These two world views in this issue are about 5 hours driving (on a good day) and a ferry ride apart. I couldn’t decide which images I wanted to show you. They are like two parts of myself. One on the north and one on the south. One part of me that wanders through the woods admiring and sinking into nature’s garden and other that enjoys human designed spaces with attention to colour, size and shape relationships. The aesthetic in the human designed garden is borrowed from nature but organized in new ways. Few of the plants in the the Japanese Garden are native to its controlled and manicured environment. Yet, it is one of the few places on the island where fall colours of my more northern life are abundant. Both places have waterfalls, though the fresh air is scented by different trees and different water. They both touch the surface of each part of me but at slightly different angles. The light feels fast in both places because the of the size of the hills in one and the trees in a contained space in the other. I want to think of them as either/or but their common earth and sun refuse such simple dichotomy of categorization.
These false dichotomies of of either/or analysis I have set up in my thinking are part of a western philosophy that leaves us living a life as if experiencing a constant eye examination - better or worse, is this better or worse. An eye examination process will help us get a prescription to see better but the same process is limited in helping us to live better. Let me see if I can expand these thoughts a little into the imaginary of “what if”. What if we held the whole world space as one? What if there was no north as it is still south of somewhere else and no south because it is north of another place? What if humans and their creations were just another element of nature? What if we didn’t seek out what was better or worse but only observed with curiosity? What if we woke each day saying - now isn’t this interesting!? - Let’s learn more about this moment. What if we went through a day listening for different stories than the ones we think we know?
These questions come from an essay I am reading “Listening for Different Stories” by Julie Cruikshank in The Nature of Canada edited by Colin M. Coates and Graeme Wynn (2019). The essay’s story begins in the year of 1982 at a one day conference on early human history in Haines Junction, Yukon. The participants were archeologists, historians, scientists and local First Nations discussing the environmental factors impacting regional history. After a full afternoon of discussions Annie Ned, then in her eighties and having lived her whole life there hunting, trapping, fishing and raising her children and grandchildren, stood up and addressed the room. She wanted to know where these people came from and observed that they “talked from paper” and that she wanted to “talk from grandpa”. She went on then to share some of her experiences and revealing radical differences between Indigenous and western perspectives on the environment. Annie Ned suggested that the western participants should “listen for different stories” and that this required more attention, engagement, reflection and curiosity than simple “listening to stories.” This is because when we listen TO stories we take what we hear and map it onto our own world view and framework of understanding. Often the awkward parts that don’t quite fit are simply lopped off and discarded as anomaly or mythology or some kind of uncomprehending “otherness”. Annie Ned was pointing out our mistake and suggesting an alternative that, for me, is even more critical to consider today than the day she said it.
When we listen FOR stories we momentarily set aside all that we think we know about organizing and understanding our world and we listen as if we are learning for the first time - because we are. What Annie Ned doesn’t mention is how brave we must be to listen FOR stories and how willing we must be to appear foolish and incompetent and possibly even ridiculous - mostly to ourselves but this self-view has powerful regulators on our behaviour. Setting aside what we think we know is hard work and work that we are often reluctant to do for the simple reason of an economy of energy in living a life with knowing what we already know. But I sense that Annie Ned is on to something and I invite us all to “listen FOR different stories” rather than listening TO stories.
*Annie Ned was awarded the Order of Canada in 2003 in part for her contributions to documenting history in the southern Yukon Territory.