“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” – Muriel Rukeyser

Guest post by EMP 510 bloggers Natalia Cardoso, Micheal Masiner, and Nicola Walters

“What’s your story?” It’s a common question when wanting to know someone. Why is that? Scholars and researchers across many disciplines from Neuroscience to English have proposed that our identity, our sense of self, and reality is created and maintained as and understoriesby narrative. The process of conception, gestation, birth, aging and death, is an ongoing sensory experience. The information gathered along the way is organized into multiple narratives, stories, that tell us who, where, what, how and why we are. For most, one storyline dominates that becomes who we are. For others, the central storyline shifts continuously through life like a postmodern novel. Stories give us our sense of self, meaning, place and purpose. Stories tell us to vote Democrat or Republican, to stay put or move away from where we were raised—who to love and what to believe. Story is the medium within which we dwell. Jake Kosek titled his environmental history of Northern New Mexico Understories, foreshadowing from the cover that narrative is central to the style, structure, and substance of the book.

Last year I taught History and began every new class telling my high schoolers that there is no such thing as History. Rather, history is collection of competing narratives studied for the purpose of understanding our collective psychology. The stories that are told contain characters and meanings—relationships of power. Kosek’s style in Understories follows the basic narrative structure, first explained by Aristotle as pity, fear, and catharsis. The most important and effective literary device is sympathy. A storyteller first gives the reader or listener sympathy for the characters, then creates conflict or suffering, followed by resolution. We see this structure utilized beautifully in Understories with engaging sensual sentences. By doing this, Kosek brings the reader into the time and place, into the experienced realities of the communities of Northern New Mexico, and the story makes its way inside of us, carrying the argument, meaning and purpose with it. This strategy makes the book engaging and accessible to readers outside academia. It also makes an otherwise highly contested perspective difficult to resist sympathizing with. Environmentalist readers, often unsympathetic to any human land use, leave this book changed and with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of community land­use and the relationships they contain.

Part of understanding Kosek’s focus on the Hispano communities of Northern New Mexico lies in the awareness of the unwavering link between land and culture. The drama of the jagged mesas, the majesty of the Sangre de Cristo mountains during sunset, and the unwavering juniper trees that decorate the chromatic desert terrain tell the story of diverse and resilient people. The entanglement of land and culture is central to the history of New Mexico, as well as the future. For La Jicarita, a non­profit newspaper based in Northern New Mexico, the legacy of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the emergence of the National Forest Service is fresh in the minds of the local communities and contributes to their everyday politics. In their article, Peñasco Votes “No” on Proposal to Expand Pecos Wilderness, the author describes the community of Peñasco, situated outside of Carson


Headgate on one of the Acequias de las Sierras. Photo by Kay Matthews for lajicarita blog

National Forest where Kosek orients his book. As Peñasco works to address threats to agricultural lands, the community is also working to maintain space for the culture of their people. The article describes the viewpoint of the community: “There are no shades of gray in the land grant perception that any expansion of the wilderness constitutes a further taking of the land grant commons, a commons that was stolen by the dominant culture and now lies largely in the hands of the United States Forest Service.” Thus, community debate and discussion ropes in the narrative of colonialism, the separation between people and land, and the culture that is at stake.

By utilizing an ethnographic research method, Kosek enables the use of first person narrative and brings the reader into these histories. Ethnography further gains the trust of the reader, increasing the credibility and impact of the work. The title of Kosek’s work, Understories, alludes to the voices often unheard and oppressed by the dominant narrative. It creates a foundation for the postcolonial effort of unearthing the untold stories of the subaltern, which is essential knowledge for community action today.

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