Storytelling: Grounded in research, alive in spirit

Andrew Henderson

“Flight of the Hummingbird,” a novel by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, is often credited as a resounding call for environmentalists and activists to get to work and implement change.

The story found its origins from a parable of the Quechuan people of South America. In it, a hummingbird desperately tries to save its forest home from burning to the ground while other animals watch confused as to what to do.

In the tale, the Great Forest one day beings to burn down. All of the animals flee the forest as the inferno blazes. As they all watch, wondering how to stop the fire, and question what it is they can do, there is a lone hummingbird that has not left.

The hummingbird flies back and forth between a nearby stream and the fire carrying a droplet of water in its beak as it comes and goes. Each time, it drops the tiny bead of water onto the fire in hopes of quenching it.

As the other animals look on in disbelief, one of them questions the hummingbird and asks what it is doing.

“I’m doing what I can,” the hummingbird replies without missing a beat.

I first heard the story of the hummingbird last summer, and it stuck with me. While I personally don’t credit it as my environmental call to action, I can see how others might draw that conclusion, especially given the fuller contexts of the novel.

This story reminds me of why I’m currently a journalist and why I want to tell stories — why I want to discover the stories of others and help them tell their stories to the fullest extent: stories are powerful, meaningful, complex and magnificent.

Storytelling has long been part of human life, albeit in different forms. Even before language and written word, people told stories using signs, sounds and images. A 2014 article published by The Atlantic, “The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling,” shows us why people cling so closely to stories.

“Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness,” Cody Delistraty wrote in The Atlantic article.

The benefits of storytelling are also grounded in scientific research and theory.

“An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior,” a 1944 study conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel at Smith College, examined the responses of 34 college students after they were shown a short film. In the film, two triangles and a circle moved across the screen while a rectangle remained motionless on one side of the screen.

Of the 34 students, only one said the figures on the screen were significant in themselves; the other 33 students created their own stories involving the shapes. A common interpretation among the students was a story about two men fighting over a girl.

“The first man tells the second to go; the second tells the first, and he shakes his head. Then the two men have a fight, and the girl starts to go into the room to get out of the way and hesitates and finally goes in. She apparently does not want to be with the first man,” the report states.

The point of this study has to do with perception and how we as humans often perceive narratives and stories — even in scenarios that weren’t deliberately crafted as stories.

The College Heights Herald recently celebrated its 91st birthday on Jan. 29. This was the same day President Gary Ransdell announced his retirement. If you could wrap up a big news story and deliver it in WKU wrapping paper topped with a Big Red bow, then Ransdell gave us just that.

For 91 years, the Herald has endeavored to tell stories. Your stories: the stories of WKU students, faculty and staff. The stories of community members here in Bowling Green. The stories that affect us in the state and the nation. The stories that show, on some level, that we are all alive together.

This is why I’m writing today to you, the reader. Much like the hummingbird in the story, you too are doing what you can. We at the Herald, myself and my staff included, want to know what that means for you personally.

Over the course of 91 years, the Herald has told stories, and admittedly we haven’t always gotten them right. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying because we’re also doing what we can.

With this new semester of uncertainty upon us, we want to know your powerful, meaningful, complex and magnificent story.

Reach out to us at [email protected] or to me at [email protected] Continue to do what you can.