Come to Kerala, Devi


Collecting stories by the river in Vicksburg, Mississippi. August 2013. Photograph by Devi K. Lockwood

You will be in good company, in terms of other “Come to Kerala” invitees mentioned on this blog. We appreciate the Folklore & Mythology, and especially the Art of Storytelling inspirations to your purposeful wandering form of activism. Come say hello.

LEO AND I SIT across the table from each other in the home his family rents in Dunedin, New Zealand. The kitchen smells of roast garlic. Two days ago I cycled up the big hill to his house with all my belongings strapped and clipped to my bicycle: clothes, food, audio recorder, and a tiny guitar.

Over a shared meal of roasted vegetables, Leo and I start chatting. Leo and his family relocated to Dunedin from Ireland a few years ago—his partner and I met through friends of friends on Facebook. The topic of climate change comes up.

“People look away because it’s hard to get your head around the scale of the problem,” Leo says, pausing with a piece of pumpkin on his fork. “But you’re choosing to look.”

I am.

For the last year 14 months I have been traveling in the United States, Fiji, Tuvalu, New Zealand, and Australia—mostly by bicycle and boat—to collect 1,001 stories from people I meet about water and/or climate change. To date, I’ve made 443 audio recordings, each a unique story that someone has told me along the way.

In March 2015, after speaking with climate activist Chris Watson, author of Beyond Flying, in Wellington, New Zealand, I made the decision to renounce air travel to reduce my environmental footprint. Flying is by far the worst thing that many of us do for the planet; calculate your own environmental footprint at:

As a result, I crossed the Tasman Sea twice by cargo ship—crowd-funding both legs with support from people who believe in my writing—and almost hitched a ride to Indonesia on a yacht. In between these ocean crossings, I biked 2,100 miles up the east coast of Australia, from Melbourne to Townsville, and added 90 stories to my archive-in-progress.

As with most good journeys, there are no straight lines.

It was a great privilege to begin this trip with support from Harvard’s Gardner & Shaw Postgraduate Traveling Fellowship for a year of “purposeful wandering.” My goal is to use this opportunity to be an activist for a cause that I believe in. There are as many ways to be an activist as there are people on the planet. Listening is a form of activism—holding a space for a story to be told, face-to-face, slowly, in a culture that values productivity over slowness, screen-time over verbal storytelling sessions, feels revolutionary. While water and climate change are the starting points of many conversations with storytellers, they don’t necessarily end there. The personal is political is environmental. It’s all intertwined.

I am now supporting myself on the road through writing and other creative projects. If you’d like to be a part of helping me on my way, visit:

I arrived at Harvard thinking I would study English, given my love for reading and writing poetry, but Deborah Foster’s Freshman Seminar, “The Art of Storytelling,” changed that plan. I will always be a poet, but in Folklore & Mythology I found a discipline that made life worth living, that changed the color of the conversations around me. Suddenly the everyday stories I heard from my friends in Annenberg dining hall or from family around the Thanksgiving dinner table were ways of constructing our identities in real time, of creating and defining our “group”—of giving life to a shared meal.

As a student of Folklore & Mythology, I learned how to listen more closely and how to tell stories in a way that engages the listener. I learned that, as folklorist Keith Basso explains, “Wisdom sits in places.” Stories, in other words, are intimately linked to the landscape in which they are told. I read widely and encountered versions of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood that surface in cultures worldwide. Stories have a way of crossing borders—once told, a tale belongs to us all.

At Harvard I also learned the basic techniques of ethnography, how to establish trust with a storyteller and to respect a story for what it is: a gift to the listener. “Some stories shoot through you like arrows,” Professor Foster taught us. I learned to make high quality audio recordings using a Sony M-10 and to edit sound in ProTools.

The important thing, I believe, is to listen. To listen wholly. To listen without judgment—so few people do.

At some point I decided I wanted not only to study great stories, but to live one.

Many of my ’14 classmates are off beginning lucrative careers in tech in San Francisco, finance in New York City, or some combination of the two in Boston. I have never been good at staying still, at being tethered to a desk. I dance barefoot in public places. I listen. I cycle. I record. I write. At some point in my life I will be more stationary—my life goal is to become an old woman with long, curly hair and a vegetable garden—but for now I am in love with movement. Movement is the language I come from.

I’ll be the first to say that being a peripatetic poet is exhausting at times. I don’t have a plan or a routine, two pillars that grounded me as a varsity athlete at Harvard, and in all my prior schooling. Purposeful wandering is a completely new and challenging way of being. It has been liberating to burn the maps and schedules I once found so comforting. I take experiences as they come. I am enmeshed in the richness of the present…

Read the whole essay here.

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