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The Story Handbook: A Primer on Language and Storytelling for Land Conservationists Paperback – September 1, 2003

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About the Author

Helen’s life as an educator, farmer, and writer follows a career in book publishing, where she was most recently an acquiring editor for W. W. Norton and the publisher of their Countryman Press imprint. She left publishing to cofound, with Peter Forbes, what became a nationally recognized place of learning and change-making—Center for Whole Communities—at their home place of Knoll Farm in central Vermont. She now manages their organic family farm and consults for Vermont Farm Viability and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont while also homeschooling their daughter and continuing her writing life. She is the editor of Dead Reckoning and co-editor of Our Land, Ourselves and The Story Handbook, among other works. You can learn more about their farm and ongoing projects at www.knollfarm.org.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

from the Foreword, by Will Rogers

Stories can accomplish what no other form of communication can—they can get through to our hearts with a message. In our world of information transfer, data exchange, and media impressions where we become callused by so much communication, stories have the power to speak to us about what truly matters. And for land conservationists, what matters more than the relationship between community and the land, between people and place?

True success in our work means moving land conservation out of the "emergency room" of last-ditch efforts, helping our growing communities get control over development by first protecting the places that matter and reworking our cities so that everyone can feel the touch of nature close to home. To do this we will need to help create a fundamental change in how our society thinks about and treats land; we will need to nurture the flowering of a new land ethic. Stories may be our best way to get there.

I am not talking about the stories we conservationists often tell around the campfire or the water cooler—stories about the challenges of the planning, the funding, or the deal. (And we all know that there are some great stories about the nuts and bolts of how we help save land!) I’m talking of stories about people’s relationship with the land and with each other.

Finding these stories is easy. Every place we save has its story. Every place we conserve has its relationships and its connections: the story of a vacant, rubble-strewn lot in Central Harlem that the spirit of one woman and her love for her father turn into an urban oasis of hope and community spirit; the story of homecoming, healing, and restitution as a Native American tribe returns after more than a century to its ancestral homeland, rediscovering its relationship with the land and creating new and positive relationships with the local ranching community; the story of a child’s personal discovery and wonder at play in a forest or irrigation ditch that is later threatened with development. In our work we are surrounded by stories about hope, stories about healing, stories about fairness, stories about making a difference, stories about community, stories about connection. And sometimes the best stories of places are about the struggles to save them.

Our challenge lies in using storytelling to stretch our land-saving skills. We are begining to seek out the stories, find the storytellers, and capture their words and their passion so that we can learn to tell their stories ourselves. In this primer on telling the stories of people and place, Peter Forbes and contributors Tim Ahern, William Cronon, John Elder, Barry Lopez, and Scott Russell Sanders help us think about the power of story and how it relates to our work. In the opening essay, Peter makes a powerful argument for the role of stories in helping change how we think about land and community. Barry Lopez writes how authentic stories about land have a way of renewing one’s sense of life’s purpose. John Elder tells of an experience in the woods near his home that changed the way he thought about his connection to place and the stories of those who lived there before him. Scott Russell Sanders explores our use of certain words—such as restore, wealth, and economy— whose original "earthy" meanings need to be reclaimed. Bill Cronon argues that our stories of caretaking and an ongoing, changing relationship with the land are ultimately more important of stories of crisis and salvation. And Tim Ahern counsels conservationists on ways to make our message heard more broadly, through the stories we tell to the mainstream media. Interspersed among these essays, "story sheets" describe different TPL projects that have a particularly powerful story to tell. I hope we can learn to harness what is special about land-for-people conservation: that those people whom we are helping to speak powerfully about their love and connection with land will inspire others to do the same.

For those of us who use real-estate tools in the marketplace to conserve land, the term leverage has particular meaning—usually with respect to financing deals. Can we use stories to leverage and stretch the on-the-ground impact of our place-saving work? If land conservation, like politics, is fundamentally a local pursuit, can we reach out from a particular place, and use storytelling to carry the impact of our work beyond the property lines? I hope so.

As you read, please view this handbook as a work in progress for us at the Trust for Public Land and hopefully for others in the land trust and conservation community. We welcome your comments, your ideas, and your own experiences. Let’s learn together how to build a new land ethic, story by story.


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