The Sense of Story
the turn of the year, there was hopeful news from the Pacific.
Only two small items amid an outpouring of unbearably
sad stories. We all heard the reports: children swept from mothers' arms,
villages erased from sandy shores, starving people pleading for aid. Like
so many others in those sorrowing days after the great tsunami, I read
the news obsessively, as though such distant witnessing atoned for my
being dry and safe. And somewhere, among hundreds of articles, I found
glimmers of hope. Two tiny stories appeared and disappeared, swamped by
the tide of horror. Two stories that I cannot forget.
The rest of the news was striking in its imagery.
Over and over, we heard of the tsunami's "violence," of the
pain it "inflicted," of how many people it "killed."
We heard about its "destruction" and "devastation."
Almost immediately, the tidal wave became personified as monstrous, preternatural,
even evil. And behind that personification was the vaster image of Earth,
a mother who was at best fickle and uncaring, at worst angry and vengeful.
I waited in vain to hear whether elevated sea
levels due to human-induced global warming impacted the size and force
of the wave. I waited in vain for discussion of the destitution that drove
people to scavenge for dying fish in a receding sea. But we heard little
of social factors that influenced the human toll of the disaster. Instead,
we heard of the sea as a murderer who struck without warning.
the ocean is no monster, nature no punishing mother. The stories revealing
that truth were unrelated, except in describing survival rather than death.
One told of animals uninjured by the wave, another of a fishing village
saved by its elders. Juxtaposed, these stories gave me hope that we can
maintain a healthy relationship to nature; they also made me ponder the
nature of instinct and the purpose of storytelling.
The first story came from Sri Lanka, where the
wave struck with intense velocity. Afterwards, an Associated Press photographer,
flying over Yala wildlife reserve, could not find a single animal corpse.
More than 200 humans died among the felled trees; tourist buses and cars
hung in the jungle like huge gloomy fruit. But elephants and buffalo,
crocodiles and tigers were already back at their usual rounds. The animals
had moved to high ground before the tsunami struck, leading some commentators
to hypothesize a "sixth sense" at work in their survival. Such
apparent precognition also affected captive elephants who ran for safety
before the tidal wave was spotted; a dozen carried tourists on their backs,
while others broke their chains to stampede up a nearby hill just moments
before, on the beach they had abandoned, 3800 people were killed.
But it was not only animals who ran for high
ground. On South Surin in the Andaman Islands, the Morgan people also
survived, but not because of instinct. Rather, elders who saw the sea
receding remembered old stories about such events and led their people
to a hilltop temple. There the entire village of 181 lived safely through
The Morgans are a tiny tribe; the survivors
may represent as many as half of the entire ethnic group. They are related
to other sea-going nomads of the Andaman Sea, presumed from linguistic
evidence to be the earliest people of the region. The Morgans and their
relatives, the U-luklawoi and Morglen, maintain traditional ways, living
on boats half the year and on the shore the other half, telling their
old tales, invoking ancestral powers and making offerings to the sea at
the Loi Reua festival every May.
they have tried to avoid the tsunami of globalization, the "sea gypsies"
have not been entirely successful. Last year, those living in the seas
off Myanmar were captured by the same government who holds hostage the
humanitarian Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The Salon/Monken people
were forced to perform sacred rites for tourists, having been detained
on designated islands for that purpose. Ultimately they escaped to ply
their sea routes again.
Despite such setbacks, the sea people have retained
their culture, which includes profound knowledge of the sea, conveyed
through stories. It was not "instinct" or a "sixth sense"
that got the Morgans off the seashore and up to the hills. It was folktales
-- a fact included in the earliest reports but soon lost in transmission,
perhaps because western journalists imagine stories a poor substitute
for facts. Because they are not typically literate, the Morgan people
have the trained memories and impressive storytelling skill of oral folk.
Some old Morgan stories described the sea's retreat and sudden powerful
advance. So when, in December, the sea suddenly drained away, their elders
did not scratch their head, baffled at the sight. Remembering the warning
stories, they ran.
How many generations had lived and died since
the last tsunami struck the Andamans? How many generations told a story
of unusual sea-movements -- told the story exactly as they had heard it,
thus preserving strange invaluable information until the moment it was
needed? Had the stories lasted one hundred, four hundred, a thousand years?
What other information is encoded in Morgan folklore? Would other apparent
embroideries upon old stories be useful in surviving another disaster?
If the Morgans are not permitted to protect their greatest resource --
their stories -- they may face danger unprepared by the wisdom of their
How I wish I knew my environment in the profoundly
storied way the Morgans do. We modern folk know few stories; we have lost
so much. Perhaps we once had (perhaps we still have) the sixth sense the
Yala animals showed. Perhaps (or in addition), traditional stories served
as a kind of sensory extension, a way of understanding the world that
helped people survive both ordinary days and extraordinary ones. I've
never doubted the importance of stories, and the survival of the Morgans
reminds me why.
- Rainbow over Sumatra, 21 Days after
the 2004 Tsunami, U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class
Rebecca J. Moat
- The coast of Sumatra reveals her beauty
in spite of the devastation left in wake of the Tsunami, U.S.
Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class M. Jeremie Yoder
- Tsunami Survivors, Sumatra, U.S. Navy
photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Elizabeth A. Edwards