Storytelling

A few days ago the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program posted a question about storytelling on their Facebook page, and that kick started my thought process about the topic.

Let me start off by saying I love good storytelling, especially stories that are true.   I’ve always read some varieties of fiction, mainly Louis L’Amour westerns and sci-fi and fantasy in the style of Douglas Adams, J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan, along with smatterings of other fiction.  But for the most part I find myself drawn to the stories that are true, found in memoirs, biographies, and the like.  I often find that reality provides us with stories that are better than can be created in an author’s imagination, because sometimes reality is so improbable that one couldn’t just make it up.  More than that, for me at least, I find that true stories simply resonate more strongly with me than fiction does.  That’s probably because as I read a work of fiction, I’m always aware that it’s a fabrication, that the author is likely writing events in a purposeful manner to create or invoke certain emotions for the reader.  In non-fiction stories, there isn’t that same sense, real or imagined, that the author is trying to manipulate my thought process.

Anyway, back to storytelling.  One of the things I love most about working in wildland fire, and aviation especially, is the storytelling that happens whenever a group of people come together.  There’s always a slow time when the stories start to roll out – whether it’s sitting around the office or station over a cup of coffee waiting for an IA, or out in the field during mop-up.  Given that many fire people have an adventurous nature and goofy temperament to some degree, the stories of screwups, mishaps, and improbable successes are almost always good for a laugh.

I think it’s often overlooked that wildland firefighting is primarily a culture where oral traditions reign supreme.  At least in my experience, most fire folks are in fire because they enjoy working in the woods, and activities like reading just aren’t that high on the priority list.  Very few of us ended up in this line of work because we enjoyed office buildings and paperwork.  While there are notable exceptions, most folks don’t carry books in their gear bags.  I remember that I was in college, studying forestry with a combination of timber beasts and fire folks, when I realized that most of my peers didn’t read for pleasure, and even reading for school or work was avoided when possible.  As I’ve grown older and more observant, I’ve realized that while reading isn’t a priority for this culture, oral storytelling takes the place of reading in transferring knowledge,  traditions, best practices, and cultural norms among members of the group.  Thus storytelling in its various forms has a more powerful role to play in the fire community than might be expected at first glance.

Telling stories is a powerful way to exchange information, and establish commonalities among members of the group.  It’s amazing how often you can find that despite having a completely different background from someone you’ve just met, you share similar experiences.  Stories are one way in which we can establish common experiences with one another, and in the fire realm, can be great tool when building a team.  Sitting around a beer-filled table, or around a bonfire beer in hand while sharing stories is one of our culture’s primary means of forming bonds within the group, outside of shared experiences on the fireline.

It’s also a way for us, as the “crusty old salts,” to pass information on to the younger people in our lives.  I still remember soaking up random bits and pieces of information listening to the more experienced folks on the crew swap stories around the hangar when I started working in helitack a decade ago.  It’s impossible for us to share our knowledge all at once with the next generation, and storytelling is a way of parceling out that knowledge when it’s appropriate to do so, whether over beers after work or around the shop sharpening saws and tools after a day of project work.

Informal storytelling is also a way that we can share our negative experiences in an environment that is relatively safe for the person doing the sharing.  Formal means of exploring accidents, screwups, failures, etc, often have a negative association, whereas informal storytelling can be a safer way to share your experience, and what you learned from your screwup.  Think of the powerful learning moments in your life, and I bet you’ll find more occurred in a storytelling situation than during a formal learning event.

Storytelling is personal, and that personal connection you get when telling or listening to a story is important in the increasingly disconnected environment of 21st century social interaction.  We tend to pay more attention to things when they’re relevant, when there’s a personal connection or relationship with the story being told, and when we pay attention we usually get more out out of it than if it doesn’t hold our attention.

A great example for me is the story of South Canyon/Storm King.  I’d read the reports, and I’d read Fire on the Mountain, and while interesting, it really wasn’t all that personal. This past summer Eric Hipke with the National Interagency Fire Center released a two-part video telling the story South Canyon in the words of those who were there.  For me that video made an impact beyond what reading about the event had.  When you see the faces of those involved, and you can read their emotions, see their pain, still strong twenty years later, and imagine being in their shoes, it becomes personal, and more real.

I like telling stories.  I’ve been blessed to have experiences in my life and career that are somewhat unique in nature, and they make for some great stories.  For me at least, storytelling is as much about defining who we are as it is entertaining or teaching and learning.  My stories are part of who I am, pieces of the puzzle that is me.  Like puzzle pieces, each story can be interesting in and of itself, but it’s only when all the pictures are assembled that you see the sum of the parts.  It doesn’t matter if it’s your stories, painting a picture of your life, or the stories of you organization or family, painting a bigger picture – there’s value in the storytelling that is often missed in the digital age.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
This entry was posted in Leadership, Personal, Wildland Fire. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Storytelling

  1. Matt Kearns says:

    Good stuff Justin. As a poor story teller and avid listener, I agree that the oral history and didactic qualities of being close to (and having beer with) the “teacher”/story-teller adds a great deal to the experience.

    Great, thoughtful article as always!

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