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Deepen Your Connection to the Natural World Through Myth, Folklore, and Storytelling

Posted on 5/28/2024
by Dustin Clayton, Naturalist
Naturalist Dustin Clayton invites you to deepen your connection to the natural world through myth, folklore, and storytelling. Learn more about his upcoming Awakening to the Living Land and Story Weaver programs, and join us today.

What story do you want to tell about the natural world? Throughout humanity’s time here on earth, our relationship with living nature, and thus the stories we tell about it, have changed and varied over time. As the world’s diverse cultures have adapted to the challenges and opportunities they’ve been presented with, they’ve made sense of and found meaning in the world through the medium of narrative and story.

Like all cultures, ours has a narrative that we tell ourselves about the cosmos, its inhabitants, and our place in the scheme of things. For all its many noble accomplishments, one of the great tragedies of modernity is the loss of personhood, agency, and inherent meaning from the landscape and the community of life. Sadly, we have fostered a culture which views the living world as commodities and resources rather than communities and relationships. This is fundamentally an unhealthy relationship with the world. One where we are the only beholders, the only subjects, and everything else is valuable only in so much as it serves us.

So, again, what story do you want to tell about the natural world?

One where the Earth is a lump of dead matter floating purposelessly in space? 

Or do you want to tell a different story?

An older sort of story. One where the Earth and all that she contains is full of life and meaning. A tale that weaves us back into healthy relationship with the tapestry of life all around us.

If you're anything like me (and a great many other people, I suspect), then the latter option certainly sounds preferable. But how can we best rebuild a healthy relationship with the natural world? Does that happen within a strict materialist framework? Or, do we need to look outside the bounds of culturally approved narratives to the diverse groups of people all over the world (including the vast majority of our own ancestors) who have viscerally experienced the world as animate, sentient, and interdependant?

Traditional cosmologies, as varied and incompatible as they may often be, tend to have something in common. In these ways of experiencing the world, the universe is a living place. Full of meaning and relationship. Where every river and forest and stony hillside is composed of a complex tangle of interrelated creatures and sentiences. It is these relationships that make a place special and unique, and the more you get to know anyplace, the more you realize just how full of life and meaning everyplace is.

I believe that by changing the way we talk and think about the Land, Water, and Sky around us we can fundamentally change the way that we view the landscape and our actual lived experience of the natural world.

This lofty goal is what I hope to accomplish with the two series of programs I lead here at Hitchcock Nature Center:

Awakening to the Living Land (ATLL) and Story Weaver.

For the last three years I’ve had the great pleasure of guiding a series of monthly explorations of the natural world entitled “Awakening to the Living Land.” During these sessions, we’ve roamed the hills and valleys of Hitchcock Nature Center and encountered our relatives here in Iowa’s Loess Hills through the lens of myth, folklore, and traditional craft. Contained within these myths, folk/fairy tales, songs, and seasonal traditions is a vast collection of ecological knowledge based on long term relationships between communities of people and the broader communities of life existing within the landscape.

I absolutely love meeting and interacting with people during these events. One of the great things about engaging with this sort of traditional ecological knowledge is just how hungry for it many people are. Humans are meaning-making creatures and if something has a story then we’re more inclined to respect it. In fact, one of my favorite parts of ATTLL is telling traditional stories which are rooted in the landscape while walking through the forest or prairie. If you tell the myth of Demeter and Persephone while walking in a woodland on the Spring equinox you’re participating in an ancient relationship and dialogue with the land through the medium of Myth. Not myth in the sense of something that isn’t true, but rather the idea of myth as a story that is a container for truths that are eternal.

This is the power of storytelling. The stories we tell about the world influence how we experience it and thus how we interact with it.

There is an ancient alchemical way of understanding the universe through the study of the relationship between the macrocosm (“Big World,” or the entirety of all that exists) and the microcosm (“Little World,” or you, the individual). In this understanding, the outer world is a reflection of the inner world and vice versa. With regards to myth and other sorts of meaningful stories, these narratives are playing out in the world of nature all the time. They are representations of our relationship with the world around us. However, these stories are also constantly happening inside of us as well.

This is why I’m so excited about “Story Weaver”, the new series of programs that we’re hosting at Hitchcock Nature Center this year. Story Weaver is a program all about the stories we share with each other and with the rest of living nature. Once a month we gather together to tell tales rooted in the living world. These tales may be true or fiction. Mythology or history, they may be anecdotes that have happened to you personally or stories of your ancestors. They may even be stories where the protagonists are trees, stones, birds, or the wind. So long as the story you tell is embedded in the living landscape around us and recognizes the vast, strange, tangled web of life, your story is welcome.

I hope you’ll find time to join us at Story Weaver or Awakening to the Living Land. Come to share, or just to listen.

Some Guidelines for telling stories at Story Weaver:

  • Come to tell a story or just to listen to stories being told.
  • Please have your story prepared ahead of the event, to ensure that it fits within the allotted time.
  • All stories are to be five minutes or less (with a one-minute grace period)
  • Stories should be told not read, please leave your notecards behind when you tell your story.
  • Your story should be in some way related to the theme of the evening.
  • Be kind and civil. Avoid using offensive or derogatory language.
  • Have fun! The best stories are told by those who enjoy the telling.
  • Be respectful and listen attentively to the stories others are telling.


Dustin Clayton

Dustin, an Omaha native, is a lifelong student of the natural world.  He has been a practitioner of Earth-based skills for over 25 years. He has also formally studied geology as well as the traditional uses of native plants as foods and medicine. Dustin spends as much time as he can wandering the loess hills getting to know our local native wildlife.

Together, he and his wife Clarissa enjoy hiking, traveling, gardening, and birding.





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