The Alliance for Wild Ethics is engaged in the ongoing and many-faceted work of rejuvenating oral culture – the culture of face-to-face and face-to-place storytelling.* We excavate stories that live in the land, stories rooted in particular places, tales that contain not just human characters but other animals who figure as protagonists, mentors, and tricksters, wherein local plants dynamically deploy their powers, wherein river-bends and boulder-strewn mountainsides enact their own active part in the tales. By rejuvenating oral culture, we resuscitate and preserve traditional ecological knowledge systems and the place-based practices carried and handed down in the stories.
Allies seek out and learn from the layered folklore of the particular bioregions where we undertake these projects, laboring to gain the confidence of native elders and healers indigenous to the region, visiting with old farmers whose families who have lived with and learned from the land generation after generation. We invite such elders and other locals to join us on rambles through the terrain, and to share with us songs and tales that hold something of the unique efficacy and dreaming of the place, and to help us discern the most potent ways to renew and replenish those traditions.
In each case we work to ultimately bring diverse residents of the watershed together, out on the land, to participate in fresh tellings of those local stories, weaving the tales – and the songs and even the dances that sometimes accompany those tales – into seasonal rituals that can gradually, year by year, bind the community ever more deeply into the more-than-human dynamics of the local terrain. Our simple conviction is that we cannot restore the land without restorying the land.
One installment of this project unfolded in the summer of 2015, in the mountains and valleys of Western Norway, where the Alliance for Wild Ethics brought field biologists and storytellers from Europe, Britain, and the United States together with local farmers, craftspeople, and elders for a weeklong ramble on foot through a region steeped in old, bioregional traditions, walking from the central mountains of Norway through rural valleys and millenium-old yet still active farming settlements, down to the edge of the longest fjord in Europe, listening to and learning place-based stories as we went, breathing fresh life into the tales, empowering local tellers and singing up the land, according a new and deeply felt primacy to evolving place-based ecological traditions in the face of the rapidly spreading technological monoculture.
AWE returned to the same region a year later, in the summer of 2016, this time hiking the same route – the same songline – but now in reverse, making our way up from the small fishing hamlet of Aurland, on the Sognefjord, up through valleys articulated by innumerable waterfalls, encamping once again at a different farm each night, listening and telling in fresh forms the many tales we’d first heard the year before, and in this way planting those stories (many of which had been all but forgotten) back in the living landscape. Through our efforts in tandem with the local farmers and goatherds, the terrain is beginning to hold those potent stories once again, carrying the tales in particular places where the more-than-human mix of cliff and rushing water, of wild herbs and creatures and weather beaten trees now compel fresh regard and protection, and hence are vibrant with fresh life.
By undertaking such place-based projects in different bioregions, discovering what works (and what doesn’t) in divergent situations and divergent cultures, AWE is gradually assembling a pool of necessary insights and best practices for the ecological work of renewing oral culture. That is, for the ongoing work of aligning our human communities with the more-than-human collectives that sustain them. In the language of social theorist Ivan Illich, we are assembling a set of “tools for conviviality” – practices for replenishing an ethic of reciprocity between people and places.
* The very useful term “face-to-place” was coined by Marc Tognotti.