Why Stories Matter

It flooded here today. We saw it coming, but didn’t. The warnings were clear, but insufficient. We knew the rain was coming and the rivers would rise, but they crested above the claimed heights and the water found more places to go than it seemed anyone was expecting. The ground shifted and fell, trees dropped, roads crumbled. It feels as though we’re all still figuring out what just happened.

Nehalem, Tuesday Night – Photo courtesy of Trav Williams, Broken Banjo Photography

I live on the North Coast of Oregon. Maybe you’ve heard the news about the storms here in the Northwest. It rained and rained last night, after having rained and rained Monday night, and the winds whipped and the ocean rose high. I live outside of Nehalem, a town that was partially underwater much of today. I live along the North Fork of the Nehalem River, which spread itself wide and far today.

The Tillamook County Pioneer‘s headline earlier today sums it up well: “a virtual archipelago of communities separated by floodwater, landslides.” Even as we’ve called and texted, emailed and updated statuses, we’ve been cut off from one another out here on the Oregon coast. I can’t get south past Wheeler, the nearby small town. My roommate couldn’t even get into Nehalem to her job. All three routes were flooded. So we hunkered down, lucky enough to have electricity and a wood stove and the internet. Cars drove fruitlessly back and forth on the rural highway we live on, searching for a route out that didn’t exist.

Earlier this afternoon, I walked out into the fields around my house, wandering toward the wide expanse of water a few hundred yards away. Sheep and cows live next to me, and I visited them, said hello, checked to see how they were doing. They seemed largely nonplussed, if perhaps curious to see if I had any good food for them. I didn’t. I pressed on, a coffee cup in hand, wandering along the small creek that had turned into more of a river, leaving its bank and cutting out into new paths and tributaries. A large expanse of the adjacent field was silted from the night’s more heavy flow. A portion of fencing had swept away. Walking down the raised, gravel path with a herd of heifers following dutifully behind, I came to the edge of the water and stood there looking out. It spread wide and muddy and flowed languid, at least on the surface. A few more daring bovine crept up close behind me and I stood still for them, until one started sniffing and licking at my rain jacket—a favorite past time, it seems, based on other past experiences with them—and we played a small game of feints as I would reach to touch her snout, she would pull away, I would turn my back, and she would next be snuffling and licking at my shoulders and neck.

Nehalem, Wednesday Afternoon – Photo courtesy of Trav Wiliams, Broken Banjo Photography

It was lovely in its way. And yet, around me a wide variety of people seemed to be at a loss, based on my readings of social media and the local news sources. They were cut off, with roads closed that weren’t supposed to be. The emergency crews and county employees did not have any easy answers as they rushed from one bit of broken infrastructure to another, put up signs and cones, warned people, and then moved to the next emergency. People wanted to know when they could drive from one town to another, but the answers still haven’t come. Hours, maybe days. Perhaps it will end up being longer. No one knows for sure. I watched cars drive back and forth in front of my house. Maybe they were just sightseeing, but they seemed lost for lack of the usual and established routes.

This feels to me why we need stories. The routes we know and come to take for granted are not always going to be there. Increasingly in a world that seems ready to come apart at the seams, we are going to have to strike out on new paths and make our peace with the collapsing roads of old. The floods that hit us today here on the North Coast are hardly unique. They’re the worst I’ve seen, granted, but I’ve only been here about five years. As bad or worse happened in 2007, in 1996, and yet farther back. And worse will happen in the future.

It feels as if worse is going to become more and more common. And as we continue to hit the limits of our shortsighted and destructive behavior, the epic storms and crumbling infrastructure, the social chaos, the economic and political dysfunction, and the straight refusal of natural systems to continue to play along is going to hit us harder and harder.

These are the ways we’ll decline. The storms will be worse than expected, the rivers will rise faster than we thought, and the infrastructure we rely on and take advantage of will crumble easier than we imagined. We’ll pick up the pieces, but it will get harder and harder. The costs will become more and more burdensome. And we’ll keep shedding our complexity and comforts as a result.

As those limits bite, we’ll need new stories to point us forward to different ways of living and unimagined ways of coping. We face loss and disruption—material and psychological. We can only do so much about the material, but we can do quite a lot about the psychological. We can prepare ourselves for the loss and disruption and, as a result, we can face it as gracefully as possible when it comes. We can prepare ourselves for hard times we never expected and, when faced with those trouble, work to make the situation better rather than collapse under the weight of failed expectations.

That hope—that we may be very limited in the degree to which we can change the coming hard times, but that we can prepare ourselves for it and face it better as a result—is one of the key drivers behind my desire to take on this project. Into the Ruins is a venue for imagined new paths and routes, for different ways of moving forward in the world that aren’t dependent upon the destructive and self-defeating patterns of our present culture. It’s one of many ways I hope to prepare for the future and make it a small bit better.

What’s yours? Write us a letter. Tell us why you think stories of a future different than the ones so commonly imagined in our culture are important. Tell us what you see coming and what you’re doing about it. We want to launch our first issue with a robust letters section, even though we don’t yet have issues and stories for you to respond to. Tell us instead about the future, about the stories you want to see, about why different narratives are so important. We’ll publish the best, and we’ll get the conversation started. Full details are on the Letters to the Editor page.

Feel free to comment below, as well. I plan to update this blog on occasion with thoughts, musings, and news about Into the Ruins. I also want this to be a venue for conversation about the magazine, about deindustrial and post-industrial science fiction, and about the future and our predicament in general. Keep it lively, but keep it respectful. Thanks.

– Joel, Editor & Publisher

14 thoughts on “Why Stories Matter

  1. The whole concept of Into the Ruins is incredibly exciting. Where did I learn about it? On Archdruid Reports, of course, just about an hour ago. I’d love to submit a story, but I’m currently working on a couple of novels, including my latest NaNoWriMo novel that takes place about 50 years in the future. Reading this post feels very eery, since my story opens with a character having a nightmare about a flooded Miami (where I grew up). Oregon’s floods are like a whisper from the future, sent back as a warning.


    1. Hi Catana,

      I’ll have to agree with you—I find this concept exciting, too. Thanks for making your way over here from The Archdruid Report and commenting. I agree that the floods make me think uncomfortably of the future and what else is in store for us. As I note in the post, it’s not as if the level of flooding is new. But it feels like this sort of event will become more and more common, especially when considered with our unusually dry summer. Couple it with everything else happening in the world at the moment (and the hot mess that’s our political scene right now) and I’m left feeling a significant sense of disquiet.


    1. Thanks, Michelle! Hopefully I’ll manage to sneak some of that into posts here on the blog, as it’s certainly relevant to this project. Admittedly, though, I’m doing less farming and homesteading these days—though I hope to balance that more back into my life in the coming months.


  2. Joel, I just arrived from ADR. Your post there is a good reminder: I’d forgotten about your project.
    Your description of flooding is vivid, and the photos are an excellent addition: “Nehalem, Wednesday Afternoon” really conveys the vulnerability of places with steep hills and narrow valleys.
    I trust that you’ll keep us posted on what in your area stays broken, and what is abandoned. I’m interested in the short and long-term aftermaths of various storms, including October’s mega-flood in poor, tax-averse South Carolina, and Hurricane Irene’s (I think it was) impact on Vermont.
    In case you and other readers are interested, my own blog touches on these themes: The subtitle is “Reports and musings on weather, climate and the long emergency.” http://astroplethorama.wordpress.com
    One aspect of your description jangles my mind, though: some of your use of the word “it”. As in the first sentence. And “It feels as if worse . . .” My mind stumbles on these spots in the narrative, wondering, what is this “it”?


    1. Hi zoidion,

      Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the descriptions. A friend of mine took the photos and he’s quite excellent. The nighttime one (and a few others he took at night that aren’t in this post) are quite eerie in their way. This flood has been a good reminder of how vulnerable we are. It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about rising sea levels a bit of late; this was a good reminder that the water can come from other places, too, and storms like this may be a more pressing source of flooding in the next couple decades.

      I’ll aim to keep you updated on lasting effects. So far, repair crews are doing a fine job of getting slides cleared, assessing damage, and so on. However, we still can’t head south as both the roads are closed due to slides and sinkholes. Perhaps by Monday.

      “It.” Yes. That is a good question. I suppose one could say “it” means Mother Nature, earth, our ecosystem. Or maybe our own shortsighted idiocy? I think that could sub in well, too.


  3. Good luck with the project. I was in South Carolina when the wind and the rains came. It’s a taste of things to come. I was visiting friends in a rich and gated community on the coast. Nobody walks there because there’s nowhere to walk to, unless you really, really, like walking. Without a car you’re stuck. There are no buses. So one is trapped in a very comfortable lifestyle, or is it imprisoned? for as long as it lasts.

    Being both Christians and Republicans my friends, who are lovely people, had Fox News on and the Weather Channel. It was, for me, a cultural shock of gigantic proportions. What was going on? I wondered to myself. Twenty-four hour weather, the storms and flooding covered in minute detail from every conceivable angle, repeated over and over again, like a treadmill, experts all over the studio and intrepid reporters wading through the flooded streets after the deluge, but not a word about global warming or climate change, concepts that seemed like taboo subjects that were deemed too controversial to mention. Is this how civilizations collapse? Sorry about using ‘collapse’, broke a rule already, didn’t I? I’ll try to do better.

    Fox News! What can one say? The rule against using profanity stops me from writing what I call it, don’t want to break another rule, but it begins with an ‘f’ and ends with an ‘s’ and then ‘news’ comes along. It really does seem like toxic waste pollution for the mind. It should carry a government health warning. A succession of charlatans, demagogues, liars, lunatics, rabid partisans, crooks, money makers… absolutely frightening. The political ‘sophistication’ of a Munich beer cellar in Germany in the 1920’s… help! Only in Germany they didn’t have television in the 1920’s, only the radio and it took years before the demagogues took over. Here they’ve already taken over and their politics is broadcast across a continent and into the homes of millions of people, help! What happens to a nation, a culture, when so much of public discourse has been hi-jacked by demagogues spouting what amounts to political propaganda?

    What struck me about the Weather Channel and Fox News was the determination to be ‘entertaining’ even though it’s entertainment like a ghoulish horror movie. The deluge, terrorism… it’s all really entertainment. The end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine.

    So, what’s the future gonna be like then? Well, in lots of ways we’re already living in it, only we’re so close to it, we don’t have the perspective to recognize the world around us. Much of the future is already here. Though, in our case it’ll look a lot like the past. What did the world look like before the great leaps of technology and ideas that characterized the Industrial Revolution? We’re living in the tail-end of the Industrial Revolution. It should really be called the Great Energy Revolution, because that’s what it really was. Cheap, easy, flexible, plentiful… energy, so much of it and so cheap that we created a model of society and an economy that was built on wasting it, big time.

    Take away all that cheap and easy energy and our way of life slides backwards towards the kind of society and economy that was there before the Great Energy Revolution. It’s the economy… stupid. It won’t just be our technology that’ll be forced to adapt and change to the long era of energy scarcity, but the way we think and our ideas about the world around us, how things work and why. Our thinking will be more like the way people thought before the Great Energy Revolution, and back then society and the economy was feudal and democracy was something the Greeks tried and failed at a couple of thousand years ago, and only a mere handful of people even knew who the Greeks were or what ‘democracy’ meant.

    It’s really important to understand that our ideas, linked to our knowledge, is going to undergo a transformation too, in the era after the Great Energy Revolution, not just the technology we use. My guess is that ‘magic’ and ‘superstition’ a belief in the supernatural to explain the world and our lives will return to the centre stage once more. In fact the signs are they’ve done it already. This is gonna have profound implications. Anyway that’s the impression I got from watching Fox News and the Weather Channel. The future stories are being written, now.


    1. Hi Michaelk,

      Pretty much all TV news makes me want to tear my hair out, even the local stuff (sometimes particularly that!) It’s really quite awful and vapid and I can barely stand to watch or listen to it. I far prefer to read my news, either on the internet or in a good old, physical paper. I really love newspapers, honestly.

      As for the future taking place around us now, you’re spot on. Think back over the last couple decades and consider the changes in living standards, people’s attitudes, the belief in the so-called “American Dream,” the economy, our political system, and a ton of other markers. How many are getting better and how many worse? I’m finding it more and more disquieting every day. Things feel much worse to me, and it seems as though we’re going down darker and darker paths. This political season, in particular, has left me very anxious. It’s not just the obviousness of some of the disturbing rhetoric being thrown around, but the ways in which the reactions to it—positive and negative—seem to be so in line with some of John Michael Greer’s predictions about a rise of fascism in this country, or a civil war tearing us apart.

      I don’t care for where things are headed. Here’s to hoping that we can all do our tiny part to make things better and alter the course of the ship a bit into less troubled waters, if nothing else.


  4. I also found out about you from ADR. If you don’t mind a business question in the comments for a blog post, I was wondering if you’d ever consider poetry submissions?


    1. Hi Crow Girl,

      Nope, don’t mind a business question at all. I’ve thought about poetry, but I have to admit that I feel I have less a grasp on it and I haven’t figured out what kind of compensation I could offer for it. It’s something I wouldn’t mind including at a future point, but I don’t currently have a plan to fit it in. I certainly will continue to think on it, though!


      1. Okay, thanks for keeping it in mind. The semiprozine I edit poetry for pays a flat fee for each poem regardless of length, whereas fiction is by the word. I know there are markets that pay by the line, but most of the ones I’ve sold to are flat-fee. Usually we’re just happy to get real money, instead of being paid in copies!


  5. Glad you are back. You have been missed. Looking forward to your new blog and project. Love hearing about your gardening and living simply.
    best of luck


  6. Joel I also learned about your project on the ADR. I am thrilled that you are doing this. I found the content on the Into the Ruins site very well done and will be sending this site to a number of friends. Very excited looking forward to the project unfolding. One suggestion at the bottom of the blog page it says to comment below but there is no link there, the link for comments is at the top under the header on the left. It was a little confusing. Tomxyza


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