16 May 2013

Thoughts on the importance of storytelling

Jenn Poniatowski

This post has been republished here with permission from the author. It originally appeared here.

The opening ceremony of the Eighth International Aquarium Congress. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

“He made a story for all of them, a story to give them strength. The words of the story poured out of his mouth as if they had substance, pebbles and stone extending to hold the corporal up ... knees from buckling ... hands from letting go of the blanket.” – Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

My husband went to Cape Town, South Africa, last fall for an event called the “International Aquarium Congress (IAC)”, which happens every four years. This most recent meeting’s theme was about inspiring change through sharing stories and experiences…

After working in the public aquarium industry myself for a number of years, I have to say, some of the experiences I had left me with a bad taste in my mouth for the practice of keeping animals in captivity. Having been up to my knees in death, having seen what I saw, the horrors that I was an accomplice to, left my own sensitive and caring spirit scarred and raw in some places for many years after. Disillusioned and adrift in my own soul, it took me a long time to forgive myself.

I began to ask, why not put our energies and resources fully into the wild instead? Know that in many cases, animal care and life support staff will work round the clock, weekends and holidays, to keep everything stable and healthy as possible for the creatures living there. What if we put that level of dedication into the real environment?

“I will tell you something about stories. They aren’t just entertainment. They are all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.” – Leslie Marmon Silko

My love returned from Cape Town on fire. There were incredible stories told during the Congress. The opening ceremony moved many to tears. He connected with the land, the local animals, the people and was immersed in forward thinking. Delegates spoke of green economies, developing tourism and creating jobs through sustainable practices. There was open dialogue about the impacts of human behaviour on the environment. What was NOT at the Congress? There was not a question of whether or not to “believe” that the course we’re on is leading to potential catastrophe, like we hear so much in United States politics and policy.

Just recently, we received the video of the opening ceremony so I was able to watch it in full – the story of the oceans was told through song, poetry, drumming and stunning visuals. That night, I couldn’t sleep – at all. My mind was reeling. I felt trapped by my geography – a little claustrophobic even. I could see how in my own country, this presentation would potentially be edited down to nothing. The truth of it would be diluted, I think, whitewashed, “nothing to see here folks, move along…”

Ending with hope

Sometimes I feel like Cassandra of Troy – I see runaway freight trains hell-bent on destruction: this one called Fracking, another GMOs, then Tar Sands and Climate Change thunder along, oh my and it seems like all is lost. I see, or maybe it’s a cellular memory, a doomed civilisation. And like Cassandra, the ancient priestess, betrayed by her god, no one will believe what is coming. Or, maybe they are too tired, too focused on just surviving in “this economy”. Some are lost to fragmentation and feelings of powerlessness. And/or, the messages are so loud, so frequent, a soul fatigue prevents new action, new thought. We get desensitised and numb, and environmental despair sets in.

But then ... I learn of a place called the “Two Oceans Aquarium”, thusly named for the waters that border Cape Town, and I see this presentation of storytelling that is utterly beautiful, even if raw and painful – as I listened to the searing poetry spoken by an impassioned woman, backed by a chorus of children, accompanied by chants and native instruments, I kept thinking, “Oh Please, let this end with hope. I won’t be able to bear it if it doesn’t end with hope.”

Joe came home filled with amazing stories – the badges they wore had beaded chains made by HIV+ women in need of work. The tables used could be purchased by attendees and given to schools. It was an amazing event and every morning he woke to a view of the awesome Table Mountain of Cape Town. In a helicopter tour over the sea, Joe spotted the great white shark cruising the waters below, and the southern right whale. Story after inspiring story unfolded.

I want to go. I want to soak up the vibe! I’m so hungry for it.

Marine storytellers

Yes, there was a message of hope. There is work to be done in South Africa to be sure, where poverty and unemployment continue to cause suffering. They spoke to that too, and to creating growth and change through “green practices”. One presenter used the term “marine storyteller” ... and that stuck with me, reverberating like the tone of a bell, felt within. I heard that and was reminded that the best way to stay sane, to hold and create a vision of a “whole” world, is through telling and listening to stories.

The ocean is the ultimate life-giver – her health is directly related to the health of us all. I’m also reminded by the ceremony to keep my eyes on the beauty that remains. I’m shown examples of other human beings who are impassioned leaders working hard to create a better outcome for us all.

Marine storytellers ... that is what the creatures in aquariums are and what those in the wild are. From the delicate on up, they have wisdom, they have punch (the mantis shrimp has enough force and ferocity to crack aquarium glass), they are living beauty. I did know death in my job, but I sure knew life too and was forever altered by it. These stories are our stories and ultimately have the power to stave off the crisis of environmental despair and soul paralysis.

If you would like to learn more about the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, I hope you’ll explore their website. Maybe I’ll see you there one day! Here is a great interview with Dr Pat Garratt, managing director. Just recently they released two ragged-tooth sharks back into the wild.

As for me, I hope to go out and within, to listen well, and then share these precious and vital stories ... marine storyteller, indeed.

Stay in touch: For daily Aquarium updates, follow us on Twitter (@2OceansAquarium) and become a fan on Facebook.

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