This spring I coordinated Wild Mercy, a weekly environmental writing event in Missoula, MT, where prominent authors and upcoming graduate students read their works to large crowds in a fire-lit studio. It was one of the more powerful expressions of community and creativity that I’ve been a part of for some time. Here’s an article + photos I wrote for the UM FLAT and Environmental Studies Department homepage about the necessity for storytelling during these challenging ecological times.
When the world frays at the edges, we must tell our stories. When things crumble, we must sit closer—closer to the fire, closer to each other. And we must tell stories, of all types. Stories of loss. Stories of gain. Stories of being confused in a confusing world. Through confusions expressed, we discover clarity, a little clearing in the chaos. Through both telling stories and listening to them, we begin to trace some common, umbilical attachment that binds us all together. To be drawn into a story is to follow this thread of another and realize that, in some strange way, it’s also our own.
Since 2003, the Wild Mercy Reading Series, sponsored by the EVST Department, Camas Magazine and UM FLAT, has highlighted some of the finest writers and student voices in Missoula’s burgeoning environmental writing scene. Over the past few years, the UM FLAT has hosted these readings in our studio. For eight consecutive weeks this spring, two writers got up in front of a crowd of 30-60 people to read their work—stories, poetry, and music.
This year brought some of the biggest crowds—and tastiest snacks—the series has ever seen. At first, as primary organizer I harbored anxiety that people wouldn’t come, that they had better things to do than sit around for hours and listen to others speak, confess, joke, stumble, and sometimes cry. But they came. Every time. One evening, there was a great blizzard that brought sideways snow and -20 degree temperatures. But people still showed up. They came waddling in with their five layers, their favorite mugs for tea, and their unflinching support.
Storytelling is Time Travel
For several weeks we heard stories. We tracked animals through the forest. We rode alongside parallel tracks of fracking and domestic abuse. We escaped from cribs, slept on stained hotel mattresses in the Bakken and rode motorbikes through Superfund sites. We watched paper boats bob down babbling creeks, listened to beat-style poetry woven into a dancing cello. We slit a chicken’s throat and watched blood graffiti drip down the inside of white buckets. We braved physical and psychological storms in Florida and kissed seeds before planting them. We gave our hands and our hearts to cleaning up after Hurricane Irene, sauntered through North Country woods with our guns and our thoughts. We found warmth in the colorful waters of Hawaii, and we did pull-ups on a farmhouse porch one humid afternoon in Kentucky.
For several weeks, we time-traveled the world together through story. Without guilt of airplane emissions or having to tolerate impatient, frequent flyer-types, instead we sat together in the FLAT studio, with plenty of legroom and baggage space, and we travelled through each story together. Together.
To rely and trust in others to take us to new places—this is a healthy and important practice. It’s important because, in their journey we open up to the tumult of another—to the abuse and bliss and inquiry and evolution and progression and lovemaking and scabs and scars and vulnerability that we just couldn’t quite experience like they did. We need storytelling so that we can see more sunsets and sunrises.
Storytelling is Human
I once heard someone say that good writing provides a clearing, a calm in the tempest of a world often chaotic and confusing. Think of art as a storm’s eye, something that slows the whirlwind around us and makes sense of its very essence. Writing and art can effectively bring back discoveries from distilling the past—a souvenir of emerald truth, or sometimes nothing less than dark coal.
I find solace and strength in accessing these experiences of others through story, to fall down with them through tales of treachery or defeat, or to feast on the landscapes they illustrate, as worms would a compost heap of piled experience, memories rich and ripe and ready for repurposing.
The Wild Mercy Reading Series reflects an age-old practice of storytelling that humans have been enacting since antiquity. I think it helps us remember what it means to be human. It helps us remember the recipes, the essential ingredients of animal life: to share, to eat, to commune, to empathize, to listen, to tell, to confess an unknowing, to create.
To catch and be caught.
As humans are constantly blamed for the planetary perils of the day—for damn good reason—let us also not forget to celebrate the generative sides of humanity, the side that brings us closer to all life, both human and nonhuman. As we tell more stories about our experience as it relates to more-than-human nature, then we stand in awe of our sameness while humbled by nature’s capacity to provide. The UM FLAT provided a venue to celebrate this side of our humanness, perhaps of a more ecological and accepting variety. This is the kind of human we must listen to, celebrate, and encourage.
Storytelling is Bonfire
After we shared stories, turned off the lights and the pellet stove got colder, that warmth was carried out into the night by each and every witness of these Wild Mercy evenings. I witnessed everyone walking away from these readings as if it were a great bonfire. With this bonfire of storytelling comes a renewed fortitude to brave our own mysterious caverns of mind and heart, and locate the sticks and fallen branches of story needed to feed the flames. Storytelling is feeding this shared fire of inspiration and inquiry, our personal fuel fetched from the dark wilds. We keep this bonfire blazing to find our way through the whirlwind and into a more viable future.
So, as we co-create this future through our communities, our art, and our stories, let us remember the passage from Terry Tempest Williams that inspired the naming of the Wild Mercy Reading Series:
“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace. Wild mercy is in our hands.” —Terry Tempest Williams