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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 8 | Aug. 4, 2005

New Stories to Sustain Earth

Trudeau Scholar challenges the notion that scientific data alone should guide the way we live

By Lorraine Chan

Aliette Frank believes that stories shape our world. Individual stories and society’s narratives all possess the power to create, unify or destroy.

And given the state of things on earth, says the UBC geography student, it’s time we revamp the sustainability discourse.

Frank is one of this year’s 15 Trudeau Scholars. The prestigious award of $200,000 supports doctoral students in their research in areas of social justice, human rights,
citizenship or the environment.

As someone who has worked extensively in the field doing hands-on conservation work in seven different countries, Frank has impeccable credentials to mount that challenge.

In the late ’90s, Frank researched endangered primates in the jungles of Uganda. On the barren Juneau Ice-field of Alaska, she studied climate change. Crisscrossing the globe, Frank has also investigated tropical ecology in Costa Rica, marine biology in Jamaica and ecotourism in New Zealand. Frank has reported on issues of water conservation and overpopulation while working at the National Geographic Society and for the National Wildlife Federation.

Her book-in-progress, Light in Place of Darkness, examines the complex and often tragic interplay between humans and nature. Drawing from her eyewitness accounts in Africa and elsewhere in the world, Frank’s searing account has sparked interest from publishers at Random House.

“Storytelling is our chief moral compass,” says Frank. “I’m interested in the interface of storytelling and science -- how each can maintain its own integrity and work with the other. Storytelling can bring into sustainability different kinds of knowledge, different ways of knowing, different ways of experiencing the natural world.”

“Right now sustainability is pretty much a discourse dominated by science and numbers,” adds Frank, who holds a degree in environmental and evolutionary biology from Dartmouth College.

“If you can’t quantify it, if it can’t be certified, if it can’t be proven by science, if it can’t be seen as yes this is true with a capital ‘T’, then it doesn’t count,” says the 27-year-old Utah native.

At UBC, Frank will research how storytelling can communicate different ways of knowing and connecting to nature. She will chart how storyteller and audience construct meaning, and she is especially interested in mystical and intuitive ways of knowing.

“From my experiences with storytelling in the community and in academic field research, I’ve encountered many who believe that nature is imbued with spirit, that it has its own story, that each and every thing has its own story behind what we see,” she explains.

Frank says cultures holding this worldview believe the external reflects the internal and all life flows from a continuous, connected whole.

“When we’re cutting down trees, we’re cutting down parts of ourselves. When we’re warring with each other, we’re warring inside.”

Frank says this is perhaps what Western civilization sorely needs, “steeped as it is in the Cartesian mind-body split.”
But welcoming plural forms of knowledge and expression can free us from that duality, insists Frank.

“Let’s say, for example, the Greater Vancouver Regional District needs to decide about future land use. In the world I envision, a First Nations community could authoritatively and compellingly bring their knowledge and values into that debate through the process of storytelling -- whether it’s oral tradition, dance or song.”

But Frank admits that good storytelling requires alchemy between speaker and listener. She mulls over the question: how will people accustomed to measuring reality in facts and numbers shift to other modes of knowledge?

She pauses in her exuberant and rapid-fire delivery, replying, “It’s happening. It’s here. It’s just being aware of it.” In many ways, she says, her own life demonstrates a merging of both rational and intuitive faculties.

“Since I was five, I’ve always had clairvoyant dreams. Always. I knew I was going to Africa. I knew I was going to study gorillas. I knew I was going to come here to Vancouver. I had this dream, booked a plane ticket, got off, and said, yep, this is it. I’m here. This is where I’m supposed to be. I’m home.”

Two life-changing experiences further opened Frank’s heart, mind and senses. The first time was during a research expedition to Uganda’s Bwindi-Impenetrable Forest. At age 18, she had accompanied her anthropology professor to study endangered mountain gorillas and chimpanzees.

Things grew dire when Frank’s professor, who had left camp to replenish their food, did not return. Heavy rains had caused landslides. Frank also got word Rwandan rebels were killing locals and tourists nearby. If she was to survive, she had to stay alone in the forest and fend for herself.

“I was trapped alone for two weeks without any food,” recounts Frank, who at one point resorted to eating ants.

“I wrote a goodbye letter to my brother. I was sure I was going to die,” she says matter of factly. “It was interesting because at that moment I felt more at peace and happier than I’ve been in my entire life. I felt feelings of oneness and I wasn’t afraid.”

Eventually, Frank’s professor met up again with her and they returned home. But the trauma of that trip surfaced in Frank’s life several years later.

In 2002, Frank was diagnosed with terminal illness.

“I had fungal infections and everything I ate except spinach and quinoa sent my body into near anaphylactic shock. The doctors found that my white blood cell count was lower than most cancer patients.”

But through good fortune and fate, Frank says she encountered a Montreal group that helped her heal through techniques using “Aboriginal dream-time.”

“Through that process I was able to face up to the lost memories of what happened in Africa. They were buried in my body and were manifesting as illness.”

“Just like that,” says Frank snapping her fingers, “in a week I healed myself from things that in no way technically or by any scientific means should you be able to.”

Finding that she herself can bridge the rational and intuitive, Frank says she has complete faith “the science part is coming.” She says her dreams have directed her to these very crossroads at UBC.

“I want to work on sustainability issues at UBC because I feel I’m most connected here. People are very, very willing and open.”

And when the task she has before her seems daunting, Franks says she reminds herself, “I’ve been fortunate to be able to do this. It’s my path, it’s my role. The support will come if I just keep my eyes focused.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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