Storytelling and Ecology: Empathy, Enchantment, and Emergence in the Use of Oral Narratives

Storytelling and Ecology, from Bloomsbury Academic, is my first academic monograph. The writing of it – the second draft in particular – was quite an intense experience, since it coincided with the first five months of the pandemic. The concept of ‘lockdown’ was for me inseparable from being locked down in my study, hammering away at this book. An academic monograph is an exacting task; nearly every paragraph felt hard won, to be rewarded with a piece of dark chocolate before I tackled the next one. I was keenly aware of the irony of writing a book about oral storytelling – emphasising the importance of this being an embodied activity in which you’re connected to the people and place that are physically present – at a time when storytelling, in this sense, had become impossible and everybody was disconnected from the bodily presence of others.

Now the book is out, and storytellers too are nervously creeping out of their bunkers to meet embodied audiences once again. The ‘sense of connection’ elicited by storytelling was the core concept in my 2005 paper, also called Storytelling and Ecology, for the Society for Storytelling. If we want to make a positive difference to the state of the ecosystem, people need to connect with each other as well as to connect with the environment. An updated version of that paper is included as Chapter 1 of the new book. It is joined by chunky new chapters on ‘Storytelling as a Means of Conversation about Ecology and Sustainability’, ‘Time, Desire and Consequence in Ecological Stories’, ‘Ecological Enchantment of Local Landscapes’, ‘The Space of Transformative Stillness’, and ‘Supernatural Ecology and the Transcendence of Normative Expectation’. One of the luxuries of writing on this subject at book length is that I could include detailed studies of a number of ecological stories from diverse genres. Another is that I’ve been able to build a more substantial thesis of the potentials of storytelling in relation to nature connection and change.

The Zoom launch of the book is on Sunday 5 September 7.00–8.00 p.m. BST:

This event is free and includes contributions (including stories!) from Arran Stibbe, Charlene Collison, David Metcalfe, and Catherine Heinemeyer.

The book is also the impetus for a podcast, ‘Giving Voice to the Non-human’, in which Catherine Heinemeyer of York St John University talks with me and her colleague Liesl King about some ideas from my book and our shared interest in the science fiction of the late Ursula Le Guin:

I’ll conclude this post with the blurb from the back cover of Storytelling and Ecology:

Linking the ongoing ecological crisis with contemporary conditions of alienation and disenchantment in modern society, Anthony Nanson investigates the capacity of oral storytelling to reconnect people to the natural world and renew their experience of nature, place and their own existence. Through detailed analysis of traditional, true-life and fictional stories, Nanson shows how spoken narrative language can imbue landscapes, creatures and experiences with enchantment and transform our relationships with the ecological world around us.

‘Wise, precise, scientifically fluent while achingly expressive, this book reimagines storytelling for this moment of ecological emergency. Nanson opens up his story-crafting processes to illustrate how storytellers can integrate different forms of knowledge, and make space for listeners’ own explorations, emotions, and aspirations.’

Catherine Heinemeyer, Lecturer in Arts and Ecological Justice, York St John University, UK

‘Stories change lives; they challenge assumptions; they are also huge fun! And that is what Anthony shows so powerfully in this truly important book.’

Martin Palmer, Senior Advisor to WWF International on Beliefs and Values, UK

‘Nanson’s exploration of storytelling in relation to ecology is a sine qua non for eco-critics and eco-linguists. We must forget the speech-act, as Nanson, a master storyteller, brings us the story-act.’

Maria Nita, Lecturer in Religious Studies, The Open University, UK

‘Nanson does a great job of laying out how live story performance can build an emotional connection between listeners and the environment and shows how these emotional connections are critically important if we want people to take action.’

Kevin Strauss, Author of Tales with Tails: Storytelling the Wonders of the Natural World, USA

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