersal of the group. At every stage, Alida emphasises, challenges and pain are to be expected. Even when there is progress and accomplishment, there may be power struggles over leadership, or individuals may drop out, or certain people will carry the dark side of a process that to everyone else seems delightful. The stories are selected to match these stages of group transformation. They’re chosen not on the basis of their entertainment value or because they convey a neat, relevant message, but rather for their capacity to provoke thought, feelings, and change. Many are well suited for retelling by ecologically minded storytellers, but some are perhaps too dark to tell outside a therapeutic context.

Earthtales is the only one of Alida’s books currently out of print, but second-hand copies can be found on Amazon and elsewhere. It’s a book of special relevance to those, interested in stories and concerned about today’s intensifying challenges to environment and community, who have the expertise to hold a group of people undertaking a transformative process.

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