Saturday, May 27, 2006

Tales of mystery and loss

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1959 A hot, stuffy, subterranean gymnasium is the setting. On the floor is gathered a passle of squirmy children, kindergarten through sixth grade, being admonished by their teachers to "be quiet." Along with the gym, much of the rest of the scene is stuffy in my memory banks, but I do remember this; the guest speaker had asked if anyone knew what the mama Kildeer did to protect her babies. Several older kids were called upon to give their answers, none of which were correct. One little girl in kindergarten, long braids, fashionable cats-eye glasses, raised her hand.

"She runs the other way. She pretends her leg is broken."

Yes, that little kindergartener was me. I had learned bird lore from my mom, my dad, other family members who simply pointed out these birds by name, usually piquing my interest with some little fact like that to help me remember them better. I've never really stopped gathering those little facts and sharing them with eager learners, first my sons when they were young, now my young students at school. Birds hold intense interest for me, but my sense of wonder has never been limited to birds alone. In order to appreciate them, knowledge of their habitat, the weather, their predators, all come into play.

It's not an accident that many of the stories to which I am drawn have an element of the natural world. My first original story involves a scene witnessed while enjoying the pageantry of the natural world.

It would seem that this sense of wonder is being rapidly eroded by a combination of fear and electronic mediated experiences in the lives of those who will inherit this world from us. I've been reading Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods, and the picture he draws does not bode well for the wild places left on earth, nor for the next generation coming forth. There are any number of points to ponder among this book, but the one that struck me was the notion that if we can't name something, it loses any value for us. In the book, Paul Dayton, professor of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in LaJolla, laments the fact that even among his elite graduate students, there appears to be a lack of any real training in natural history. In other words, they don't even know the names of the things they study.

Maybe the name isn't as important as the curiosity and wonder when one finds connection with a piece of nature in today's increasingly concrete world. Just two days ago, I had an unusual sighting. As my husband and I stood in the checkout line at the huge warehouse style grocery store, something fluttered just beyond our peripheral vision.

"Was that a moth?" he asked me. I thought I'd seen it, too. Looking around, I spotted the most beautiful moth I'd ever seen, and instantly identified it as a Luna moth. Sadly, in today's world, people are more likely to know it as "the Lunestra moth," courtesy of an ad campaign for sleep aid medication.

The poor thing sat on the floor, unable to take wing. We watched as several people, completely oblivious, just missed stepping on it. I couldn't take it anymore, and grabbed a card from my purse to scoop it and return it to the outdoors. A little boy, about seven years old, watched in fascination.

"What are you doing?"

I explained to him about the moth, and excited, he managed to capture it on the edge of a wing, just as I remembered doing in childhood. He couldn't have been happier as the delicate green wings fluttered in his hand. He showed his grandma. He showed the cashiers, who instead of being delighted, were horrified.

I didn't care. Neither did my new little friend. He was still chattering away about "helping the lunar moth." Hopefully, when he grows up, he'll remember his encounter with nature's artistry. Maybe this encounter will be the one that launches a life-long interest in natural history. I can only hope it will.

Stories have power beyond entertainment. We remember stories when we can't remember mundane facts. The story in which Hummingbird does his part to hold up the sky helps us appreciate this tiny bird's fierce tenacity. The story of the boy who picked up a rattlesnake that promised not to bite reminds us to respect the animals we encounter. This is why I choose to tell many stories of the natural world around us. Perhaps in knowing the stories of the creatures that share our world, my students will regain and claim their sense of wonder.

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Gwyn's young birders: the next generation of naturalists?

Monday, May 22, 2006

What's it worth to you?

Gather a group of working storytellers together, whether in the real world or virtual, and at some point, someone will ask the question, "What should I charge for my programs?" I've seen this discussion played out many times on the storytell listserv, of which I've been a member since about 1994. Everyone has a different idea on pricing; one person simply states a flat fee, with room for negotiation, no matter what the program length. Another will have various rates dependent on the program length. Some tellers will do free or greatly reduced programs, usually for a special cause, but most will caution against underpricing oneself. It's tough stuff. Hopefully, by the time one of my fellow tellers or myself appears in front of your group, we've put in the time to make it look effortless, and your audience leaves feeling richer for the experience.

On some level, I'd often thought this was the heart of the problem. What we do should look effortless and natural. Especially in workshop or school residency settings, our goal is often to inspire others to tell stories. If everyone can tell stories, why should an organization pay much to have me do the same thing?

My thinking on the mystery of fees has experienced a shift. I just finished reading an excellent special report on "Why We Need the Arts," in the current issue of The Tapestry Magazine. Tapestry is an area lifestyle monthly, one I eagerly anticipate each month. Its masthead describes it as "an independent monthly magazine about the people and lifestyles of the Upper Mississippi River valley," and is published by Village Creek Press of Lansing Iowa. Under the inspired direction of Julie Berg-Raymond, the monthly promises me musings about arts events, features on interesting little locally owned shops and eateries, and issues of interest in our Driftless Region of the Upper Mississippi River. It's where I hope to find out about those pockets of independent thinking, hiding, like a Mississippi pearl inside an ugly mussel, within the endless and growing chain stores and strip malls of the region. It's the one place where I've actually taken out print ads for my storytelling a couple times, both times netting a gig. Enough of my commercial, which absolutely no one has asked me to do!

In the introduction to her special report on the arts, Ms. Berg-Raymond ponders the state of affairs in which we'll spend large sums of cash for a poster print of a Terry Redlin print, but balk at paying a similar price for a local artist's original piece. She doesn't draw the obvious conclusion many might about the artist's recognition. Instead, she asks her readers to consider that seeking out art takes time, something we have trouble finding in our frenetically paced lives. How much easier to run to the mall, snatch up that Terry Redlin print and then grab a latte from the drive-through coffeehouse? To search out that perfect piece that is original art requires time seeking out the small nooks and crannies where these artists might work, often in out-of-the-way locales; Mineral Point or Viroqua in Wisconsin, Lansing in Iowa or any number of backroads to artist studio/homes. It is this searching that yields not only an original work of art, but a story to go along with it, the story of how you discovered that delightful little place and connected with that fascinating artist, savoring all she had for offer, hearing the stories of each piece in order to choose the perfect one.

People don't have time, and so the thought process that follows is that I must be that way, too. I don't have time, so don't take lots of it to bring together the right mix of stories for their event. There may be times when I actually do have a nice mix of stories that I can practice before telling, just to avoid the rough edges of disuse. Rarely. Even then, I appreciated an anecdote shared by Joeann Tesar, Prairie du Chien art instructor, one of the artists interviewed by Ms. Berg-Raymond. I hope she will not mind my quoting it here.

"In the late '60s or early '70s I remember watching Peter Max on Johnny Carson....He quickly drew a sketch (within 30 seconds), and turned it around to show everyone. Johnny asked him, well, how much would that be worth? Without hesitation, he said, 'at least $15,000.' Seeing Carson's reaction--being visibly taken aback by this answer--Peter Max added calmly, 'I drew this within a minute, but it took me over 20 years to get to this point.'"
The Tapestry Magazine, May 2006

Like all artists, whether working in ink, fiber, metal, paint or words, to reach a point where I might sometimes be able to plan a program from material well-honed, many years of hard work have gone before. Time and personal expense in the form of attending workshops, working with a storytelling coach, traveling to storytelling retreats and events, not to mention the time spent developing or researching a story, all come before I even start to practice the actual telling. So....should you be in the position of hiring a storyteller, before balking at the fee quoted, ask yourself this question; What's my time worth? Can I put in all the time that this teller has logged to reach this level of skill? A storyteller can take you to another time, another place, even suspend time for awhile as you become immersed in the dance between teller's words and listener's images. In this fast-paced world, moments like these are golden.

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Telling a cautionary tale of a fearsome beast and responsibility, seventy-five fifth graders, all equally quiet and rapt--it's worth its weight in gold.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

My favorite mushroom story

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If you recognize the mushrooms pictured, it's a good chance you know exactly what a treat a plate of these woodland delicacies can be; sliced thick, sauteed in just a tiny bit of butter, served up with fresh caught trout and tender spears of asparagus, preferably the wild-picked variety.

If you don't, then count yourself alongside an old friend of ours, who shall simply be known here as Mark. Some of our mutual friends decided that part of Mark's mission on earth was to give his friends an endless supply of great "Mark stories." He never let us down in that regard. My husband first met Mark when he was still living in Stevens Point, where both of them were working poor college student jobs at a private institute for kids with developmental disabilities. Both Mark and my husband followed this institute to LaCrosse, where I later joined them, working in the same place.

Mark was a confirmed bachelor in every sense of the word. A visit to Mark's house in a town even smaller than the one where we live was always an adventure of sorts. Being as much, if not more so, an outdoorsman as my husband, one never quite knew what to expect, especially in his garage. At one point, Mark and my husband, both historical re-enactors, got the idea in their heads to try brain-tanning a deer hide. Mark had a hide and the brains, literally, to get them started: or so he'd thought. Heading into that garage, he reached into his fishing boat, extracting a curled up deer hide with the hair still attached. He threw it onto the garage floor, flipping it hide side out, revealing, to my horror, hordes of squirming maggots! I have a pretty strong stomach for such things, but it was a struggle. Not for Mark. He simply grabbed a carton of salt--why would that be so handy in his garage?--sprinkled it liberally onto the hide, picked up a wriggler and commented philosophically, "You know, some people would be grossed out by this, but in the end, we're all going to be eaten by these guys--plus, they make great bait!"

As if that weren't enough, Mark reached into a small refrigerator, where he claimed to have the deer brains set aside for this project. As the door opened, I had a lolling deer head peering out at me, tongue frozen in time!

Yes, Mark provided us with many an entertaining, if gross, story. One May morning at work, he was talking over coffee about this "disgusting mushroom" he'd pulled out of his compost pile. He said, "It looked like brains, I didn't dare touch it, I was afraid it would drip toxins all over me!"

"Brains?" I asked hopefully. Others sitting with us showed equal interest in his find. A coworker said, "Mark, those are really good!"

He didn't believe me, and the next day appeared at work with an empty coffee can, no doubt pulled from his endless supply in that incredible garage, containing a clump of soil and a perfect specimen of morel mushroom. He still refused to take a chance on eating one, so we invited him for dinner, provided he bring a few more of them along.

That evening, a gracious bachelor used to Dinty Moore straight from the can, enjoyed a home-cooked meal, watching with some trepidation as I consumed a healthy serving of sauteed morel.

It was all I remembered; rich, earthy, the flavor of the woods itself.

I didn't die. I didn't even get ill. Instead I was transported straight to a cool woodland glen, hearing the birds. He had to give it a try.

From that point forward, Mark became THE expert on morel mushrooms. Didn't matter. I knew who his teacher had been.

A couple years later, graduate school took Mark to Tennessee, but not before leaving us with several more stories, as well as a few new ones when he stopped for a visit one year after moving away. It's morel season here in Wisconsin, and hopefully we'll be enjoying our private stock once again very soon. I won't tell you where our reserve is located. No one tells. I will tell you, that every year when we enjoy their heady flavor, we always take a moment to think of our friend Mark, mushroom expert and provider of great stories to tell. If by chance you find this post and read it Mark, email us, okay? We need a few new stories! Stop by!