Fran Stallings talking about environmental storytelling…

Fran Stallings is a committed environmental storyteller who has practiced earth storytelling all over the world.

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Environmental Storytelling; Telling hope to inspire action.

Fran Stallings writes…
My main concern with this topic is the observation that many of our Environmental tales are DOWNERS. While our storytelling ancestors probably used them as cautionary tales, and they’re still valuable for that, I worry about the risk of discouraging young listeners into paralysis–when what we want is to mobilize them!

We talked about various types of environmental tales,
both fiction/folklore and real world science, with their different roles in educating and motivating listeners. Eric and I agreed that stories are powerful ways to transmit information about our fellow creatures, along with an emotional connection which encourages listeners to care about them.

I tell a lot of traditional folktales which our ancestors on all continents used this way–while often teaching lessons about proper human behavior. The difference these days, we agreed, was that the ancestors could presume a thorough understanding of the animals and plants’ characteristics, while we often have to provide that information to our city and suburban listeners.

I also craft science “fact-tales” from journal articles and news reports, telling fact in story form. Many of these anecdotes try to share a scientist’s sense of wonder at how our fellow creatures have adapted to their ecological niche and to each other in complex and amazing ways. Other fact-tales relate how human actions have disrupted these adaptations–and the consequences thereof.

For folks who do not consider themselves ecotellers because they don’t tell nature stories, I recommend what I call Stealth Ecotelling–stories which don’t feature plants animals etc, but whose plots illustrate basic principles of environmental awareness such as 1) Everything is connected, 2) There’s no free lunch (quick fixes tend to backfire), 3) Everything goes somewhere (there is no “away”), or 4) Nature usually knows best. Tales of unanticipated consequences illustrate #1. Examples of #2 are folktales about a magic wish (or three): the protagonists typically end up back where they started.

But cautionary tales and many of the fact-tales tend to be DOWNERS. I want listeners to leave my program feeling that change is possible, and that their actions can make a difference. Even a small change is a start! For this there are folktales about cooperation, about paying attention to small things which have positive consequences. There are fact-tales about restoring ecosystems, starting successful projects to recycle and conserve resources, uniting neighbors to prevent habitat destruction. Some of the real heroes were kids! These stories need to be told.

Also important, I believe, is partnering with local environmental action groups to provide motivated listeners with things they can DO. I touched on research in the field of Community-Based Social Marketing, which studies the results of efforts to change people’s behaviors. Alas, they found that although information campaigns could change attitudes, this did not translate into changed behavior unless direct personal interventions were added. Our environmental stories can provide information and at best change attitudes, but CBSM teaches that we also need to work with eco-action groups if we want to see results!

Fran Stallings: Biography

I grew up hearing stories from both parents and telling stories to my younger sister and brothers. As the eldest of five, I did a lot of baby-sitting! During high school I discovered the fascination of folklore. I was hunting new stories to storytell my youngest brothers, but fell in love with folktales for their own sake.

While majoring in biology, I also took college courses to pursue my folklore/storytelling interests: psychology, sociology, world literature, modern and pre-classical dance. Folktales remained a hobby during graduate school and a career of college teaching and research. When my own children entered school, I volunteered to tell stories to their classes. Thus started my new profession of performing stories for groups outside the family.

Since 1978 I have worked with classroom teachers to make room in their busy schedules for storytelling.
We discovered its unique power to entrance students into: reading on their own, retelling in their own words, creative writing, art projects, and other curriculum areas. The folktales painlessly convey information and open doors to the understanding of other cultures. Most striking, in the teachers’ view, is the enhancement of students’ listening skills and attention.

My training as a biologist was not forgotten. Working as an Earth Teller, I continue to teach about our fellow creatures — through the medium of stories. Together with Skyteller Lynn Moroney Earth & Sky Storytellers, we celebrate the wonders of science.

I tell love to tell stories to adults. You never outgrow your need for stories! In fact, very few of the stories I use (even with school kids) are “children’s” stories. Most of them come from the ancient oral tradition which developed stories for listeners of all ages.

The tales in my repertory come from Africa and the Orient, Europe, and North and South America. I have a special collection of folktales from Japan, learned during residencies there and on American tours with my Japanese colleague, Hiroko Fujita. I do a few modern authors, including a little science fiction. I am continually developing new tales and songs. Since picking up the Appalachian autoharp to provide a musical change of pace in long shows, I’ve been writing original songs and inserting music into the stories themselves.

My stories run from forty-five seconds to forty-five minutes. Most are five to ten minutes in length. I seldom use props, puppets, or pictures: the audience paints their own visual images in their own minds. When I add touches of gesture, mime, character voice, dance movement, or sound effects, it is to evoke images without dictating them. Listeners are my partners in creation.

People tell me that listening to a storyteller
is different from any other entertainment medium. It is an aural and visual experience involving interaction with the performer. But the most unique aspect is the active involvement of the listeners in creating the story in their own imaginations. People listen with an intensity I have rarely seen under other conditions. Each person goes away with a personal version of the story, whose creation has been a shared accomplishment.

PERSONAL DATA: I live in Bartlesville, OK, with my husband Gordon. Our children are grown. When I am not traveling the country to perform at festivals, teach the art of storytelling, or serve as an artist-in-residence in schools, I write professional articles, songs, and English retellings of Japanese tales. I also serve as Oklahoma’s State Liaison for the National Storytelling Network.

You can read more about Storyteller Fran Stallings on her website http://www.franstallings.com/

2 Comments

  • By Tim, December 13, 2007 @ 1:00 pm

    Eric,
    great conversation, as always, although this time it felt like you only just skimmed the surface of environmental storytelling with Fran. Part of it, I think, is that your passion for the subject, kept scattering the conversation off in various directions. Thankfully, Fran’s posting above helps in clarifying the main points covered during the hour.

    For me, the most fascinating part of the interview, was Fran’s “fact-tale” about the restoration of the San Pedro River in Arizona. Simply relating the history of human interaction with that ecosystem got across so many points… from the interconnectedness of species to the impact of development to the law of unintended consequences. Even though Fran wasn’t “telling” in that moment in the interview, the story itself was so compelling… a clear demonstration of the power of “fact tales.” These type of tales are not only inspiring (moving beyond the “downer” story to hope), and fascinating (with the various uses of the watershed and the various inhabitants filling out the story just as cultural details and narrative turns flesh out a folktale or fairy tale), but because fact-tales are based on observable recorded evidence, they allow the audience to exercise their analytical skills and draw conclusions. Not only does this clearly make a place for these types of stories in a science curriculum, but this also reinforces and validates the listeners’ visualization and imagination skills they used in listening to the story.

    Some constructive criticism: I know you get a lot of like-minded listeners, but on this particular interview, it seemed that you assumed a base level of understanding from your listeners. It’s a given that you and Fran share a common body of knowledge, some of which you wouldn’t need to make explicit since it’s so obvious and basic (for you two, and for other environmental educators). In some of your other interviews (Mary Hamilton, Doug Lipman, Sean Buvala), you made a concerted effort to have your guests explain their ideas with the assumption that the audience could have little to no experience with their specialty. I missed that in this interview with Fran. I’ve led outdoor experiential educational experiences for youth, so I wasn’t in the dark, but I can imagine some of your listeners might have missed out on some points. (E.g. you and Fran agreed on the importance of place-based storytelling, without explaining clearly what that was, and why it was important).

    Still, I hope you’ll have Fran back for an environmental storytelling, part two!

    There’s a wide spectrum of storytelling and storytellers that fall under the umbrella of environmental storytelling… so I’m sure you could fill another hour with ease. Three areas you could dive into in more depth next time:
    1) different types of storytelling in various types of venues for environmental storytelling (i.e. schools, camps, zoos, gardens, community events, national parks);
    2) where environmental storytelling meshes with school curriculum (you guys just briefly touched on science and character education); and
    3) Fran’s or your own success in the last issue in the interview: working in partnership with community organizations to move beyond awareness and into action.

    Looking forward to catching up on more interviews via my iPod!

    Regards,
    Tim

  • By Monty Harper, January 23, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    Hi Fran,

    It was cool to hear your voice out there in podcastland! I enjoyed it!

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