We have all heard the Aesop fable about the woodcutter who accidentally lost his axe in a river. The sentient river is moved by the weeping woodcutter and produces a golden axe, then a silver axe, from its depths, asking if it was the one he lost. The honest woodcutter shakes his head no for each of them and only accepts when the river fetches his own, inexpensive wooden axe. Impressed by his nobility, the river showers him with rewards. Although not explicit, the inherent moral that this fable is successfully propagating is that natural resources aren’t abundant and should be consumed mindfully and sustainably.
A similar folktale traveled between the ears of the Kokama people of the Peruvian region. The Kokama people considered their lakes as their magical madre or mother. The story believed that these enchanted lakes were capable of morphing into enormous boa constrictors and swallowing the greedy fishermen who might overfish. As the myth is cemented deeply in their culture, the locals often avoid overstaying at the bank of these lakes. Instead of adopting an anthropocentric logic where humans are the focal point and the rest of the environment exists simply to benefit them, traditional myths and legends largely tended to employ a more ecocentric approach where humans and non-humans coexisted in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Like how our mothers always warned that a Poochandi will steal us away at night if we didn’t finish our meal, several indigenous tales nurture the importance of conserving and protecting nature by seeding in a fear of punishment or death. By further assigning a higher, spiritual power to the elements of nature, these stories built respect for natural resources among the community, however tall and superstitious their claims were.
Several spiritual beliefs and religions of the world revolve around nature worship – from the Pagans who believed that the natural cycle of birth, growth, and death entailed deeper, spiritual meanings, to your local Maariyamma (Maari means Rain) who slowly took the form as a goddess, even though the practice initially began as simply Rain worship.
In Riders to the Sea, author JM Synge catalogs the lifestyle of the Irish fisher community and their perception of the ocean in harrowing detail. Not only is the sea their major source of income and livelihood itself, but it is also their biggest threat to life in the form of rash floods and cyclones. In such stories, we are reminded of the fragility of human life in front of the enormity of nature.
Unlike the anthropocentric, majorly-western and capitalist viewpoint, humans are not the ones that are wielding absolute power over and exploiting the ecosystem. The environment isn’t simply a backdrop in these stories. It plays an active role in moving the plot and amply influences the lives of the human characters. In this way, local myths also paint the Environment as an unpredictable force that would not only provide protection for humanity but can also turn into a destructive force at times. Instead of trying to assert dominance over their habitat, these stories showed how humans could accommodate the unchangeable ways of nature.
Another significant way through which storytelling encourages eco-consciousness in people is by employing Anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism can be defined as the practice of attributing human characteristics, emotions, and behavior to non-human entities, in this case, Nature. The closer we are able to relate our human experiences with nature, the better we allow ourselves to appreciate it. Even when it comes to eco-centric literature, we cannot forget that they too are creations of the human mind. Therefore, Nature’s stories are every bit more human than their own. From Indian Panchatantras to Samaniego’s Spanish fables, animals have forever been sentient beings who can think, feel and act human. Who could forget the bedtime Panchatantras about clever monkeys, wicked crocodile wives, and wise old owls?
In these ways, local stories have been cogs in shaping an eco-conscious and eco-sensitive mindset in people across the world. However, the new wave of scientific thought that is studied largely through a myopic lens of western ideas has led to the rejection of these myths. The fantastical elements of these traditional stories become illogical and useless in its eyes. Regardless, these stories always find a way of being passed and revisited – be it in storytelling conferences or under the nightlamp in your grandmother’s tender voice.
- Keeping indigenous stories alive – mongabay.com
- “Man is the Story-Telling Animal”: Graham Swift’s Waterland, Ecocriticism and Narratology by ASTRID BRACKE
- The Influence of Environment upon the Religious Ideas and Practices of the Aborigines of Northern Asia Author(s): M. A. Czaplicka
The Honest Woodcutter – Wikipedia