Friday, December 18, 2009

Landscape & Myth

Musing, it comes to me that the stories we know - the stories we live by - otherwise known as myth - are radically different based on where we live. The urban city is utterly different than any small town or farm, and the differences only begin there.

Last Friday morning, I was witness to an incredibly large sandhill crane southward migration, directly over the heart of the city of Chicago. In fact, they flew directly over where I live. Large flocks, by the hundreds, flew over for at least an hour. I understand now that this was only the tail end; even larger numbers flew over the same route last Thursday.

It came to me that this was a story I did not know, one that was not known deep inside me. If we don't experience something like this, we don't actually feel it. Bird migration was something that happened, elsewhere, high up in the sky; amazing in many ways, but a mental construct for me, not a living, honking sight. These large flocks of noisy cranes really have to be seen to understand the power in the action.

The city engages us with a completely different type of story, one of construct, man-made materials, neighborhoods, commerce. We can't get away from these in other places, but levels and space and materials are all different. City stories are not really nature stories. "Getting away" to nature for a while is not the same as day-to-day living in a place where, say, the sandhill cranes usually migrate over.

(An aside - I just read a research study that it is hugely more likely for those involved in serious hiking and backpacking to support conservation efforts than for those involved in nature tours - seems length of experience must be the tipping factor). The power of the natural world has to be lived in to be fully felt, just as the power of the urban must be lived in to be understood. I know of people who have been afraid to drive into Chicago, even living only an hour away in a suburb.

Where we are is a powerful indicator of the stories, the myths, we feel or know. These stories are neither wrong nor right, on a personal level. As a child, the fabric of the myths surrounding you creates your world. They make up what you know and how you know it.

But we do grow up, and have the opportunity to learn new stories, to experience ways we are not familiar with. Experiencing the sandhill cranes flying over my house can change me by allowing me to understand a powerful force that I thought I knew, but just didn't know deep enough.

Knowing possibilities allows us to question other stories being lived. I think of wolf hunts in Alaska from helicopters, one of many examples, and I question how that could possibly be a useful story to live in. But unless I am there, seeing and feeling the particulars, I cannot know, for sure, whether it is a story that needs to be told. It is a different story than those I am familiar with. I guess that I might end that story a different way. But can I make that call?

In the world today, and certainly in the United States, there really are no myths that everyone lives by. If different landscapes provide different myths, and so many other factors affect our stories as well, how could one story effect every person the same way? A colleague of mine suggests televison as one possible common denominator, and it works, but I don't think it works one hundred percent. Perhaps the medium works in similar ways for varied people, but the exact story told has its own way of working on us.

The same colleague also suggests The Wasteland as a common denominator, which also works to some degree. The degradation of land and responsibility and ability to care are all factors of The Wasteland, and it is not so hard to find evidence of this myth in reality. But again, it is not one hundred percent - there are those still hopeful, still happy, still building and able to keep themselves from being bogged down in the garbage. So I find it difficult to think of a widespread myths for all of us. Religions try, but "religions try" proves that is not the answer.

Perhaps this is why Joseph Campbell called out for each of us to find the personal myths we live by. This caused an explosion of interest in individuals seeking to recognize the mythic stories with true resonance for them.This happened because it is hard to find any connective story lines with others living their storioes.

Although ultimately it is our own stories that matter, it is obvious we need to understand that everyone's story is part of the same mythology. I want to listen and understand your story, as long as you don't tell me your story is the only one there is.


Nikki Faith said...

What a true and meaningful post. I enjoyed reading it. Campbell got so many things right. ;)
I would have loved to have the bird experience you have! I get very little nature in my busy city. I've still yet to recognize what myth I'm living... I guess I'm a myth-in-progress! ;)

Joe Muszynski said...

I think it is almost wrong to define something as the "myth I am living in". Maybe for that analysis stuff, but I'm not sure you're ready for that! And once you see it, if you try to keep living in it, I think you already move into something else. If you move past it, obviously you get into something else.

I think it's more about simply being aware of myth and metaphor, being aware of deeper levels to everything happening, and being aware of it while you are moving through the day. Easier said than done, surely.

Gentian said...

Nice Joe. I've been thinking about how myth is shaped by the landscape as well - in fact, I think there's a paper there sometime.

(PS I am a conservationist and I've been backpacking since I was a kid - longest trip: 23 days.)