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In Search of the Sustainable Imagination

By Joe McHugh

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

My wife's family owns a rustic cottage in northern Wisconsin, that sits by itself near the end of a four-hundred acre lake surrounded on all sides by state forest lands. Her grandfather built the cottage in 1946 and going there is like stepping into a time machine. The quiet at night is such that we turn off the refrigerator and other noise makers so as to lure the wild night sounds to drift in through the screened windows and lull us to sleep. Unless there's a thunderstorm and then we stand on the porch and watch threads of lightning attempt to sew up the dark fabric of woods on the far side of the lake. I know I am incredibly fortune to have such a place to go to in such a frenetic, money-obsessed world.

One summer while driving through the Midwest on our way to the cottage I noticed a massive tractor moving slowing across a vast soybean field. The tractor was towing a chemical tank with a spray rack. My guess was that the farmer was applying fertilizer made from petrochemicals onto his field in order to increase the yield and, being a storyteller, I began to consider the kind of industrialized storytelling we have today, a storytelling that is standardized and commodified, electronically created, enhanced, and distributed. Let me explain.

Compare that part of ourselves we call the imagination with a farmer's field, but instead of growing soybeans, the imagination grows fantasy, dreams, and creative ideas. Without a flash of fantasy now and again life loses its zest and zeal. We fantasize a better future for ourselves and our children, one that will give us the determination to push through the difficulties and heartaches of life. We fantasize about romantic love in hopes of keeping it fresh and meaningful.

Dreams too are vitally important. A fascinating discovery that springs from sleep research is that we must dream to stay healthy. When subjects in sleep experiments were woken up every time they went into the dream state, indicated by REM, rapid eye movement, they became increasingly agitated when awake. After only a few days of not dreaming, they began to hallucinate, to become delusional, their behavior erratic and paranoid. But once they were allowed to dream again without interruption, these symptoms went away.

This doesn't answer the question why we dream; it only tells us that we must dream if we wish to maintain our mental health. And because our fantasies and dreams arise from our imaginations, we must see to it that our imaginations are properly fertilized in much the same way that the farmer must fertilize his field. That's where entertainment comes in. To some the word "entertainment" is synonymous with triviality, a pleasant but essentially meaningless waste of time. But if by "entertainment" we mean the enjoyment of stories, songs, images, and play, then we're talking about something essential that stimulates and renews our imaginations.

The problem with industrial forms of entertainment is that they can over stimulate the imagination in the way petrochemicals over stimulate the soil, exhausting it over time. Then the farmer must pump more and more fertilizer into his field to maintain yields. And because most large scale farming operations are based on monoculture with each field set aside for one crop grown from a single seed stock, more and more pesticides and fungicides are required to keep the whole system from falling apart and putting the farmer out of business.

Sustainability advocates question industrial farming with good reason. In the long run, dependence on petrochemical fertilizers will cause our soils to give out, or succumb to pests and disease. The goal then is to balance the energy we put into the soil with the energy we take out of it, to design systems that are self-sustaining.

I think we should explore the idea of a sustainable imagination in the same way. By over stimulating our imaginations with increasingly more of what are called in the entertainment industry, "jolts per minute," our current industrialized forms of storytelling are exhausting our imaginations. Even when we consume what we consider quality electronic entertainment, an Oscar-winning film, for instance, an Emmy-winning HBO series, or the newest hip commercial, the net result is the same. Communication technologies can and do evolve rapidly, but the imagination, which is tied to the biological functioning of our brains, takes much longer to evolve.

As a nation we face threats from multiple directions including terrorism, climate change, financial instability, overpopulation, and viral and bacterial pandemics, and yet we seem unable to come up with creative and workable responses to these challenges. Politicians and government bureaucrats aren't necessarily more corrupt and stupider than the rest of us, despite what some of the cable news shows would have us believe. Their imaginations are simply overwhelmed by the constant input of the 24/7 news/entertainment industrial complex. I would go further and say our collective imagination is exhausted because stimulation begets stimulation; we are caught in a kind of technologically-driven addiction.

But as we begin to consider adopting sustainable agricultural practices, so we should also consider what goes into maintaining a sustainable and healthy imagination. Reading a book, painting a picture, playing a musical instrument, memorizing a poem, planting tomatoes, restoring a wooden canoe, knitting a scarf, learning to tango, going fishing, sewing a dress, hosting a dinner party, even flying a kite, what by today's standards may be regarded as quaint pastimes, are the very nutrients the imagination needs to live and thrive. That's why they've been around so long; they work.

Joe McHugh is a storyteller, writer, public radio producer, and old-time fiddler who often speaks about the nature and practice of storytelling in the modern world. His novel, Kilowatt, about the perils of energy capitalism and the future of time is now available in paperback and e-book editions. His newest book, Slaying the Gorgon, Understanding Storytelling in the 21st Century, will be published this summer by Calling Crane Books. Stories from his national radio series The Telling Takes Us Home can be heard at www.americanfamilystories.org. He lives in Olympia and can be reached at joe@joemchugh.info.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22