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In This Issue

Goddess "" Earth "" Cosmology "" Women's Health "" Reader Contributions "" Book Reviews "" Editor's Desk

The Sense of Story

At 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.

But 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 tsunami.

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.

Although 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 past.

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.

Graphics Credits

  • 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
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