On Monday night I returned from Melbourne after a month spent mainly in New Zealand, the first ten days running Dark Angels workshops in and around Auckland, the following two weeks touring the North and South Islands. This is one of the stories I was told there.
Some years ago an advertising agency took a film crew to a remote beach on the North Island to film an advertisement. The male lead was not a professional actor, but despite a reputation for unreliability his look fitted the bill and he was cast in the role.
Nearby the filming location was an old Maori marae, or dwelling place. The crew was warned that this was sacred ground and that they should not interfere with it in any way. But the male lead ignored the warning and, it later transpired, took away some shells from the place.
The following day he was being driven in a jeep down a stretch of open road when, for no apparent reason, the jeep flipped and he was killed. No one else in the vehicle was injured. A storm then blew up and the film crew found themselves stranded. They called for help but the plane sent to relieve them crashed on landing.
The senior member of the film crew spoke Maori and suspected that something unusual was going on. He made contact with the local people and a ceremony was arranged. The storm abated and the traumatised crew was eventually able to make its way back to Auckland.
Later on in our trip we stayed in Melbourne with an old friend who is an Australian broadcaster and journalist. She is currently writing a book on what it means to be human, taking the narrative thread from her observations of her young granddaughter’s development. The ability to imagine, to conceive of otherness, and therefore to tell stories, is one of the defining characteristics of our species, she maintains.
She should know. In Australia, the storytelling tradition as embodied in aboriginal rock art stretches back at least 40,000 years. Yet in New Zealand, less than a thousand miles across the Tasman Sea, no human voice had been heard, no human foot had trodden, until about eight hundred years ago.
I wondered what stories the Polynesian seafarers must have told themselves when they first landed there, struggling to make sense of this pristine world where there were no mammals, only fish and reptiles, insects and birds, many of whom, in the absence of predators, had lost the power of flight. (The newcomers’ dogs, and the rats that had travelled with them as stowaways, wasted no time in setting about the defenceless local fauna.)
Lacking evolutionary theory, did the Polynesians invent a new mythology, or perhaps adapt their existing one, in order to explain what they encountered there? And in telling the tale of the ill-fated film shoot as she did, was my acquaintance proposing a set of connections in order to bring meaning to otherwise apparently random events? Or was her story really about that dimension, which we westerners have lost touch with, in which such events might seem natural and commonplace?
Perhaps it was no coincidence that during our time away I was re-reading the late Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet. Exquisitely written in a high storytelling style, it treats of magic and sorcery, of the naming of things and the wisdom of dragons, of a shifting between realms, the light and the dark, and of the duality of human nature. In constructing her imaginary world she sheds more light on the mystery of our human existence and purpose than any work of science or philosophy.
That ultimately is why we tell stories.
There are still places available on our The Stories We Tell foundation weekend here in Birnam – next weekend, 24/25 March. More information here.