“Room to move,” cautioned my excellent photography instructor, Meredith Blaché, during my first digital-photography class. “You’ve got to give your subject room to move in your photo.” She showed us comparative photo-pairs of faces, children, nature. All of the pictures looked a whole lot more interesting with space integrated into the image.
Here’s an example. Look at this first photo of Rob in our neighborhood park:
The photo is placid and still. His head and body form a stable triangle with the log. The image emphasizes being here.
Now, notice the different energy in this second photo, taken a moment later but with a shift:
This photo has more energy. The space in front of him raises questions: what is he looking at? How did he get to this place? Is he making a resolution of some kind? Might he be about to get up and walk forward into the green forest? With this new room to move, the scene has a past and a future instead of only a present. In this photo, the man has room to move: he has a story.
For a different kind of room to move, consider this information.
Bushtit nests are pendulous and sometimes reach 12 inches (30 cm) in length, with an entrance near the top. When the outer shell of the nest is completed, the pair spends the night roosting in it.
A nest can take from two weeks to almost two months to complete, but adults will abandon a nest they are building if disturbed. Bushtits recycle previously gathered materials to use at a new site.
–From The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, National Audubon Society
Interesting, isn’t it? How long those tiny bushtits will keep working until their nest is constructed to their satisfaction, and the fact that they are recyclers?
One April day I watched as a pair of bushtits worked on their nest. Alternating, the dark-eyed husband and golden-eyed wife flew in with treasures of spider silk and twigs, then disappeared one at a time into the nest.
I could see the crocheted bag wiggling as the bird wove each new bit into the structure. After a moment or two of hookwork, the bushtit would appear at the entrance, peer around, then fly off for the next round.
But once, a male bushtit brought in a twig that was just a little too long for the nest entrance.
He tried to poke it into the nest, but got it tangled with some spider silk at the opening:
Now what? The little guy tugs and yanks, to no avail:
Finally he had to give up in disgust and just let the stick hang there. Maybe he told his wife it was a lovely creative new doorway decoration. (“Honey, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!“)
Know that feeling of the home-renovation project gone wrong? That hope that no one will think to remind you of the old saying to measure twice, cut once?
The space of story
As with the two initial photos of my companion in the forest, the first portrayal (the paragraph of Sibley facts) is accurate and interesting but inert, still. Like the second photo, though, the anecdote of the bushtits’ nest-building gone awry opens up time and empathy. The bushtits become people to us; we can empathize with their plight, their hard work, their desire to create a home for their children.
A story opens this room to move, a kind of space we can enter and explore. Stories invite us to move through possibilities, with imagination, into an as-yet-empty future. Moving through time, we project ourselves forward with the story’s protagonist: what’ll happen next? What would I do in that situation? What will the hero choose?
It’s this capacity to enter into story, into a space of imagination, that lets us create our future—and thus ourselves. “L’existence précède l’essence,” wrote Sartre: existence precedes essence. Who we are is not limited to facts or a still pose; the basic concreteness of our existence yields to an essence that we develop over our lives through our choices. We write our own stories.
Do animals tell stories?
I’d argue that we’re not the only ones who do this. An inner voice left over from my philosophy education kept pushing me to finish that previous paragraph with, “It’s what makes us human.” That’s what Sartre thought. But I don’t buy that. What’s the evidence that animals don’t have access to the story-space that allows such existential—essence-ial—choices?
And there is evidence that many nonhuman animals do share our capacity for storytelling, including birds, cetaceans, and fish. This article, for instance, includes the charming assertion that there is more solid evidence for transmission of culture by fish than by nonhuman primates. How else do we creatures pass along our cultures than through stories told through one manner or another?
John Marzluff has documented the passing of information across crow generations through experiments in which he and his students once wore caveman masks as they captured 7 crows for banding. Five years later, 28 crows were still harassing mask-wearers, even though nothing else “bad” had been done to the original crows during that time and the other crows had never personally had a negative interaction with mask-wearers. The crows had passed the mask information to their children—excellent and effective storytelling.
For us storytelling creatures, stories serve several essential purposes. Stories teach us who we are as individuals. They also show us the possibilities for our roles in our communities. Stories are thus the intersection of the personal with the universal: they’re how we make meaning in our worlds. We all, both human and nonhuman animals, need room to move, space to create our stories and thus to shape our selves.
Listening to another’s story—human or not—opens that space: one of the profoundest gifts we can offer. What’s your favorite story?