Why Oral

While the Alliance for Wild Ethics makes use of both digital media and printed word, we nonetheless place a priority on the revitalization of oral culture – the culture of face-to-face storytelling.

Literate culture (the layer of society implicitly informed by books, newspapers, and magazines) enables an exchange of tales and insights from diverse times and places. Reading is a wonderful kind of experience, yet it is necessarily abstract relative to our direct, sensory encounters in the immediacy of our locale. Indeed, by mingling notions drawn from divergent eras and cultures, literate discourse instills a useful distance, and detachment, from our immediate environment. In this sense, literate culture is inherently cosmopolitan.

Digital culture (the computerized culture of email and blogs and web-pages like this one), brings us almost instantaneous information from around the world, empowering virtual interactions with people in vastly different locations. The internet is an astonishing achievement, rich with potential. Yet for all its apparent immediacy, digital communication is often more disembodied and placeless than our involvement with printed books and handwritten letters. Indeed cyberspace seems to have no location at all, unless the “place” that we encounter through the internet is the planet itself, transmuted into a weightless field of information.  If literate culture is inherently cosmopolitan, our increasing participation with email, e-commerce, and digital posts of all kinds involves us in a still more abstract layer of culture that is inherently global and globalizing.

Oral culture, however, is inherently local and place-based. It involves the face-to-face exchange of stories that are not written down – tales that often carry, in their telling, precise information regarding the subtleties of the local terrain. For tens of thousands of years before the recent advent of formal writing systems, we two-leggeds were utterly dependent upon the oral transmission of such stories, in which were embedded instructions regarding such matters as which local plants were good to eat, and which ones were poisonous, and how to prepare certain plants as medicines for particular ailments. The stories preserved crucial information regarding where to find water in the event of a prolonged drought, and how best to hunt specific animals, and how to prepare their skins for shelter or clothing…

Traditional oral stories, in other words, carried within their adventures all of the ancestrally accumulated knowledge regarding how to survive and to flourish in a particular region. Moreover, in the absence of the written word, the sensuous landscape itself was the necessary mnemonic (or memory-trigger) for remembering the oral tales. For example, local animals often figured as protagonists within the stories; hence an unexpected encounter with a coyote or a hummingbird, as one went about one’s daily business, would promptly trigger the memory of some tale wherein that animal played a prominent role. Similarly, the encounter with a particular cliff, or creek bed, or cluster of boulders would release the memory of the storied events believed to have happened in that place. To the members of an indigenous, oral culture, every part of the regional landscape has its storied associations – tales that steadily seem to tell themselves as one wanders the local earth. For the land, itself, speaks. Language, to a deeply oral sensibility, is not an exclusively human possession, but a property of the animate earth -- a power in which we (along with the bears, the aspen trees, and the huddled mountains) all participate.

Such sensorial intimacy with the living land -- such unsentimental, respectful reciprocity with the more-than-human terrain -- is the hallmark of every deeply oral culture. It is an embodied kind of intelligence that is sorely lacking today.

The Alliance for Wild Ethics works for a rejuvenation of oral culture -- not to the exclusionof literate culture, nor to the exclusion of digital culture, but rather underneath these more abstract layers of society, providing their necessary soil and sustenance. For when left to itself, the literate intellect, adrift in the play of signs, easily forgets its dependence upon the body and the breathing earth – as the digital mind, dazzled by its own creations, often becomes oblivious to the sensuous surroundings. Ungrounded, these abstract and self-reflexive layers of human consciousness come to believe in their own autonomy – and as they do so, they begin to wreak havoc upon the more-than-human earth.

The Alliance for Wild Ethics holds that neither the cosmopolitan culture of literacy nor the globalizing culture of the internet can ever be truly sustainable (truly nourishing to the animate earth) until these are both rooted, once again, within a thriving oral culture. Or rather, within a thriving diversity of oral cultures, each such culture tuned to the particular pulse of its place, each a dynamic expression of the local ecosystem, or bioregion, that it inhabits.

Read a short essay on‘Storytelling and Wonder: The Rejuvenation of Oral Culture’ (click here)