Ecology of Story: The Difference Between Anecdotes and Stories—How to Tell a Good Story

tree trunks coolIn her article in Quartz Magazine, Lila MacLellan suggests that “we’ve become masters of telling anecdotes, and terrible at telling our friends real stories.” Sometimes people think they are telling a story, but they are really just telling anecdotes, MacLellan reports after interviewing Maggie Cino, senior story producer for Moth storytelling series. While “anecdotes just relate facts,” Cino explains, stories are “about letting us know that things started one way and ended a different way.” Stories create space for movement.

Merriam-Webster defines an anecdote as a “short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” Anecdotes serve to incite interest and to illustrate a point. They are often amusing, odd, sad or even tragic; if they are biographical, they often serve to reflect someone’s personality, attitude or philosophy. While anecdotes often provide a contextual jumping board to make a point—drawing you in with relevance—they lack the structure of stories. An anecdote is something that happens; a story has a structure that makes it memorable and provides a depth of meaning.

Stories move with direction; they have a beginning, middle and end. Stories evoke emotional truths. They compel with intrigue then fulfil us with awareness and, sometimes, understanding. The best stories are told through metaphor, those universal truths we all live by. And all good stories weave a premise, theme, plot, character and setting into a tapestry with meaning.

I teach new writers at the University of Toronto and George Brown College how to tell stories. I teach how stories can tell us who we are. Where we’ve been. And sometimes, where we are  going. The stories that stir our hearts come from deep inside, where the personal meets the universal, through symbols or archetypes and metaphor.

Depth psychologist Carl Jung described these shared symbols, metaphors and archetypes as pre-existing forms of the psyche. He drew parallels between synchronicity, relativity theory and quantum mechanics to describe life as an expression of a deeper order. He believed that we are both embedded in a framework of a whole and are the focus of that whole. Jung was describing a fractal whole, which reflects quantum scientist David Bohm’s quantum vision of holomovement.

Jung’s concept of embedded whole and a universal collective unconscious was embraced by Hero’s Journey author and scholar Joseph Campbell, who suggested that these mythic images lie at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind and memory of humankind—where we are all the same, in Unity. Carl Jung’s thesis of the “collective unconscious” in fact linked with what Freud called archaic remnants: mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem aboriginal, innate, and the inherited shapes of the human mind. Marie-Louise von Franz, in 1985, identified Jung’s hypothesis of the collective unconscious with the ancient idea of an all- extensive world-soul. Writer Sherry Healy suggested that Jung viewed the human mind as linked to “a body of unconscious energy that lives forever.”

What Makes a Good Story?

soft flowers copyA good story is about something important; attracted by gravity, it has purpose and seeks a destination. A good story goes somewhere; it flows like a river from one place to another. A good story has meaning; its undercurrents run deep across hidden substrates with intrigue. A good story resonates with place; it finds its way home. We’ve just touched upon the five main components of good story: premise, character on a journey & plot, theme and—what is ultimately at the heart of a story—setting or place.

Story Components

The premise of a story is like the anecdote, a starting point of interest. It is an idea that will be dramatized through plot, character and setting. In idea-driven stories, it can often be identified by asking the question: “What if?” For instance, what if time travel was possible?

A character on a journey propels the story through meaningful change. Characters provide dramatized meaning to premise through personal representation of global themes. A character takes an issue and through their actions and circumstance in story provide a fractal connection to a larger issue. Characters need to move. They need to “go somewhere.” Archetypes—ancient patterns of personality (symbols) shared by humanity and connected by our collective unconscious—are metaphoric characters (which includes place) in the universal language of storytelling that help carry the story forward.

The theme of a story takes the premise and gives it personal and metaphoric meaning by dramatizing through a character journey. It is often identified by asking the question: “What’s at stake?” In taking the time travel premise, a theme of forgiveness may be applied by choosing a character wishing to return to the past to right a wrong, when what they just need to do is forgive others and themselves, not travel to the past at all, and get on with their lives.

In such a story, the plot would provide means and obstacles for the character in their journey toward enlightenment. Plot works together with theme to challenge and push a character toward their epiphany and meaningful change. Plot provides obstacles. Challenges. Emotional turning points. Opportunities for learning and change.

The role of setting or place is often not as clear to writers. Because of this, place and setting may often be neglected and haphazardly tacked on without addressing its role in story; in such a case the story will not resonate with what is often at the heart of the story: a sense of place. In stories where the setting changes (either itself changing such as in a story about the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius impacting Pompeii’s community; or by the character’s own movements from place to place) it appears easier to include how setting affects characters. However, the effect of place on character when the setting does not change can be equally compelling even if more subtle; the change is still there but lies in the POV character’s altered relationship to that place—a reflection of change within them.

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” due in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

Morphology 2019–Celebrating A New Marsh in Mississauga with Quotes from “Water Is…”

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March 22 was World Water Day. As with last year at this same time and place, a brisk wind followed me into the industrial brick building that used to be the Small Arms Inspection Building—now converted into a community arts and culture centre.

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Councillor Jim Tovey and Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell (photo by John Stewart)

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Plan of the conservation site

I was here to celebrate the late Jim Tovey’s dream of creating a 26-hectare park and marsh on Mississauga’s Lake Ontario shore that will connect the Waterfront Trail with Lake Ontario’s shorefront for the public.

Several dozen photographs that documented the annual and seasonal changes of the developing marsh occupied the spacious hall. The glow of evening sunlight streamed through, touching large photographs that hung from the high ceilings or were mounted on walls. Some photographs spanned over 2 by 3 metres.

Quotes from my books “Water Is…” (Pixl Press, 2016) and upcoming “A Diary in the Age of Water” (Inanna Publications, 2020) were displayed among the photographs.

Photo Julie Knox

Photograph by Julie Knox

I was mesmerized by the spectacular photographic display.

Larger than life photographs caught my attention through light, form and unique perspective. Once caught, I was drawn into their complex narrative. A narrative of morphing shapeshifters, flowing humours and tricksters in the night. Panoramas that stretched over giant muddy holes depicting an evolution of landscape from wet

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Photo by Gabriella Bank

to dry to wet again.

Tree bole, rock and rebar formed bizarre companions in murky pools that harbour life finding itself. Piles of giant boulders shouted their presence to a stormy lake. A frontend loader sat peacefully beneath a glowing sunset. Slopes of wild herbs reached into ponds as if looking for hidden treasure.  Mangled rebar contorted in a frozen ice-dance. A man’s boot tracks cut recursive patterns in the silky mud.

The photographs provided a range of perspectives over the seasons on the early phase of the marsh construction that featured aquatic habitat structures built four metres below the level of Lake Ontario. Councillor Tovey had earlier said of the construction project: “It sort of looks like a Salvador Dali surrealistic sculpture garden…and what an interesting way to really celebrate all of this.”

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The Morphology 2019 Photography Exhibit marks the third year of celebrating this morphing natural landscape through the photography of eleven creative photo artists. The opening day of Morphology 2019 was celebrated with a blessing by Cathie Jamieson, Councillor Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. Lee Tovey spoke as did members of the contributing partners and Mayor Bonnie Crombie of the City of Mississauga.

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Construction of the site and marsh began in November 2016 and is ongoing and expected to continue until 2024-2026, when the site will be opened to the public. Starting in 2017, the eleven photographers toured the site to capture the seasonal and annual changes of the developing wetland. I was also invited to tour the site to glimpse a moonscape of dirt and clean rubble as dozers pushed material out to form cells and reclaim marsh habitat from open lake.

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the author and Lee Tovey overlooking one of the marsh cells

In November of 2017, I walked the undulating “moonscape” with Lee Tovey and Zoe Danahy. Rolling berms snaked around pooled and dry depressions that disappeared in the fog. The smell of rain and mud pervaded as we set out in ankle-deep mud toward the snaking berms. I scrambled over rip rap chunks larger than me to glimpse Lake Ontario—its new shoreline re-imagined. Beyond, the lake vanished in a veil of fog. I was told that on a clear day you could see the Toronto Waterfront and the CN Tower. All I could make out was a few ghost trees that marked the nearby eastern shoreline.

Lee took me along a dyke embankment of clean fill made of red brick and cement riprap from various construction sites. “Clean fill” refers to anything like brick, top soil, gravel, and cement that has been tested for possible contaminants, as opposed to plastic, glass, or metals.

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The author with Lee Tovey on riprap berm

Lee pointed left and right of us to depressions (containment cells) where Lake Ontario was being reclaimed for marsh-building. The depression on my left was still full of water; but the one on my right was fairly dry and already populated with anchored logs and shrub plantings to consolidate the wetland and provide refuge for marsh life. I could hear the large pump actively removing lake water at the south end of the evolving wetland. Beyond the high berm of human-sized riprap was the lake, its shoreline now redefined.

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As I gazed over the brown monochromatic landscape, I imagined a tapestry of greens in Councillor Jim Tovey’s vision: 26 hectares of future wetlands, forest and meadow and beach spanning the Lake Ontario shoreline from the old Lakeview generating station to the Toronto line at Marie Curtis Park. Part of the Inspiration Lakeview development, the marsh and wetland park have now been named The Jim Tovey Lakeview Conservation Area.

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Morphology

Morphology was conceived by the late visionary councillor Jim Tovey who envisioned an evolving photography and writing exhibit to follow the progress of the marsh creation project of what is now The Jim Tovey Lakeview Conservation Area. Spearheaded and nurtured by Councillor Tovey, the marsh construction was part of 26 hectares of future wetlands, forest, meadow and beach. The Lakeview Waterfront Connection will span the Lake Ontario shoreline from the old Lakeview generating station to the Toronto line at Marie Curtis Park. Part of the Inspiration Lakeview development, it will restore pedestrian and cyclist access to a previously forbidden section of the waterfront to “connect 9.5 kilometers of shoreline for water’s edge experience for the public,” said Councillor Tovey.

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To celebrate the residential / park development, eleven professional photographers were invited to photograph the marsh construction during its early phases. These images, along with water-inspired narrative provided by limnologist-author Nina Munteanu, were first displayed in an exhibit during a gala event January 14 2018, hosted at the Lakeview water treatment plant. Following Councillor Tovey’s untimely passing, his wife Lee Tovey and others (e.g., TRCA, CVC, Region of Peel) are continuing the project. Morphology was displayed for the public on World Water Day, March of 2018, at the Great Hall in the Mississauga Civic Centre. Its third appearance was at the In Situ Multi Arts Festival in November 2018.

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Morphology Exhibit at the Great Hall, Mississauga Civic Centre

The artist showcase is expected to become an annual event, highlighting the progress of constructed ecosystem. Morphology features works from: Gabriella Bank, Sandor Bank, PJ Bell, Darren Clarke, Julie Knox, Nina Munteanu, Lachlan McVie, Marcelo Leonardo Pazán, Martin Pinker, Annette Seip, Stephen Uhraney and Bob Warren.
https://www.dropbox.com/s/orsich16lbqgamf/MORPHOLOGY_2019.mp4?dl=0

Nina at Morphology

Nina joyfully standing in front of a Sandor Bank photo of the marsh (photo by Gabriella Bank)

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

 

On This Day … Water Is…

Today is World Water Day. All around the world, people are celebrating water–without which we would simply not exist. We celebrate this day (and all days) that water has blessed us with its life-giving properties so freely given.

I gladly offer my poem to water…

river, forest, sunshine, nature, landscape, trees, leaves, water

Magic surges with power and mystery. Magic hides in clear view; it ripples with intrigue. When you look at magic, you see only your reflection; while its depths veil immeasurable possibility. Magic is water.

Life is sacred and flows with holy expression. Energetic, invigorating, and bracing, life fertilizes all Being to become more than Itself. Life is water.

byrne-creek-in-south-burnabyMotion is the demon and angel of change. Motion flows endlessly on a tangent with time, destroying and creating. Motion carves sinuous patterns of stable chaos. In its turbulent wake or gliding caress, motion heralds transcendence. Motion is water.

Communication is the dance of singularity in a sea of Unity. It is the river of connection, uniting and expressing the fractal whole. Communication collides in a waterfall of notion and surprise. Informing. Transforming. Evolving. Communication floods the iconic dam, surging through conformity toward its own imaginings. Communication is water.

Memory streams in a braided and recursive path, meandering Ouroboros-like toward itself. Memory stirs up sediments that have lain for eons; re-suspending, re-examining, as if new. Then cascading toward the abyss of truth and paradox. The collective. The great ocean of thought. Memory is water.

water ripple sunsetRhythm undulates—at once turbulent and calm—signaling its fractal presence. Rhythm scours and builds its music with infinite patience and precision. Spiralling. Oscillating in successive rushes, glides, surges and trickles. Self-organizing. Coherent. Viscous. Rhythm is water.

Vibration hides and reveals its entangled energy. Vibration drifts on the tidal tapestry of the soul. Resonating in synchronous tones as it courses down gravity waves, vibration writes its unique sound and story. Vibration is water.

Beauty reflects Nature’s flowing embrace. Deep and quiet, beauty captures divine radiance—refracting, magnifying, rejoicing—and bursts into a sparkling sea of serenity. Light personified. Beauty is water.

Story meanders through varied landscape; cutting jagged rock and stirring fertile soils to release their messages; then joining in the great sea of the plenum. Story springs from the depths, bubbling forth with fresh bracing news of a new land. Story is water.

tree reflectionsPrayer ripples out in circular waves of coherence from its source and back. Gestalt self-actualization. Prayer is a rainbow, revealing the reflected soul. Prayer scours, cleanses, refreshes and renews in a cycle of creation and connection. Prayer is water.

Wisdom does not stand still. Wisdom flows. It doesn’t flow in a straight line. Wisdom winds. Wisdom is wily. It transforms and transcends matter and energy with a subtle and patient hand. It erodes and deposits, from idea to emotion to philosophy. Wisdom tolerates. It forgives. It embraces and encompasses and—in changing—stays the same. Wisdom is water.

 

Ultimately, water will travel through the Universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach; water will do its job to energize you and give you life, then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty, then return to its fold and rejoice.

I am water. I am joy.

 

 

This poem was created using excerpts from “Water Is…The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press, 2016) by Nina Munteanu.

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

On December 8th on Green Majority Radio, artist and composer Frank Horvat hosted the second Eco-Artist Roundtable featuring visual artist Mark Adair, theatre artist Kevin Matthew Wong, and author Nina Munteanu.

In this hour-long thoughtful and insightful discussion, artists covered a range of topics pertinent to the environment from the role of the artist in raising eco-awareness to activism in art and human rights. Nina also read from her book “Water Is…”

Go have a listen.

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Kevin, Nina, Mark and Frank at the studio

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

“Water Is… at Banyen Books & Sound, Vancouver

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When I lived in Vancouver—raising my family, consulting for the environment and teaching limnology—I often visited my favourite bookstore in town: Banyen Books & Sound on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano. It was a bookstore like no other, I thought. Spacious with comfortable chairs to read, the bookstore became a destination and an experience in discovery for me.

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A customer browses “Water Is…” in Banyen Books

In fact, since opening in 1970 Banyen Books has become Canada’s most comprehensive metaphysical bookstore, offering a broad spectrum of resources from humanity’s spiritual, healing, and earth wisdom traditions. Here is how they put it:

Banyen is an oasis, a crossroads, a meeting place… for East and West, the “old ways” and current discoveries and syntheses. Our beat is the “Perennial Philosophy” as well as our evolving learning edges and best practices in a wide variety of fields, from acupuncture to Zen, from childbirth and business to the Hermetic Mysteries, from the compost pile to the celestial spheres. We’re “in the philosophy business,” on “a street in the philosophy district” (as an old cartoon wagged). We welcome and celebrate the love of wisdom, be it in art, science, lifecraft, healing, visioning, religion, psychology, eco-design, gardening… Our service is to offer life-giving nourishment for the body (resilient, vital), the mind (trained, open), and the soul (resonant, connected, in-formed). Think of us as your open source bookstore for the “University of Life”.

I had long harboured romantic notions of one day seeing my own book on one of their shelves. I must have sent a compelling message to the universe, because in Autumn of 2018, this incredible bookstore agreed to carry “Water Is…

Water Is...” now sits joyfully beside William Mark’s “Holy Order of Water” and Masaru Emoto’s books on water and crystals and Wallace J. Nichol’s bestseller “Blue Mind” on water’s healing powers.

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When I mentioned about my book being at Banyens Books, my son Kevin visited the bookstore and soon found “Water Is…” among a variety of other “savoury books”; he admitted a need for strength not to walk out of the bookstore with an armload of books. This has been my experience too.

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Kevin finds “Water Is…” on Banyen’s shelf and makes himself comfortable…

Anne, one of the directors of Pixl Press, visited the bookstore with her friend Jackie from out of town. After browsing the bookstore, they walked across the street to Aphrodites Pies and enjoyed their signature organic peach pie.

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Aphrodites Pies on 4th Avenue

Banyen Books & Sound:
PeachPie at Aphrodites3608 West 4th Avenue
Vancouver, BC
604-732-7912

HOURS:
Mon-Fri: 10am-9pm
Sat: 10am-8pm
Sun: 11am-7pm

 

 

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Ontario Climate Symposium: Adaptive Urban Habitats by Design

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Nina presents Diana Beresford-Kroeger with a copy of “Water Is…”

I recently participated in the 2018 Ontario Climate Symposium “Adaptive Urban Habitats by Design” at OCAD University in Toronto, hosted by the Ontario Climate Consortium and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

Day 1 opened with a ceremony by Chief R. Stacey Laforme of the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation, followed by keynote address by Dr. Faisal Moola, associate professor of the University of Guelph.

A three-track panel stream provided diverse and comprehensive programming that helped further the goal to foster important discussions for how art and design can play a role in developing adaptive, low carbon cities. Panels sparked much networking among a diverse group of participants, who clustered around the refreshments in the Great Hall, where my “Water Is…” exhibit was located.

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The Great Hall, where participants networked over refreshments

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one participant clutches “Water Is…”

Water Is… was also there for sale, as part of my exhibit on water, along with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Green Roofs, Waste, and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. I had several lively and insightful conversations with participants and I’m glad to say that Water Is… made it into several people’s hands at the symposium. Water is, after all, a key component of climate and climate action.

The film “Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees” was screened and scientist Diana Beresford-Kroeger participated in a question and answer period then signed her latest book.

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Call of the Forest” was called “a folksy and educational documentary with a poetic sort of alarmism about disappearing forests,” by the Globe and Mail. The film “takes us on a journey to the ancient forests of the northern hemisphere, revealing the profound connection that exists between trees and human life and the vital ways that trees sustain all life on this planet.” The movie describes the numerous health-giving aerosols that trees use to communicate. Diana’s genuine and earnest concern illuminates her simple yet powerful narrative, such as when she says that the forests are “haunted by silence and a certain quality of mercy.” Featuring forests from Japan and Germany’s Black Forest to Canada’s boreal forest, this documentary is a powerful manifesto for sustainability.

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Diana lecturing in High Park

On Day 2, I toured the Black Oak savanna in High Park with Diana Beresford-Kroeger (author of The Global Forest). The tour was refreshing and enlightening. Diana is a genuine advocate for the forest and showed some of the medicinal properties of forest plants. An example is the common weed, Goldenrod; its astringent and antiseptic qualities tighten and tone the urinary system and bladder, making goldenrod useful for UTI infections; Its kidney tropho-restorative abilities both nourishe and restore balance to the kidneys.

Diana spoke from the heart and brought a wealth of scientific knowledge to us in ways easy to understand—like the biochemistry of photosynthesis or quantum coherence. Diana shared how over 200 tree aerosols help combat anything from asthma to cancer. I also talk about this in the “Water Is Life” chapter of my book, Water Is…, which I gave a copy to Diana.

 

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Ecology, Story & Stranger Things

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Illustration by Anne Moody, typology & design by Costi Gurgu

One of the lectures I give in my science fiction writing course and conference workshops is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. My upcoming writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character” addresses this subject with examples from a wide range of published fiction. The book will be released sometime in 2019 by Pixl Press.

In my lecture (and book) I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction.

Students perk up when I bring up some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

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Alcon blue butterfly and caterpillar with ant

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring for its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

Extremophiles & Anhydrobiosis

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Tardigrade on moss

When I bring in the subject of extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas.

I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own.

Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

Talking Trees

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Dr. Suzanne Simard

UBC researcher Suzanne Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest.

This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root).

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mycelium connects trees underground

These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Fatal Attractions & Natural Bullies

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Bracken fern fronds

The “ordinary” Bracken fern thrives in a wide range of conditions on virtually every continent (except Antarctica). That’s because it plays the “long game” by having several strategies to outlive and outcompete its surrounding nemeses.

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The symbiosis of Bracken fern and ant

Strategies include a loose lifestyle such as several ways to reproduce and grow to accommodate seasons, drought and burning; a shady arrangement with the local thugs (aggressive ants) who protect it for its tasty nectar; use of cyanide and ecdysones by its young shoots; and tough carcinogenic fronds that contain glass-like silicates.

Despite its many uses by humans (e.g., used for potash fertilizer, heating fuel, roofing, bedding for animals), the Bracken fern is considered a pest. In truth, it is a hardy versatile adapter to changing environments. And that is what our climate changing world is fast becoming.

fernforestI highly recommend the works of Annie Dillard and Loren Eiseley for wonderful and bizarre examples of natural wonders that resonate with metaphor. I also recommend my upcoming book “Ecology of Story” (Pixl Press), which will showcase a diverse set of examples from the literature of metaphoric environment and creatures. “Ecology of Story” is due for release in Spring/Summer of 2019. Look for it on Amazon, Kobo, and a fine bookstore near you. Two other books in my writing guide series include: “The Fiction Writer” and “The Journal Writer“.

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nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.