Are you familiar with the arctic grayling?
So if storytelling is a journey, sacred storytelling is a pilgrimage—a pilgrimage to a place called Hope.
– Andy Fraenkel
Are you familiar with the arctic grayling? Perhaps you have caught one while fishing in Montana or maybe even in Mongolia. The arctic grayling, Thymallus arcticus, is in the same family as the taimen, Salmonidae. This is a family that has become very familiar to us at The Tributary Fund, since taimen conservation in Mongolia’s Eg-Uur Valley launched The Tributary Fund.
If you don’t know the grayling, let me introduce you. It can reach a length of 30 inches and weigh up to 8.4 pounds. An individual can live 18 years. It spawns in the spring and deposits its eggs in river silts. Hatching within two to three weeks, the emerging embryos are about a half-inch long. Grayling once filled glaciofluvial waters throughout Montana, but over the last eighty years, populations have struggled as ranchers diverted rivers for irrigation, leaving behind dry beds.
Now that you know a bit about arctic grayling, do you care? Do you feel sympathy? Do you fear its demise?
Let me share with you a passage from my husband, David Quammen, a former fishing guide, who has held a grayling in the palm of his hand.
“Their most distinguishing characteristic, is the large and beautiful dorsal fin. It sweeps backward twice the length of a trout’s, fanning out finally into a trailing lobe, and it is, under certain specific conditions, the most exquisitely colorful bit of living matter to be found in the state of Montana; spackled with rows of bright turquoise spots that blend variously to aquamarine and reddish-orange toward the front of the fin, a deep hazy shading of iridescent mauve overall, and along the upper edge, in some individuals, a streak of shocking rose… Lift the fish into air, and it all disappears. The bright spots and iridescence drain away instantaneously, the dorsal folds down to nothing, and you are holding a drab gun-metal creature. The grayling magic vanishes, like a dreamed sibyl, when you pull it to you.”
Does this passage resonate? It seems to me that David’s words, not my statistics, better create a rapport and connection with you, the reader. In story, the grayling suddenly jumps out at you in all its splendid iridescence.
As a culture and a species we have evolved to embrace story—they can connect us to place, community, and wildlife. Words penetrate us; numbers do not. Grayling, when pulled from the water, become naked and pale. This loss of a unique loveliness carries a poignancy that my information on weights and lengths does not… You can feel its vunerablity.
Can a story make you care? Can it make you act differently? Can it have an impact beyond the space of teller and listener? Of course! A tale experienced and passed on signifies a conjoining, an invitation to look through the eyes of another—be they human, grayling, giant sable, or quetzal. There is no time restriction on a story—it travels in individual and cultural memory. A story makes us treasure, love, transcend. It creates and reinforces religions, traditions and societal patterns, values and taboos, devotions or hatreds.
Back to the grayling… The grayling is a fish. It lives in Northern Rockies rivers, among other places. It can remain healthy in waters that are marginal and oxygen-poor, yet despite this resilient quality, this species is imperiled in Montana. Again, do you care? Why do grayling matter? Or any species? If the grayling went extinct, it wouldn’t impact your life or mine. Although the species has been determined as “warranted” under the Endangered Species Act, it has yet to be listed. But try as you might, you aren’t going to find many in Montana anymore. Does that bother you?
Stories, not statistics, help people care. A good story is convincing, yet it asks the listener to participate in the uncovering of its message. It’s moving in both expected and unexpected ways. We are sometimes reassured. We are sometimes challenged. A good story elicits an “a-ha!”
A bit more from David (note, these are non-sequential quotes are from Jeremy Bentham, the Pieta, and a Few Precious Grayling):
“[The grayling] grows slowly, never as large as a trout, and gives unsatisfactory battle. [It’s] upholstered, unlike the trout, with large stiff scales, scales you wouldn’t want to eat. The grayling is one of America’s most beautiful fish, but only a few subtle anatomical strokes distinguish it from one of the most ugly… It is dumb.
The grayling, face it, is useless. Like the auk, like the zebra swallowtail, like Angkor Wat.”
We wince. We wonder. We look at priorities differently. Stories can jar, leading to a new appreciation for the magnificence and irreplaceability of nature. When played with, words can bite us; “useless” suddenly becomes achingly precious. Story shapes consciousness like waters shape geography. With story, perspectives change. Actions change. Circumstances change.
The Tributary Fund searches the world for religious and traditional stories that portray deep cultural appreciation for wildlife and wild lands. Because with a good story, the world, and all the life it supports, is changed.
Hope you are having a great summer!
Betsy G. Quammen
The Tributary Fund
All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by … religion, whatever else it has done, has provided one of the main ways of meeting this abiding need.
-Harvey Cox, The Seduction of the Spirit