Face-to-place storytelling

I came across the concept of “face-to-place” storytelling in David Abram’s work. I liked this idea, so searched and came across a short piece on the Alliance for Wild Ethics website, where the term is credited to Marc Tognotti. In the discussion on oral culture, there is something that echoes my experience when I’m interviewing in the same location, face-to-face, or at least side-by-side – the memory of what is said in the interview is tied to the place where we walked.

the sensuous landscape itself was the necessary mnemonic (or memory-trigger) for remembering the oral tales (Alliance for Wild Ethics, 2018)

In my field notes, I have recorded observations like “the bee-walk is where Hugh spoke about helping students connect” and “from this spot in the sheep field, SFH has given me a line-of-sight to my house from the campus”. I recall watching the bees as we walked, my thoughts on Hugh’s approach to connecting with students. I know when I next walk in that place, I will remember the conversation about connecting with people from around the world. I now have a crow’s-flight-line between my home and workplace that I didn’t have before, tied as I was to the road network. In my mind, I have oriented myself towards home in a new way, which is simultaneously liberating and grounding. That knowledge came from walking the land and learning from the person who lives there.

My research also involves interviews at a distance, in real-time and asynchronously. In this, the digital and literate culture are intertwined with the oral, returning us once more to the Alliance for Wild Ethics (2018) piece. I like the idea that the oral knowledge of those who have kindly agreed to talk with me runs “underneath” and provides a foundation, as the digital and literate help us to connect across distances.

Even though we are not in the same place, these storytellers are face-to-place, with and in their own location, as I am with and in my place as I listen. I hope this provides a new way to tell their places’ tales. Through this story sharing, I am in the fortunate position to learn about new lands and to share my land in turn.

I like to think our lands are listening to each other through us.

It is to know, further, that each land, each watershed, each community of plants and animals and soils, has its particular style of intelligence, its unique mind or imagination evident in the particular patterns that play out there, in the living stories that unfold in that valley, and that are told and retold by the people of that place. (Abram, 2018)


Abram, D. (2018). Storytelling and wonder: On the rejuvenation of oral culture. Available at: http://wildethics.org/essay/storytelling-and-wonder/ [earlier versions printed in Taylor and Kaplan (2005). Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and Resurgence, issue 222, January/February 2004.]

Alliance for Wild Ethics (2018). Why oral culture? Available at: http://wildethics.org/why-oral-culture/

Talking with friends

My research group meets every few months to discuss our work, including draft versions of papers we are working on. I benefited from feedback at one of these sessions earlier in the year and got some excellent insight, great ideas and wonderful support. This was also one of those neat experiences that helped me to see my approach to writing from a different angle. A member of the team commented about how they liked my way of writing as if I was friends with the researchers I had cited in my work. I hadn’t really thought about it, I couldn’t see it in my own writing, and I’ve been thinking about it since.

Where does this come from? As you know, I’m Irish – maybe it is simply that everyone is my friend, at least until they tell me otherwise. A hundred thousand welcomes and would you like a cup of tea with your research discussion?

Reflecting on this and on my writing, I see it as a way of demonstrating how I appreciate and value the work that has been carried out previously. I might not necessarily agree with it, but that’s part of celebrating, or at least acknowledging, the joy of diversity. I’m also weaving my way into the research dance, finding my spot on the dance floor, trying to be creative while not falling over my feet or standing on anyone else’s. This is my way of linking hands with my research partners [end of dance metaphor!].

So who are my research partners? I must have picked up this way of writing in something I have been reading. I thought about who has that knack of writing relationships into their work. I came back to three people – Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherine Bateson and Shawn Wilson. I like the relational aspect of their writing, if that’s the best way to describe it; they each make active use of this writing style for slightly different reasons.

In Mind and Nature, Gregory Bateson (1980) structures some chapters as dialogues with his daughter. The daughter is unnamed in the book, with the dialogue structured as Father/Daughter question-and-answer sessions [metalogues]. This is useful in a book that is aimed at explaining key concepts that Bateson is puzzling through and wants to share with his audience.  I liked these sections, as I often found myself sharing the frustration of his “daughter” when he wandered off on tangents in the rest of the book.

Daughter: All right, So where would you attach the phenomena of beauty and ugliness and consciousness?

Father: And don’t forget the sacred. That’s another matter that was not dealt with in this book.

Daughter: Please Daddy. Don’t do that. When we get near to asking a question, you jump away from it. There’s always another question it seems. If you could answer one question. Just one. (Bateson, 1980; p.228)

Angels Fear (2005) is the second book, the book that deals with the sacred as Gregory mentioned in the quote above. He died before finishing it, so Mary Catherine Bateson took over, working from his notes. They had always planned to work on it together, but in the end, she worked from his notes. Reading it, I discovered she was the “daughter” in the first book and she berates Gregory for giving her all the uninteresting questions.

Mary Catherine uses this dialogic writing approach in a way that is similar and different to her father. Gregory used this process of dialogue to question himself, to explore his own thoughts and uncertainties; he was daughter and father. She uses the same structure to question him: no longer with her, she uses it as a way of teasing out his meaning, holding on to his voice through the same process of father:daughter dialogues. Through it, I find she was often genuinely as frustrated with him as I was and as her representation in the first book seemed to be.

Daughter: You… I wish you wouldn’t keep letting the ideas spread out. (Bateson & Bateson, 2005; p.132)

In both cases, these dialogues are helpful for me to get to grips with the concepts. Like that sense of sitting down together to chat it all through, or think about it while you listen to other people discussing it. Probably over a cup of tea.

It is also poignant, as Gregory has died when Mary Catherine is writing this text. As I read her dialogues, I thought about what it would be like to have a similar dialogue with my own Dad and towards the end, I found it heart-breaking reading a section where they talk late at night.

Father: Still awake and working?

Daughter: How about you? You’re a remarkably persistent shade, you know. (Bateson & Bateson, 2005; p.201)

This reminded me of a piece in Mind and Nature where Gregory talks about people reading his book long after he is gone, where it felt as if he was speaking to me. Somehow, though I never met them, this way of writing has linked me to them; as Gregory might say, there is a “pattern that connects”, a karmic transfer, a relationship between author and reader.

When I wipe the blackboard, where does the difference [chalk mark to board] go? In one sense, the difference is randomized and irreversibly gone, as “I” shall be gone when I die. In another sense, the difference will endure as an idea – as part of my karma – as long as this book is read, perhaps as long as the ideas in this book go on to form other ideas, reincorporated into other minds. (Bateson, 1980, pp.109-110)

A relationship is exactly what Shawn Wilson is building in Research is Ceremony (2008). He explicitly sets out to help the reader to connect with him, to know better who he is, as we would do if we were to sit down and chat with him about his research. Which is exactly what he’d really rather we were doing. Since it’s on paper, he’s doing the next best thing.

First, he writes some letters to his sons, to help us get to know him as a father, husband, storyteller, researcher. As the book progresses, and he figures we’ve got to a point of knowing him as well as we can, he switches from writing to his sons to writing to us, his readers. He explains this approach at the start and he makes good use of changes in font to give us a hint that the tone is about to switch, from the more traditional “academic” to a warm conversation between friends and family.

It is my intention to build a relationship between the readers of this story, myself as the storyteller and the ideas I present. This relationship needs to be formed in order for an understanding of an Indigenous research paradigm to develop. This paradigm must hold true to its principles of relationality and relational accountability. As I cannot know beforehand who will read this book, I cannot be sure of the relationships that readers might hold with me or the ideas I share. So, I will start from scratch just to make sure that we begin this book from a common ground. (Wilson, 2008; p.6)

Shawn wants to meet his readers through the words, to share a space and his research. The result is an engaging, informative and elegant book that explains the Indigenous research paradigm while living it. In an example of the circular style he mentions at the outset, he closes the book with a letter to his sons, reflecting on how he changed over the course of writing the book. I feel like I know him, I appreciate his teachings, he succeeded in building a relationship with me.

That reflexivity and relationship-building is what I aim to foster in my writing. I’m reaching out to link up with you, share what I’ve been thinking about and who has inspired my reading. With any luck, I’ll hear from you about what you’re thinking about. Better yet, over a cup of tea and a slice of cake 🙂


Bateson, G. (1980). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. UK: Fontana. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Mind-and-Nature–A-Necessary-Unity/17664148 

Bateson, G., & Bateson, M. C. (2005). Angels fear: Towards an epistemology of the sacred. New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Gregory-Bateson/Angels-Fear–Towards-an-Epistemology-of-the-Sacred/17664261 

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Nova Scotia, CA: Fernwood Publishing. https://fernwoodpublishing.ca/book/research-is-ceremony-shawn-wilson