“Are there other ways to tell environmental stories? With Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots as a field guide, I’ve been searching for examples of environmental journalism with other-than-tragic narratives — archetypal frameworks that still fit the facts, but startle the reader out of his or her mournful stupor.” (Michelle Nijhuis)
Taking a slight breather at the halfway point of the Nausicaa Project, I wanted to share an intriguing article titled It’s Not (Always) About the Lorax by Michelle Nijhuis. She notes too often environmental stories gravitate towards tragedy because it’s the most direct method for expressing the loss or diminishment of nature. But while this approach is honest and powerful, it can leave readers feeling depressed, powerless, and paralyzed. Nijhuis loosely uses Booker’s Seven Basic Plots to highlight a series of well-written narratives that use other approaches to convey environmental understanding. My favourite story listed has to be Alan Rabinowitz’s incredible Wild Eyes, if only because I’ve actually camped in the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve in Belize.
The piece got me thinking about the Ekostories I’ve explored. What kind of plots do they contain? Which categories are well-represented? Are there some that don’t show up at all?
1.) Overcoming the Monster – I had a surprising amount of trouble with this one. The stories that have this as a chief plot include the twisted fairy tale of Majora’s Mask in which the protagonist travels to a new world and works to save its people from a malevolent force, or Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender in which the main character defeats the “big bad” via unconventional means.
2.) Rags to Riches – The Ekostories that use this plot have little to do with the acquisition of monetary gains, but are more about gaining happiness and contentment through the creation of a healthy environment. In Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden, a boy and his damaged patch of garden eventually transforms the city into a lush and vibrant place. Jeannie Barker’s Window is actually a Riches to Rags story as the natural environment is converted into suburbia before the process is reversed in Belonging where the drab cityscape is transformed into a nurturing and diverse neighbourhood.
3.) The Quest – I find that this common plot is often tied up with Overcoming the Monster and Voyage and Return. An exiled Ashitake sets off to find a cure for his curse in Princess Mononoke and is swept away in events far greater than him. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang awakens after a century to discover he must set out with friends to restore balance to a war-torn world.
4.) Voyage and Return – This is my personal favourite plot, as I’ve always been fascinated by the process of maturity and the circularity of coming back to one’s self for true understanding and acceptance. A lot of Le Guin’s work revolves around this plot, including A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore in which Ged the protagonist returns home to find wisdom, insight, and solace.
5.) The Comedy – These are surprisingly easy to find. Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt subverts conventional perceptions about nature to hilarious effect. Both Dinosaur’s Changing Nature and the Simpson’s Bart the Mother are genuine comedy of errors. Changing Nature carries a tragic tinge as Earl realizes the consequences of his actions too late, while by the end of Bart the Mother, it’s clear that no learning has taken place at all.
6.) Rebirth – For me, the rebirth plot is probably the most affective and powerful of all; these are the poignant stories that inspire and offer hope from despair. In The Wind Waker, a king finds redemption and respite by entrusting the future to the next generation. In The Inner Light, a man given the chance to experience a second life in a society that has long vanished is profoundly affected. For me, these plots reaffirm the power of choice and the possibility of change.
7.) The Tragedy – As Nijhuis states, sometimes tragedy is just the fastest way to truth. Jared Diamond’s Twilight at Easter depicts the decline of the environment coinciding with the collapse of civilization. In Tiptree’s Love is the Plan the Plan is Death!, doom is foreshadowed from the beginning, yet we are compelled to keep reading to learn about the well-intentioned protagonist.
What do you think? Can you think of examples you have come across of non-tragic environmental stories? Do they fit into any of these seven basic plots? Would love to hear your thoughts.