Narrative Gerontology Coming Into Its Own

Amanda S. Barusch (2012): Narrative Gerontology Coming Into Its Own, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 55:1, 1-4

ANCIENT STORIES IN THE SKY

Twentieth-century literary critic Roland Barthes (as cited in Czarniawska-Joerges, 2004) observed that “narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative” (p. 1). Given movie depictions of Cro-Magnons as linguistically challenged savages, it may be hard to imagine the Stone Age men who walked across the Bering land bridge to populate North America during the last ice age as tellers of stories. But evidence in support of Barthes’ claim might be found in the stars.

Bradley Schaefer’s grandfather taught him to identify the “big bear” constellation, Ursa Major, in the Colorado sky, no doubt setting the stage for his career in astronomy. Now, Schaefer (2006) argues that the history of Ursa Major can only be explained with reference to “a chain of grandfathers stretching from Paleolithic Siberia to the mountains and plains of the New World and eventually to modern Colorado, telling about the Bear in the sky” (p. 97).

The story of constellations, as we have come to understand it, begins in the Fertile Crescent (stretching across Iraq, Syria, and adjoining lands). Thousands of years before humans walked to the New World, our ancestors lived by farming along the banks of great rivers—the Tigris and the Euphrates. From time to time the river would flood, washing away possessions and jeopardizing lives, but also depositing nutrient-rich silt that would support crops. Hardwired to identify patterns, humans eventually noticed that the movements of stars across the sky could be used to predict the
coming flood.

As is so often the case with great discoveries, this insight probably did not arrive as a single “aha!” moment, more likely occurring to several people in different locations at different times. Each one developed a method for recognizing the stars and each one developed a story to help identify those stars and describe their movement to younger generations. The easiest way to describe a cluster of stars was to point up and say, “See those stars that look like a big ladle, like a Big Dipper? Now see how these other stars trace the outline of a bear followed by three hunters?”

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