Sinking roots in the narrative soil
This week, I have been exploring the metaphor of narrative as soil. This was prompted by an observation from Ella Saltmarshe, a writer and activist across the fields of story, culture and systems change — that narratives are the soil from which everything grows.
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As Saltmarshe writes:
‘Stories and narratives matter, the narratives we have are the soil from which the regulation, the technology, the policy, everything grows. So we need to be working at that level to effect change.’
But what exactly is narrative? For some, a story and a narrative are essentially the same thing — an account of events as told from a perspective, whether presented as ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’ or something in between1. And while this is not untrue, for me the term narrative holds a further meaning, connoting something less distinct and more encompassing than a single story.
A narrative can also be understood as a cultural phenomenon, a particular aspect of the human phenomenon of storymaking, living in stories and navigating life by stories. Narratives can be understood as the underlying stories that come from our cultures, our societies, our communities and families. They can be the deeper, often invisible stories underpinning the structures shaping our lives: the laws, rules, social norms, responses to social and ecological contexts, agreements and expectations. In fact, narrative strategist Ruth Taylor recently wrote an essay exploring the idea of ‘deep narratives’ as a complex sort of substrate through which societies, cultures and individuals may form, negotiate and express their underlying mental models2, values, ideas and beliefs. She writes:
‘Whatever you want to call work at this level it gets at the notion that there are deeply embedded ideas and beliefs which inform how we each, as human beings, interact with one another and the world around us… It is at this level where the rules of the game are established; where power is rooted and from where it is sustained.. And it is at this level that durable, systemic change takes root.’
We know that narratives shape and influence the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the world. In our modern consumerist culture, for example, marketers have become adept at exploiting societal narratives to suggest we need this product or that logo to be a happier, healthier or better person. Sometimes we may buy things in order to feel good about ourselves, because we have been told a story that our worth is reflected in what we own, or the brands we associate with. That is the power of narratives — their effects on our psyches and behaviours are real.
As Ella Saltmarshe and many others have written, a deep narrative at the heart of ‘Western culture’ and of our modern, industrial economic systems of the last several hundred years, has been the narrative of separation. This narrative says that people are separate from each other and also somehow separate from the living world. ‘Nature’ is something to be dominated and exploited. As Saltmarshe writes, our globalised economy of extraction, consumption and waste is rooted in this narrative. The power of this narrative is partly what enables us, for example, to ‘normalise’ discarding 8 million tonnes of largely single-use plastics into the ocean each year, while micro plastic particles are allowed to accumulate dangerously in water, soil and our bodies. Or industrial-scale meat production, or countless other examples.
Separation is a dangerous illusion, and of course many of us do see clearly that it is insane to continue living in ways that do not support life. Yet still we find ourselves stuck in these systems, co-opted by them. It becomes extremely difficult to opt out, because they are stitched into the fabric of our ‘reality’ to some extent, whether we like it or not. I don’t know about you, but I feel the pain of this every day.
As Ella Saltmarshe writes, our narratives are formed from the stories we gather through our experiences of the media, schools, workplaces and countless other associations. She writes:
‘These stories are mental models, shaping how we think, feel and act everyday, they are the bedrock of our beliefs, behaviours and identities.
Like threads, these stories weave the narratives that become the fabric of our reality, guiding the way we think, feel and act everyday. What we believe, what we choose.’
Stories and narratives influence us powerfully, yet our relationship to them is not passive. Each of us plays our part in upholding, propagating, questioning, challenging, rejecting or re-negotiating the narratives of our societies and communities. Each of us carries our own unique, personal and ever-shifting assemblage of stories and narratives within. All these different layers of stories and narratives are deeply entangled like roots in soil. Narratives give life to stories, and stories give life to narratives, and so on.
So if we negotiate and navigate our sense of the world — and what is possible and desirable in it — through stories and narratives, can we change the narratives to engender different possibilities? Can we actually un-weave the threads and disentangle ourselves from a narrative of separation? Can we actually weave more generative and life-sustaining ‘fabrics of reality’ through narrative work? How do we stitch and weave new patterns of being and becoming? How do we actually seed the possibilities for change at this deep narrative level, without falling into the same old traps of thinking that got us stuck here in the first place?
Ruth Taylor presents a framework developed by Michael Braithwaite and employed by the New Media Advocacy Project, which conceives of narrative change as an ecosystem of stories, narratives and deep narratives — using the metaphor of a tree:
'Deep narratives — often invisible, unconscious existential concepts — are like the roots of the tree, supplying the tree with emotional nourishment it needs to grow. Filled with that resonance, narratives are like the trunk of the tree, infusing the leaves in the crown with the nutrients from the roots. Those narratives give life to stories — the individual leaves in the crown. As those stories flourish and multiply, the crown of the tree expands, the narrative grows stronger, and the roots of the tree grow deeper. One story doesn’t make a narrative, but a single narrative can give birth to a single story or 10,000 stories — the more stories, the stronger the narrative and the more difficult it is to change that narrative.’
I’d like to extend this metaphor deeper, into the soil. For I think that the relationship between our meaning-making minds and the deep narratives we live in, has a similar quality to the relationships of soil, which like the intricate ecosystems of our own bodies sustains an astonishing diversity of living forms.
Recently, George Monbiot wrote about the mind-blowing qualities of soil. Soils, he observes, are ecosystems as diverse as any rainforest or coral reef. Not only do soils produce 99% of our food, but they harbour an almost unfathomable range of species, around 90% of which remain unnamed. A mere gram of soil, he writes, contains ‘around a kilometre of fungal filaments.’
Monbiot writes of soil:
‘Most people see it as a dull mass of ground-up rock and dead plants. But it turns out to be a biological structure, built by living creatures to secure their survival, like a wasps’ nest or a beaver dam. Microbes make cements out of carbon, with which they stick mineral particles together, creating pores and passages through which water, oxygen and nutrients pass. The tiny clumps they build become the blocks the animals in the soil use to construct bigger labyrinths.
Soil is fractally scaled, which means its structure is consistent, regardless of magnification. Bacteria, fungi, plants and soil animals, working unconsciously together, build an immeasurably intricate, endlessly ramifying architecture that, like Dust in a Phillip Pullman novel, organises itself spontaneously into coherent worlds. This biological structure helps to explain soil’s resistance to droughts and floods: if it were just a heap of matter, it would be swept away.’
But that is not all. The relationships and processes through which soil takes form as a complex living structure are also actively shaped by the plants living in the soils. Plants produce extraordinarily complex chemicals which they pump into the soil through their roots. They communicate with the soil bacteria through secret-coded chemical signals designed to reach those particular organisms who can best support their growth. Monbiot writes:
‘When a plant root pushes into a lump of soil and starts releasing its messages, it triggers an explosion of activity. The bacteria responding to its call consume the sugars the plant feeds them and proliferate to form some of the densest microbial communities on Earth. There can be a billion bacteria in a single gram of the rhizosphere; they unlock the nutrients on which the plant depends and produce growth hormones and other chemicals that help it grow. The plant’s vocabulary changes from place to place and time to time, depending on what it needs. If it’s starved of certain nutrients, or the soil is too dry or salty, it calls out to the bacteria species that can help.’
The rhizosphere is the zone of relational exchange between plant roots and soil, where this dance of ‘life making life making life making life’ — to quote the complexity thinker Nora Bateson3 — unfolds. What if we humans could think of ourselves as being enmeshed in the living structures of narrative soil, in continuous relational exchange with its infinite diversity? What could we give to the soil, and how might our own nourishment be generated through the intricacy of exchange? How might we develop our own secret dialogues with those life-giving elements in the narrative soil, slowly shaping new narratives of connection and stitching ourselves deeper into the fabric of life making life making life making life?
Cynthia Kurtz in her book Working With Stories highlights narrative diversity as an essential element of healthy community life. We need a diversity of stories and narratives to enliven and sustain us. However, much like in monoculture agriculture, Kurtz writes, industrialised ways of living have stripped bare the narrative soil, leaving our stories depleted of vitality. She laments ‘the rise of commercially super-sized stories that make our own tales of daily life seem unworthy of attention. We just don’t tell stories the way we used to.’
'I believe that the number of personal stories told in natural, everyday, casual conversation by any random person in any industrialised country today is likely to be smaller than at any time in the past, reaching back tens of thousands of years. If you doubt this, ask anyone over the age of eighty about their grandparents.
Many factors have come together to create this change in the narrative life of families and communities… The fact is, we need to reskill ourselves in story exchange. At least some of the collective capacity we once had to share and work with stories in our communities has been lost, and for the most part we aren’t even aware of what we have lost.’
So I’ll finish this thread of inquiry (for now) with this provocation: If we want to change the narratives we have, why don’t we start with sinking our roots a little bit deeper into the narrative soil? What diversity do we find there, and how could we help that to grow? This week, I’ll be looking anew at the stories and narratives in which I am enmeshed and entangled. Where do they come from? What are their generative possibilities? What life is brewing is those narrative soils? And are there secret chemical signals I could send out through my own roots, inviting us all to dive a little deeper into symbiotic dances of life making life making life making life?
As Jessica Senehi writes persuasively in this paper, these are not distinct categories. Stories presented as factual truths are not always entirely ‘truthful’, while fiction may contain deeper ‘truths’ than non-fiction, presented as ‘truth’, can access.
Mental models are essentially thought processes to try and understand how things work in the world. Mental models reflect particular values, perspectives and beliefs about the world, and are often applied in reasoning or making decisions.
This phrase delighted me. I heard it on a podcast that I’ll probably be writing more about soon, if I can find it again! I have also been (very!) slowly making my way through her profound and mind-bending book Smaller Arcs of Larger Circles.