I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history — dreams are more powerful than facts — hope always triumphs over experience — laughter is the cure for grief — love is stronger than death.– Robert Fulghum
In Farley Mowatt’s Never Cry Wolf, a young wildlife biologist named Tyler is dispatched by the Canadian Wildlife Service to investigate whether the Arctic Wolf is to blame for the decline of the great caribou herds in the Alaskan wilderness. Tyler’s adventure is a life altering journey through a looking glass where every preconceived notion of survival is cast aside by the harsh and cunning of the wild. With the help of some local Inuit, the young biologist becomes one with the savage landscape and in doing so, he discovers that the arctic wolf, Canus Lupis Arctos, is not the indiscriminate killer of caribou but in fact, is culling the herds of its sicker and weaker members — all but ensuring the herd’s survival. In the vast emptiness of an Arctic twilight where the summer breathes but a few endless nights of day, Tyler discovers the power of Inuit mythology.
As the acrid smoke of a burning fire creates broken shafts of light inside the makeshift Inuit shelter, a tribal elder recounts to some younger members of his Inuit tribe how the wolf came into existence. In the form of native myth, the ancient sage, Ootek, shares with Tyler and the Inuit children how Mother Earth first created the People and then realized she must provide food to sustain them. In her infinite wisdom, she reached into an ebony hole in the ice and pulled out the Tuktu (caribou) to feed the Inuit people.
“Soon the tuktu had multiplied to such a level that food became scarce and over-population created a generation of sick and weak animals. Their decline threatened the very existence of the People. The great Mother once again reached into the black hole of ice and pulled out the amarok (Arctic wolf) to whom the task fell to thin the overpopulated herds of the sick and weak thus ensuring a stronger generation so that the People might thrive. “
Ootek smiles a toothless grin and nods his head. Tyler watches these lessons being handed down – worn gifts of insight wrapped in a timeless skin of mythology. At that moment, he eases backwards, arms folded behind his head – pondering the brightest stars struggle through a permanent summer twilight. Beams of smoke and light escapes from a thousand seams bewteen the roof of broken pine boughs and caribou antlers. Tyler finally comes to understand through Ootek’s ancient mythology that Arctic wilderness is a last Garden of Eden, ingeniously balanced with each supporting actor playing a vital role in the symbiotic dance for survival. Everything is here for a reason. In the end, Ootek the old one, comes to accept Tyler as one of his own, teaching him the mythology and traditions that serve as guideposts for survival. In Inuit society as in the life of the wolf pack, there is no such thing as an orphan.
As the campfires of our own summers are now dwindling to tangerine glows, we reflect on the time we spend trying to recapture the power of simple things – a gathering of our own tribe and perhaps the retelling of our own stories. These allegories offer lessons and foundations for our children. For most, our memory of youthful stories and early American mythology has been erased. We have lost our all powerful talisman – a rabbit’s foot, a shark’s tooth or a ten banded Diamondback snake’s rattle. Myths are no longer handed down and perpetuated. As a society, we no longer wonder how we came to be and instead focus on what is yet to come. Faith and wonder have been supplanted by anxious impatience for instant resolution. In taming and deconstructing the natural world, we have marginalized the virtues of mythology as a way of understanding how we fit into this vast endless continuum of humanity.
Today’s tribal family no longer lives among multiple generations. Our children do not enjoy as much access to or the patience to rest at the feet of an elderly relative who is eager to paint a picture with the patinaed colors of the past. With so much “reality” barraging us every day, there is no room left our own mythology.
We have moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – – migrating from basic needs of shelter, immediate family, and stories that served as framework for living — to a more permanent and material state of perpetual want. Many families no longer dine together, spend time in the same room, or express curiosity about their own unique history. The “snobbery of chronology”, as CS Lewis shared, is believing that we are superior to all that came before us because we have the benefit of hindsight. As a society, we seem to be moving away from our own mythology of self reliance, sacrifice, generosity, naive optimism and independence to a place where we are more cyncially defined by what we have today. It seems success is our most celebrated virtue and that virtue itself is viewed as an almost orthodox sentiment.
Writer Umberto Eco once mused, “ In the United States there’s a Puritan ethic and a mythology of success. He who is successful is good. In Latin countries and in Catholic countries, a successful person is a sinner.” Eco’s European view is borne from a very different life experience and a complex notion of how values, wants, needs, desires and expectations are reconciled when man by definition is meant to suffer in order to achieve wisdom and humility. As Americans, we are a mass of contradictions. We are modern families – fractured and yet, still hanging together by the threads of our own potential. Yet, many of us have forgotten our own narratives.
The “mythology of us ” is a melange of truth and fiction, hyperbole and stranger than fiction parables of people, places and things. Some of us came to America as immigrants. Others rose out of religious persecution or abandoned lives in an effort to give their children a better opportunity for a new start.
I look for occasions to impart these stories to my children. As they grow older they consider their own heritage and the mythology of their ancestors as trite and dated allegories that serve little purpose. Yet, on the right evening I can still entice them with a wartime story of their British great-grandfather digging victims of a V-1 rocket attack out of a bomb shelter in London or a distant ancestor whose Ohio home was part of the miraculous and dangerous Underground Railroad. They have learned of a mongrel heritage of confederates, saints, villains, nobility and cutthroats. Our own mythology rises out of tragedy and often chronicles individuals who had the misfortune of being born in a time where they were overwhelmed by circumstances. They were first generation Irish, German, French and English immigrants. They were soldiers killed fighting for the English army with General Gordon at Omdurman. Some died of fever and others endured physical and mental hardships. A famous uncle was the only cavalry officer killed as he rode with Jeb Stuart around the flanks of the egotistical Union General George McClellan. A painting depicting the tragic “The Death of Lt. William Latane” C.S.A hangs in the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia.
The kids get quiet as I paint a canvas of restless Irishman wearing Union indigo as he clutches his glistening bayonet staring across a frozen December battlefield at Fredericksburg. There was once a Chicago inventor and entrepreneur. Dan Canary ran a taxi service recognized for its unique color – bright canary yellow. Years later, he would protest that John Hertz had stolen his idea of the Canary cab – launching the iconic Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company. Dan never won his case against Hertz and in the process, lost his first wife, leaving him widowed with eight children. Ever the resourceful man, he successfully met and married a considerably younger woman through a mail order bride firm. They had three more girls – one of which was my grand mother, Ruth Farr Canary.
Whether we were once Huguenots escaping religious persecution or indentured souls willing to risk everything for a new start – we have evolved from the DNA of stronger ancestors – – individuals who endured, suffered, refused to acquiesce and searched the horizon line for a better way forward.
These fireside moments are the times I cherish as I plant seeds of our history and leaven in healthy doses of our own mythology – a bloated myth of how my father walked miles to school through snow in urban Chicago or how a mischievious uncle almost swam in a Florida alligator pond on a drunken dare. I work these moments to weave the sacred and profane together in an endless book of virtues in hopes that these seeds might one day germinate in a time of crisis or decision.
When I think of the attributes I want my children to exhibit when they finally released into the unforgiving wilderness of man, I wonder what have I done this week, this month or this year to plant those seeds of character and virtue – generously fertilizing these life lessons with myths, stories and the history of us.
Our personal and American mythology is a wonderful story of survival, noble deeds, redemption, human frailty and the progression from self to selfless. It is only through telling our stories again and again that we might transfer knowledge, courage and confidence to our children. Like the Inuit, these fables are intended to symbolically relate the physical laws of man and nature to remind them of their our potential as individuals and as a nation. Our greatness has not been completely stripped, overdrawn, sold, stolen or spent. It is here – waiting to be rediscovered in new places to be excavated, mined and processed into the virtues of patience, hardwork and courage to change.
Perhaps the mountain that looms ahead won’t seem so steep if our children come to understand the myths, legends and folklore of those that climbed before them. Whether it is coming to see our natural world as a living, breathing entity or realizing the impossible is a self imposed limitation, our mythology can teach an entire generation to reverse our self destructive course and speak up over the voices of the false prophets and political charlatans.
We need our mythology to survive. Robert Redford recently warned a small audience that time is running out, “I believe in mythology. I guess I share Joseph Campbell’s notion that a culture or society without mythology will eventually disappear and ( some might argue) we’re close to that already.