Local Spotlight: Stone Soup
Creating moments of connection to something greater than the separated sense of self many of our social and economic relations encourage.
Stone Soup is an old folk story that many of us have a vague recollection of hearing at some point during our childhood. In the story, a traveller comes across a village that refuses to offer food or shelter, claiming there is barely enough for the people that live there. In response the traveller sits in the square, fills a pot with water, takes out a ‘special’ stone and sits down to prepare stone soup. As the villagers come out to observe, and the initial hostility gives way to curiosity, the traveller suggests stone soup tastes even better with a little garnish, and that he will share what he has with anyone that contributes. Pretty soon the pot is full and people are gathering around to share a meal. In the end the villagers offer to pay for the ‘special stone’ that creates such a feast. The traveller claims it’s priceless and wanders out of town.
I revisited the story again a few years ago while searching for an accessible way to communicate an alternative model of leadership to the dominant ‘hero’ narrative and a useful allegory for asset based community development.
One of the ways I’ve seen it enacted is through Stone Soup story-telling evenings, hosted by my futurist friend Stuart Candy. Once a month a group of ten to twenty people are invited to bring some food and a story to share. The story is generally a real event from their lives, based on the evening’s theme. So far the themes have been ‘far from home’, ‘that was when I realised’, ‘three’ and ‘mystery’.
Although the invitees are drawn from personal networks, most participants don’t know each other, and some of them are brief acquaintances. The format is simple: people arrive, take care of any necessary food preparations, sit down to eat and then the participants take turns to tell their story over five or ten minutes. Many claim it’s one of the most entertaining evenings they’ve had in a long time.
There are many reasons Stuart was interested in hosting these evenings, but one of the clearest was the notion that story-telling, so central an activity throughout most of human history, had become a lost art form. As books, television and film have become ubiquitous features of many people’s lives, many have outsourced our capacity to hold and communicate an entertaining narrative to mass-media. Gratifyingly, these events have shown us that it’s not so much a lost art form as a latent one. Compelling stories, and the capacity to tell them, are still very much with us, just lying below the surface of the day-to-day, hidden in plain sight amidst the crowded bustle of ordinary life.
Much of the power of the evenings stems from the gift of attention freely offered by the group to the story-teller. So often, even in social situations amongst friends, there is a sense that attention needs to be subtly fought for, or earned, rather than simply offered freely. When the latter happens, people’s personalities come alive in the telling, irrespective of their introversion or experience with public presentation. You can feel when someone hits a zone of authenticity in their story. The room feels smaller; the silences pregnant with generative potential. The most powerful moments are when people drop from remembering a past event to directly presencing the experience as if they are reliving the moment. In these times, the emotional character of the experience is transmitted as much as the words. Whilst we might not have lived the same details, we have all tasted fear, shame, humour, longing, surprise or whatever else is at the heart of the story. The idiosyncratic surface features of the story give way to the deeper, more universal structures of human experience.
Beyond an evening of laughter and entertainment, I see these structured story-telling events as significant from a post-growth perspective.
Stone Soup clarifies how deceptively simple it can be to satisfy many human needs and wants. There is no cost beyond the food, but a great deal of value is exchanged. Furthermore, it’s a value that lies stored as latent assets, residing silently in people’s lived experience until brought to life in the moment of sharing. Much of what we seek through commercial infotainment are simply these moments of connection to something greater than the separated sense of self and fragmented identities many of our social and economic relations encourage. The stories are as entertaining as any night out on the town, but no screens need to be powered, no entertainers paid, no profit extracted. In some ways it’s a relocalisation of structured leisure — as Stuart often says in his welcome — it’s amateur night for everyone, but it only works if you throw something in the pot. As the winter here in Melbourne, Australia gives way to the warmer months of spring, we’re considering moving outdoors to public spaces and candlelight and (playfully) communicating the evenings as entertainment for a post-carbon future.
Finally, a future for humanity beyond an addiction to economic-growth will certainly require significant transitions across multiple systems- food growing practices, industrial and chemical processes, the debt based money system, to name just a few. But, as important as these techno-economic changes are, so too are efforts to develop new (and revitalise older) cultural modalities of interaction. For it is as much through the stories we tell ourselves as anything else, that our broader economic narratives are defined.
Originally published in August 2012. To find out more about the Post Growth Institute, visit our website.