Having grown up in the French Alps, mountains have always been part of my life, and it is indisputable that they have shaped my imaginary world. They almost constantly invite themselves into my writing, from appearing as a mere backdrop to being centre stage in the stories that I write to explain how some of the mountain phenomena and geology came to be. I have had a fascination for myths, folktales and legends since childhood, and aetiological narratives especially, such as those found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, have always deeply resonated with me. For as long as I can remember, I have looked to stories to understand the origins of the natural world around me, and whenever a question remained unanswered, my imagination would take over and create new stories. It was my way of connecting with my environment and feeling in symbiosis with nature. The mountains were the playground for my imagination, where it could run wild and free, and where it would grow. When I left to go to University, I suddenly found myself in a large city; in that urban environment, where the stars had almost disappeared from an electric night sky, and where the only visible summits were those of concrete towers, I struggled to find enough inspiration to write. But whenever I would return home, under the mountains’ spell stories would, once again, flow out of me. I started to realise then how crucial nature is to my story-writing and story-telling, and many of them still come to me while daydreaming on a walk in places where I feel close to nature, and where I feel it whispering to me like a muse, inviting me to celebrate it.
But what used to be something rather carefree, that I was practising with a light heart, out of sheer passion for writing and a sense of wonder for the natural world, is now becoming something more necessary as the current climate has shed a new light on the importance of stories depicting an increasingly fragile nature. I have been writing tales about mountains, ice and snow for around two decades, but it is only within the last few years that their true significance and the role that they can play have emerged, as it has become clear that their subject and very source of inspiration is now endangered. Indeed, the Alps are one of the places on the planet where you can observe the dramatic effects of anthropic global warming and pollution first-hand. Every winter, a yellowish fog lingers in the valley for several days because of a high concentration of fine particles that is emphasised when the weather conditions are too dry. Every winter, there is a fear hanging in the not-so-cold-and-not-so-pure-anymore air: the fear that snow, the ‘white gold’ as we call it, may not fall at all, and that, one day, it may be a rarity, until it eventually becomes something that future generations might only know of and experience through stories. This is also a concern with respect to glaciers that are melting much faster than normal because of greenhouse gas emissions. The Mer de Glace (literally ‘Sea of Ice’), which is the largest French glacier, located in Chamonix, is the perfect example. The very evocative and distinguishable shape to which it owes its name, and that has inspired some of my stories, is now being disfigured by global warming, and its once immaculate splendour has started turning rock-grey. Our seas of ice are in as an alarming state as our blue seas.
In light of this, at a time of climate emergency, there is a real urgency to record that which is at risk. Narratives featuring landscapes that are already irremediably changing are now becoming de facto a way to document them before they disappear completely. Writing stories about it is certainly an attempt at making the natural world eternal, but their power goes far beyond that of documenting. The role of the legends that I have written about the Mer de Glace isn’t only to reflect a once glorious nature that is now degrading but it is, more importantly, to be reflected upon and fight against its decay through storytelling. Writing about nature is not so carefree or done so light-heartedly anymore. It comes with responsibility; the responsibility to defend and protect its existence upon which depends our very own.
Because, of course, beyond the sole aesthetical pleasure and satisfaction one can feel when gazing at it, nature’s importance lies first and foremost in its power to give us life and sustain us. This should go without saying as we shouldn’t need to be reminded of it, but the fact is we do. In our ‘developed’ countries, where we are used to freshwater miraculously spurting out of a tap and to food appearing, as if by magic, on supermarket shelves, ready to cook and sometimes even ready to eat, where the majority of people live in cities, roam the earth in a car and ‘experience’ the world through screens, it is easy to overlook what nature gives us and the fact that our lives depend on it. But this is a truth that is harder to forget in places where nature is present in everyday life and where the relationship we have with it is more direct. Wherever nature is predominant, people are forced to take it into consideration as it can be a matter of life and death if they do not. Imposing, nature imposes its point of view and dictates how they live. In the Alps, the mountains are at the base of an economy that largely relies on winter sports, and the glaciers are not only a reservoir of freshwater but also a reserve of energy – a power plant has been built in a hidden cavity of the Mer de Glace to produce electricity with meltwater from the glacier. The mountains have shaped the traditions, folklore and activities. There, we can really see nature’s omnipotence at work as, in the same way it provides the locals with the resources that they need to survive, it can also take their lives, something they will all be aware of, having known or heard of someone who died in the mountains, carried away by an avalanche or lost forever in a crevasse.
Wherever the existence of nature and that of humans are most fully entwined, climate change is felt more strongly because it is having direct and considerable consequences on lives. Nature there has become a compass to assess the relationship that we have with it on a global scale, and its verdict is clear: our behaviour is destroying the balance that our species had with it, putting our own way of life in jeopardy. Indeed, global warming is making the mountains more hostile in multiple ways: it is causing them to be more deadly by, for instance, weakening the snow bridges over crevasses, and triggering more avalanches, more landslides; it is putting the winter sports industry at risk because of unreliable or scarce snowfalls; it is disturbing the hydrological cycle, which, in turn, poses a threat to the whole irrigation system in the area, on which agriculture, farming, as well as drinking water supplies, rely.
But let’s not forget that what is happening in the mountains will have serious repercussions on the entire world. Not only is the melting of glaciers around the globe directly connected to the rising of sea levels, it will also lead to shortages of freshwater, given that they are its largest reservoir on earth. As one of the geological features most affected by human-made global warming, the glaciers will eventually be the measure of our failure or success in tackling it. The ominous message, entitled “A letter to the future”, written on the plaque commemorating the Icelandic glacier Ok sums it up well: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” Even if it can’t be felt globally yet, the mountains’ fate is linked to our fate. Nature’s story is our story, and thanks to their ability to bring people closer to the natural world regardless of where they live, in order to help them reconnect with it, stories are a weapon, a weapon of mass instruction and construction, that can save the planet.
We find the power of storytelling acknowledged in the etymology itself. In French, the words charme (‘charm’), as in enchantment, and chant (‘song’) share a common Latin root: Carmen, which also happens to mean ‘poem’, thereby establishing the indivisible link that exists between poetry and magic, storytelling and power. When words sing nature’s beauty, they become infused with its might, and they rise like an incantation, a wish, a prayer for it to be reborn, untouched by man – and there is, undoubtedly, something particularly powerful in stories that tell of how landscapes were born, offering us a glimpse of a world that predates us. Fairy tales, myths and legends have the undeniable ability to re-enchant nature. They open our eyes to its otherworldly beauty, give it a voice and unveil its power through the use of enchanted places or magical beings, such as fairies, elves, nymphs, sirens, talking animals, etc., all of which embody different aspects of the natural world. By depicting it as supernatural, stories turn nature into a super nature in order to make us realise how omnipotent it naturally is and that it, therefore, commands our awe and respect. Our ancestors knew this well. They considered the earth as a deity and saw in all natural things the imprint of the divine, a wisdom that we now seem to have forgotten. Throughout the centuries, as we have been seeking to tame and control nature with the ambition to free ourselves from it and assert our domination, we have lost something valuable: our humbleness and our ability to wonder. Both stemmed from the reverence and respect we once had for nature, the fear it inspired in us, the magic we used to see in it and the divine we used to find in it, which we have gradually grown ashamed of and rejected in a world essentially ruled by Reason. As a result, we have reduced to silence the sensitive, emotional part of ourselves, our inner child that now needs to wake and that, without giving up rationalism and giving in to superstition, we have to start listening to. Stories can help us do that as they do not only have the ability to make us see the unseen and re-enchant the world we live in but, more importantly, they have the power to re-enchant our own outlook on it.
Stories have the capacity to make us see things from a different perspective, thus think differently. And myths, legends and fairy tales certainly encourage us to reconsider how we relate to nature. They create a world where it is no longer an object of our domination and exploitation but a subject in its own right, an ancient force whose magic, power and wisdom are fully recognised. Similarly to how we are forced to consider nature’s point of view wherever it is predominant, when reading these stories we are compelled to stop seeing it through the eyes of a conqueror or predator, and shift our perspective from an anthropocentric view of the world to an ecocentric one. Whether nature is presented as an ally or a foe, it is almost always shown as superior to us, putting us back in our place. Stories remind us that nature is our most resourceful teacher, a truth often illustrated in fiction by a human hero seeking help from a magical or ancient creature, and illustrated in real life by the existence within nature itself of solutions to many of our environmental issues – let’s not forget, for instance, that whales and trees are precious allies in reducing our carbon emissions and fighting climate change. Given the challenges we are faced with, we had better start paying attention to nature’s teachings and guidance. Sir Ken Robinson said that “one of the most urgent issues facing humanity is fixing our broken relationship with the earth, on which all life depends” and that, to do so, “we have to think, feel, and act differently”. That is exactly what stories can help us achieve, and it is the reason why we should not only tell myths, fairy tales and legends to children but, just as importantly, tell them to adults, as there is an urgency to reconcile them with that part of themselves that still gets stopped in their tracks whenever the fiery beauty of a sunset changes the sky or the extraordinary colourful arch of a rainbow suddenly appears above their head. Only then will they so desperately seek to preserve the natural world instead of destroying it.
By helping us cultivate and embrace our sensitivity, stories invite us to “dwell poetically on the earth”, to paraphrase a verse by Hölderlin, grasp reality through the lens of poetry, live with a constant sense of humbleness and wonder, and move through the world with grace, so as to have a minimal impact on nature. It is time to give as much value to the poetic and artistic point of view as we do to the rational one. It is with the arts and sciences working hand-in-hand that we will be able to figure out how our species can inhabit the planet in symbiosis with nature and create a more harmonious world.
So can stories save the earth? Yes, they can. If we let them change us.
Amandine Vincent is a French writer, actress and storyteller. She is the founder and artistic director of the theatre and production company La Banshee. She holds a master’s degree (Research) in French Literature and Language, as well as an MA (Acting) in Classical and Contemporary Text. This blog piece was originally delivered as a presentation to the Enchanted Environments Symposium at the University of Worcester, 6 March 2020. Amandine illustrated her talk by sharing some of her stories. Photograph credit: Mer de Glace glacier by Simon, Pixabay.