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Once upon a time... the power of storytelling

Volume 6 Number 1 - April 2009

Martin Clement

French title: Il était une fois… Les pouvoirs du conte

Spanish title: Había una vez…el poder del contar cuentos



Educators in South African Botanic Gardens have a rich storytelling tradition to draw upon, based on existing indigenous knowledge systems.  The links between biodiversity and cultural diversity and the various ‘ways of knowing’ provide interpretation practitioners with an opportunity to develop meaningful action-based programmes that inspire visitors to regard issues relating to threatened species from a more personal perspective.   The aim is to encourage a deeper sense of place and care for one’s local environment.

Storytelling is a powerful interpretive medium that deserves greater attention within environmental communication and botanic gardens education programmes.  In this article we trace the development of ideas from a number of assistant educators at the Durban Botanic Gardens who explore the use of local narratives as a means to bring alive new meanings which might also be incorporated into local interpretation practice.

Striking a huge baobab tree, He caused the animals to walk into the light of day for the first time. As each one appeared through a great rent in the tree’s roots, He named it and gave it a place to live. Even though He was assisted by Mantis, who was a super-being and the Creator’s helper, the animals took a long time to come out of the tree and be named. Last of all came man (San Creation story) (Greeves, 1988).

As a place, Africa is a highly diverse continent: some 51 countries that are home to 810 million people who speak over 800 languages (Norris, 2007). A place that is rich in the tradition of storytelling. At a regional level, Southern Africa for example has a rich and unique plant flora comprising 30 000 species of flowering plants that make up 10% of the world’s flora. Along with this plant diversity is a rich cultural diversity, with many people in the region still relying on local plants for their subsistence and daily livelihood needs (Van Wyk and Gericke, 2000). The richness in plant diversity of Southern Africa makes for a potentially rich cultural landscape with indigenous knowledge systems that provide a storied landscape that can be unlocked during the process of meaningful interactive interpretation. However, O’Donoghue and Neluvhalani (2002), note the preference for ‘indigenous knowing’ rather than the commonly used concept of ‘indigenous knowledge’, the latter tending to treat knowledge as an ‘objective commodity’ that has been divorced from ‘the socio-historical contexts of human meaning-making interaction’. Just as poetry is meant to be heard, oral traditions captured as knowledge within the written text, tend to lose much of their oral testimony and interpretive flavour and meaning. Nigerian poet, Niyi Osundare claimed that ‘”to utter is to alter" – his following poem is worth reading aloud:

Grandma had a favourite saying
She said it till she was old and grey
She said it till
She breathed her last

“That land is never at peace”,
She often stressed
“Where a few have so much
And the rest have so little”

There is enough corn
For all the chickens of the world
If only they peck with equal beaks
And the fast tame their haste
For the benefit of those left behind”

Niyi Osundare

Story is a powerful and provocative medium that connects us intimately to our place in the world, and ultimately to our self identity. A story can be defined as an account of either a real or fictitious sequence of events that link together by means of plot, which is what makes the story move from beginning to end (Kock, 2003).  From an interpretation perspective, stories serve to inform, enlighten and transform our place-relation in the world.  Story has the potential to transform the practice of interpretation in botanic gardens into a provocative and meaningful experience. Stories evoke a response in us. They inspire and develop a sense of curiosity about their subject matter and the person telling the story.

“There is a wood, the canal, the river, and above the river the railway and the road. It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds, and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place that had something to do with me (English playwright, Alan Bennet from ‘Untold Stories’).”

I am curious why Alan Bennet took all those years to realise the place significance of that bit of wood outside Leeds in the UK and what the turning point was for him to consider its possible place value. This process of place discovery has been linked to experiences of play in nature as a child, an experience that helps to form long lasting attachments to significant green places and the potential for a greater sense of environmental care in later life. According to writer Steven Koch ‘Childhood is, in every sense, the cradle of narrative’.  Our knowledge of our place in the world is story-bound. Story, according to Terry Tempest Williams ‘is an affirmation of our ties to one another.’ For Beck & Cable (2002) ‘The story must somehow relate to something within the personality or experience of the visitor…Furthermore, information, as such, is not interpretation. The story offers revelation based upon information…the purpose of the interpretive story is to inspire, to provoke people to broaden their horizons.’ Hence within a group one will encounter a range of stories or narratives that are rich learning resources for an interpretive programme.

Interpretation and the value of story

‘To assemble an effective story requires a great deal of research, thought, organization, and care.’ (Beck & Cable, 2002). Story also assists in developing a greater sense of ecological intelligence, helping us to develop a greater sense of environmental care. This place connection that story and storytelling uncovers is perhaps best captured within the concept of ‘inner geography’ as suggested by the late Irish poet, Seán Dunne:

‘There is a second type of geography which is harder to define. Each place contains its own version. It is an inner geography which is formed over a long period. It is a map shaped by memory, culture and experience. This geography varies from person to person and evolves over generations. It includes songs, stories, jokes, poems, politics, works of art, sporting events, local loyalties, parochial enthusiasm – the entire paraphernalia of a particular place. It is more than that vague thing, the spirit of place. It is a sense of life lived in a particular area, and of the way that life is expressed.

Educators have often disregarded the value of place and story. ‘The importance of place in education has long been overlooked for a variety of reasons. One is that we miss the immediate and the mundane’ (Orr, 2005).

A broken connection with landscape and our history has been a compelling factor in the modern mindset in which detachment seems to dominate over collective and meaningful interaction. Jeremy Rifkin notes that in oral cultures closely tied to the land, most language is stored in the mind, wisdom is cherished above all else, and that by their very nature these cultures are intimate and sensual. (Beck & Cable, 2002)

As one educator and guide at the Durban Botanic Gardens questioned “As an interpretator, when am I ‘storytelling’ and when am I simply sharing information in an interesting manner?” Stories can be seen as ‘hooks’ to recall important concepts, grab attention or to link differing  ideas, concepts of issues together into a meaningful whole. ‘Good storytelling can assist in gaining new insights and it certainly makes the sharing of information both more enjoyable and memorable’ (Bubb, 2009, pers com).’ Stories can be a great teaching tool. According to Frank Smith, the human brain is a narrative device that thrives on stories. We store knowledge in the form of stories which are easier to recall than long lists of facts (Smith, 1988). For author Gordon Wells of The Meaning Makers, stories provide an overt means to generate shared understanding amongst learners and educators.

‘In the field of co-intelligence, stories are more than dramas people tell or read. Story, as a pattern, is a powerful way of organizing and sharing individual experience and exploring and co-creating shared realities. It forms one of the underlying structures of reality, comprehensible and responsive to those who possess what we call narrative intelligence. Our psyches and cultures are filled with narrative fields of influence, or story fields, which shape the awareness and behaviour of the individuals and collectives associated with them. (Atlee, 2009)

Uncovering ‘nature’ through story

In story we uncover the landscape. In sharing stories we share ourselves and meanings that we hold dear; meanings that are connected to our memories and subjective interpretation of the world around us.  The sociologist, Raymond Williams, described ‘nature’ as is perhaps the most complex word in the English language that is largely socially constructed and tied up with our norms and values and histories; commodified and layered, within land that is transformed into landscape.  The Welsh poet David Whyte claims that ‘Though we profess to love nature, we like it packaged according to our human desires. We do not look too hard at the world for fear of what we will find there’.  A recent review on the United Nation’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD) highlighted the need for creativity and critical thinking within environmental and sustainability education practice (Lotz-Sisitka, 2006). The role of story provides an evocative bridge for both critical thinking and creativity in a nature-culture divided world, one in which we might become more ecologically in tune. Ecological intelligence is not speech. It is an act. An act of weaving and unweaving our reflections of ourselves on Earth…’ (McCallum, 2005). We are currently faced with the challenge of moving beyond environmental awareness to action. The use of story as an interpretive aid helps to access the head, heart and hands within education programmes in botanic gardens. A garden is full of meaning and narrative with a history in its own right, with multiple layered personal and collective perspectives. Stories help us uncover this and engage in the richness of plant collections.

Storytelling: an improvement on silence?

‘There is not a culture in the world that does not have myths, legends or fairytales  explanations, no matter how fantastic, of the origins of the world and of life, of heroes and villains, of how we ought to behave and how not to ‘(McCullum, 2005:23). The use of storytelling while a powerful and provocative medium for interpretation, needs to be handled sensitively with consideration for the group involved in the particular interpretation programme. Will the story be an improvement on the overall interpretive experience, will it capture attention? A good knowledge of the group should help to determine which stories are appropriate and the ideal manner in which they should be communicated. On a recent workshop guided programme with a group of guides from the Durban Botanic Garden it was noted that evocative descriptions of selected flagship indigenous species, one in particular being the Baobab tree provided the possibility for sensory experiences that invited memories of previous encounters with the tree. This in turn led to stories that related to the common names of other indigenous plants. The following account is told by one of our guides, Thabo Zulu, about the meaning of a local indigenous tree Umzimbeet (Milletia grandis), often grown as a popular garden subject:   

Thabo: The first black South African television broadcaster who was known to give himself ‘big names’, also gave himself the name Umzimbeet, which is also the name for good quality sticks… but also a genuine strong person. There is no literal meaning; [the tree] is associated with strength and genuineness.

The above workshoping of storied ideas about plant names and how they came to be is a rich resource for developing more in-depth interpretive stories that can be worked into thematic interpretive programmes where appropriate. Storytelling has the potential to bring interpretation alive for the visitor, to connect key biodiversity conservation issues to everyday life and assist in breaking down the nature-culture divide.

‘Stories that instruct, renew, and heal provide a vital nourishment to the psyche that cannot be obtained in any other way. Stories…provide all the vital instructions we need to live a useful, necessary, and unbounded life – a life of meaning, a life worth remembering.’ (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)


Atlee, T (2009) The Co-Intelligence Institute, accessed 24 March 2009
Beck, L. & Cable, T. (2002) Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles For Interpreting Nature and Culture. Sagamore: Illinois
Bennet, A., 2005, Untold Stories. Faber and Faber: London
Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1993) The Gift of Story: A Wise Tale About What is Enough, Ballantine Books, USA
Dunne, S. (Ed.), (1999) The Ireland Anthology. Gill & Macmillan
Greeves, N. (1988) When Hippo Was Hairy And Other Tales From Africa. New Holland: Cape Town
Kock, S. (2003) The Modern Writer’s Workshop a Guide to the Craft of Fiction. The Modern Library: New York
Lotz-Sisitka, H. (2006). Participating in the UN Decade of Education for Sustainability: Voices in a southern African consultation process. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education.23, 10-33
McCallum, I (2005) Ecological Intelligence Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature, Africa Geographic, Cape Town
Norris, S. (2007) Africa Our Home. Siren Conservation Education and Tusk Trust
O’Donoghue, R. & Neluvhalani(2002) Indigenous Knowledge and the School Curriculum A Review of Developing Methods and Methodological Perspectives in Environmental Education, Ethics & Action in Southern Africa. Creda: Pretoria
Orr, D.W. (2005) Place and Pedagogy in Ecological Literacy Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. Sierra Club: San Francisco
Smith, F. (1988) Understanding Reading. Hillsdale: New Jersey
Van Wyk, B. & Gericke, N. (2000) People’s Plant’s A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa. Briza: Pretoria
Wells, G (1987) The Meaning Makers, Children Learning Language and Using Language to Learn, Hodder Arnold H&S, New York USA
Whyte, D. (2001) Crossing the Unknown Sea Work As a Pilgrimage of Identity. Riverhead: New York

Thanks to the assistant educators of the Durban Botanic Gardens for their input and ideas on the use of story and storytelling as an interpretive method.


Les animateurs des jardins botaniques d’Afrique du Sud peuvent recourir à une riche tradition du conte, s’appuyant sur des systèmes de savoirs autochtones existants. Les relations entre biodiversité et diversité culturelle et les différents « modes de savoir » donnent aux professionnels de l’interprétation l’occasion de mettre en place des programmes d’action marquants, qui cherchent à encourager le public à considérer les questions liées aux espèces menacées d’un point de vue plus personnel. L’objectif est de stimuler un sens plus profond d’appartenance et d’attention vis-à-vis de son environnement local.

Le conte est un puissant moyen d’interprétation qui mérite d’être exploré davantage dans le domaine de la communication environnementale et les programmes éducatifs des jardins botaniques.  Dans cet article, nous suivons le déploiement d’idées provenant de plusieurs animateurs adjoints des Jardins botaniques de Durban, qui étudient l’utilisation de récits locaux pour raviver de nouveaux sens pouvant éventuellement aussi être intégrés dans les pratiques d’interprétations locales.


Los educadores de los Jardines Botánicos Sudafricanos tienen una importante tradición de cuenta cuentos centrada en los saberes indígenas. La relación entre la biodiversidad y la diversidad cultural, y las diversas “formas de saberes” proporcionan una oportunidad a los practicantes de la interpretación para desarrollar programas activos llenos de significado que inspiren a los visitantes a comprender aspectos relacionados con especies amenazadas desde una perspectiva más personal. La meta es promover tanto un sentido de pertenencia más profundo como un mayor cuidado por el ambiente local.

La actividad de cuenta cuentos es un medio interpretativo muy poderoso que merece una mayor atención en los programas de comunicación y educación ambiental de los jardines botánicos. En este artículo presentamos el desarrollo de ideas de varios de nuestros asistentes de educación del Jardín Botánico de Durban quienes exploran el uso de narraciones locales como un medio para darle vida a nuevos significados que puedan incorporarse en la práctica interpretativa local.

Martin Clement
Education Officer
Durban Botanic Garden
70 St Thomas Rd,
South Africa
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