The need for stories

mdeThe sky grew a darker shade of grey as I laboured up the sloping path towards Edge Wood. To my right, ominous black clouds licked about the isolated bulk of The Wrekin where Iron Age hill fort sits alongside TV mast and, together, they keep watch over the citizens of Wellington. To my left, I can just make out another partnership of hill fort and mast atop The Clee. The people of South Shropshire are held safe by the hills that surround them. Upon the folds of the land sit our ancestors, visible to all who care to look. In all the hamlets, villages and towns of South Shropshire, the ancient past is always just a glance to the horizon away. The Old Ones are always with us here. I like that. It offers a comforting sense of continuity.

Less comforting is the freezing rain that is beginning to lash against the side of my face. Holly looks up at me quizzically as we reach the top of the path, leave the protection of the woods and start out across the ridge line. This is the far end of Wenlock Edge, the limestone escarpment that cuts across this part of Shropshire, marking what was once the shoreline. The Edge is full of fossils, famous for its ammonites – the remains of creatures that once swam in warm oceans. The ancient past, older than the Old Ones, held in stone beneath our feet. Easy to spot in the paths I walk each day to exercise man and dog. The Past is constant here – a shadow presence that follows every step. It is not difficult to feel the weight of Time in these places.

The wind grows fiercer as we make our way along the Edge. I can feel the bitter cold through my walking trousers. My legs feel hot and tingly in response to the lash of the weather. Holly looks doubtful. But we persevere. The ridge line soon drops away here. We will soon be back in the protection of the woods. And I am quite enjoying this brief struggle with the elements. It makes me feel alive in a strong and particular way. And I wonder how the Old Ones felt about the weather. How they coped living atop the high places. How they perceived a wind this fierce. We can only presume, given the evidence, that they saw the wind as a being, an elemental entity, a sort of “god.” The evidence I refer to is contained in the myths and legends that have survived from older times. I am thinking of the Norse myths, of Thor, the God of Thunder. Of the Frost Giants. I am thinking of the old sailors’ tales of offerings made to calm stormy seas. Our ancestors told stories that personified the wind and other elements. Which meant that it was possible for them to form a relationship with the weather beings. Possible to make offerings, to send prayers, to have some influence over the weather. To have a measure of control over the vast elemental forces that dominated their lives. They were involved in a conversation with the world around them. A two way process. A reciprocal arrangement.


Contrast this with our modern view of the weather. To us high winds are dangerous and uncontrollable. They break things and get in the way of human business. They mess things up. They upset business as usual. To us, extreme weather events are things that we can, to some extent, predict and, to some extent, prepare for but they are not things with which we can have a conversation. To us, they just happen, not quite randomly, but, certainly, without consciousness. We are unable to conceive of weather as having any level of consciousness. Weather is remote, other, different. The wind is invisible and unknowable. We can see the damage it can do, but we cannot see the wind itself. We cannot hold it in our hands, cannot trap it or sell it. We certainly cannot reason with it, appeal to its better nature or influence it in any way. We laugh at the idea of indigenous peoples doing Rain Dancing to bring an end to drought. We dismiss the possibility of having a relationship with weather beings as fanciful nonsense, primitive superstition. We see ourselves as having superior understanding. We have proven scientifically that the wind is just the movement of air not a sentient being. We know better. We know that the act of dancing is unrelated to the onset of rain. We no longer waste our time on useless rituals. We are no longer delusional. We have progressed. We see clearly now how things really are.


At least that is the story we tell ourselves.


But what have we lost and how much have we gained as a result of our progress?

Do we have any more control over the weather than indigenous peoples or our own ancestors? I don’t think we do. We are just as much at the mercy of the weather as our ancient ancestors. Our superior knowledge grants us no advantage in this respect. We tell ourselves that our scientific understanding of the universe has been hugely beneficial to us and brought us great rewards but, in this particular case, it seems to me that we have gained nothing. A hurricane is still a hurricane. Drought still drought. We are still powerless in the face of them. With all our talk of progress, we have gained nothing.

And we have lost much. We have lost something crucial. We have lost our sense of connection to the weather and to the natural world in general. And, with that, we have lost hope. We have lost the hope that we can do things to influence the weather. We have rendered ourselves powerless against the storm. At least our ancestors felt that there were rituals they could perform, offerings they could make, actions they could undertake that would make a difference. Maybe their actions didn’t always have the desired effect but at least they felt like they had some power, some control. Their world view made them feel that their actions were important, that they had a part to play in the successful maintenance of the universe.

Our ancestors knew that how they lived mattered. It mattered to every other part of the universe. Everything is connected. Human actions have consequences beyond the human sphere.

We behave as if we can do as we like and there will be no consequences. We can burn all the fossil fuels, dump plastic in the oceans, chop down all the rainforest and there will be no consequences. It will all be okay. Somehow the planet will find a way to cope. Only now, when it’s probably too late, have we begun to realise that this is simply not the case. Our lack of a felt connection to our planet and all that inhabits it has eventually led us to a place where we are on the verge of rendering the human species extinct on an uninhabitable planet.

Twice in the past few years, I have spent a long weekend on a kind of Men’s Camp up in the Highlands of Scotland. The camps were led by an initiated elder of the Huichol people of Northern Mexico. One of the things I noticed about him was the way he spoke. He habitually talked about the “weather beings “ and “mountain spirits”, about animals as “brothers and sisters .” At first I thought that this was just a quaint affectation. Then I realised that it was just the way he spoke about the world. Then I realised that this was actually how he saw the world. He experienced the world in a very different way to myself. A way that I found that I liked. A way that was actually rather beautiful. And it made me remember that, as a child, I used to see the world in a way much more like that of the Huichol elder. As a child I knew that I had to perform certain rituals in order to keep the world a safe place. It was important that I didn’t tread on the cracks between paving stones. Vital that, on car journeys, I tapped my foot three times between each lamppost. Imperative that I spat into the toilet after peeing. Superstition, mental disorder, or a young child finding ways to have some feeling of control in a world in which he was largely powerless? As a child, I also lived in a world where objects were alive, no thing was inanimate, everything was sentient. My Action Men had conversations with each other. There was a dark force living in the loft space where I stored my comic collection. It took great courage for me to venture into there – it was a dangerous journey. I used to climb out of my bedroom window at night and wander around the garden in the dark. I liked the dark – it was comforting and I felt that, somehow, being out there, bathing in the moon’s glow, was a way to strengthen the latent super powers that I knew lay within me. Certainly, as a child, I perceived the world around me in a different way. I felt part of a lively, magical landscape which I had a responsibility to maintain correctly. I felt connected and I had a purpose.

Then, I suppose, I went to school and my teachers began the job of educating me. And I learned that talking to your toys and worrying about monsters in the wardrobe were childish ways to behave. I was taught that the appropriate way to see the world around me was with an attitude of objectivity and distance. The world was there to be recorded, weighed and measured which you could only do accurately if you remained detached and distant. My schooling drove a wedge between me and the world around me. The wedge was the concept that I was alive in a way that only humans were alive. Everything else, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, all the stars, all the other things, were either alive in a different, slightly lesser way, or not alive at all. In many ways it was a loss but it was the story that I had to learn to accept because it is the dominant story of our culture and time.

But it is still only a story. One amongst many. And stories change. When they need to change. When they no longer serve a useful purpose. When they no longer make sense. When they no longer seem relevant or true.

Sometimes stories survive with just a little adaptation, a tinkering around the edges, a fresh telling. Sometimes they have to be torn up and replaced with something completely different.

Because stories are how we make sense of the world. Stories are the means by which we bring order to the chaos of existence. We need them. We cannot bear the weight of life without them. We cannot stand the thought that life is a random series of events with no meaning or purpose. We need to create a narrative thread to make us feel secure. We need a path to follow through the dark woods of life’s existential indifference. I would go so far as to say that the need and ability to create stories defines what it is to be human.

So, we have to take great care about the stories we choose to tell. Especially those we tell to our children.

We are looking at a time right now when it is clear that the stories we have been telling ourselves of late are no longer fit for purpose. They are failing us. They no longer ring true. The dominant story of our present age has been that of Progress. Progress is universally accepted as “a good thing.”  But, along with the notion of Progress, come a number of other ideas that we have to accept with it. For Progress to exist our concept of Time has to be Linear. Also, we need to hold that Growth is Good and potentially Unlimited. Everything can get bigger and better and that should be our aim. We have been living in an age where Progress and Growth are worshipped as Gods. We are encouraged to Aspire to a Better Life.  To Want More. We have created a financial system that is structured around the desire for More. We have allowed this financial system to drive our social structures. Our systems of government, education, healthcare and defence are all designed to deliver Progress. Their success is assessed in terms of Progress Made. To hold up Progress as a moral imperative seems entirely natural to us.

But it has not always been the case. Neither is it the case now the world over.


Not so long ago and not so far away people were and are living their lives according to a different story. In this story Time is not Linear, Time is Cyclical. What is important is not getting from A to B but returning to A. The focus is not on the destination but the journey. The prevailing moral imperative is not Progress but Sustainability. The attitude behind this story is essentially conservative. It is about realising the value of what you have and not doing anything to jeopardise its availability to future generations. People living by this story tend to be living close to Nature. They are often farmers or hunters. Not hunters in our modern sense of hunting as a hobby or pastime. Hunters who hunt to provide food for their family. Hunters who hunt in order to live. People living by this story tend to celebrate the rhythms of the natural world. They mark key moments in the turning of the year – the equinox, the summer and winter solstice. And what makes these moments key is that they repeat, they return, they come and come again. These are the people that built Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. These ancient monuments are hugely impressive feats of engineering even to us today. It is humbling to imagine the scale of time and effort it would have taken our ancestors to build them. It shows how important the events these monuments were built to mark must have been to them. Go stand in the burial chamber at Newgrange and feel the power in that moment when the midwinter sun illuminates the space. Even the recreation of the moment for the benefit of tourists is enough to send a shiver down the spine. The skyscrapers and motorways that stand as our monuments to Progress, to Linear Time, just don’t carry the same charge. I think that is to do with this notion of connectedness. Our modern temples to Progress are built upon the land. They celebrate Mankind’s dominance, his success in using the land to his own ends. They are impositions upon the landscape. They celebrate the power of Mankind. They are not about our connection to the land. They are quite the opposite.

In contrast, the ancient monuments and stone circles that pepper the landscape of the British Isles seem to rise from the land. They stand very much in relation to it. They are, without doubt, the work of people who felt a connection to the landscape that we have lost. These monuments sit very comfortably in the land around them. If they do anything, they seem to amplify the power of the natural landscape. They celebrate a connectedness to the natural world. And, as a consequence, they are suffused with all the power of that world. No wonder our modern constructions, limited as they are to channeling the power of Man, seem shallow and pale in comparison.


So, as I reach the end of Edge Wood and dip gratefully out of the strengthening wind on to the wooded path that leads down to the winter ploughed fields, along to the Sytche campsite and eventually to home, I find myself in the strange situation of endorsing a worldview that is essentially conservative, supports hunting and is rooted in a rural perspective that celebrates longevity, dependability and routine. Which feels peculiar to a leftie, vegan urbanite who has spent his life championing creativity, change, permanent revolution. I am somewhat confused and conflicted. I am having to hold on to a paradox here. Because surely it is now time to change the dominant story in our culture. We have to – the old story is no longer fit for purpose. Constant Progress, Limitless Growth is going to destroy us. We are on a path to self destruction. Time for a new story. Which, I am suggesting, may well be an old story. Certainly, a different story.

So, it is time to start digging. Searching for stories. Time to start telling new stories. Time to start listening. To new stories and to the old stories. Time to start paying better attention. Time to become children again, eager for stories, all ears, open to Magic.

Once upon a time ……….


  1. Very well said, Andy, and beatifully put, and echoing so many of my own thoughts just now. Our progress stories endlessly have us striving out on the peripheries of consciousness; a consciousness that too often interprets its postion quite falsely using all the wrong (received) criteria. It’s like tai chi, isn’t it. If our thoughts are all fragmented, out at the edges, we are not attending to/residing in our core selves. The ancestors had initiation ceremonies for good reason; not merely to MARK the transition from child- to adulthood, but to create the means for becoming a fully grounded human who understood and honoured his/her relationships with fellow humans, knew their responsibilities and respected the natural world.


    • Yes, it is unbelievable really that we have no initiation into adulthood available to our young people. We just expect them to be able to muddle through somehow. There’s no deep sense of passing anything on. No continuity. No wisdom tradition. The aborigines say that our society is 3 days deep. Three days in the Bush and it all falls away. I guess that there is hope in that thought.
      I like your comparison with tai chi. Our attention is so dissipated these days. It’s good to have a practice that demands more focused awareness.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy! Where have you been? We have missed you! Glad to re-connect with you through your words. This essay has so much. I don’t think I can quickly comment so I won’t. I will re-read this and comment in depth later. However, I do have one quick statement and one quick question. What you say about the ancestors and the weight of time is so true about Britain. I experienced it when I was there. I don’t feel the weight of time and ancestors here where we live in Central California. I have to go far away to find it. Then a question arose in my mind: what is it like to live in Britain these days? Is it any harder or easier than anywhere else? I miss that feeling of the presence of the ancestors. I was thinking maybe my partner and I should come live in Britain for a few months some day in the future to see what living there is like.


    • “What is it like to live in Britain today?“ That is one heck of a question, Renee. I think that you have just inspired my next post. For reasons that I will explain there, I am intrigued by the ways in which we relate to the lands where we live and how that may lead to serious misunderstanding between inhabitants of different countries. Clearly that will need careful unpacking. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.


  3. Ach! I just wrote a long reply and it seems to have disappeared. I can’t re-write it right now. Family has woken up. I’ll just say Happy Christmas and Happy Solstice to you! Thanks for everything.


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