The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
In 1969 I was booted out of my college poetry class for sticking tenaciously to the opinion that Tennyson’s Eagle would have a different resonance for someone who had experienced the soar and dive of said avian majesty. “The import and meaning of the poem lies wholly within the poets words.” That or something to that effect was the considered and inviolable position of the esteemed professor. That’s what he was clinging to and my dissent earned me my eviction. I had no experience of eagles at the time. But that was about to change. It was experience I was after, not talk about experience, and after one more anthropology class that began with about four weeks of debate about functionalism vs. structuralism, I found myself hitchhiking to Seattle in the middle of the winter, and soon after on a ferry headed to Alaska.A month later,I was one of two white people in a small Haida fishing village, trying to learn my way around lines, nets, winches and for the first time in my life a culture not my own.
Not long after, I was taking a dreamy siesta on a rocky beach when I was startled out of my reverie as a bald eagle came swooping down almost directly over my head from his Douglas r perch- and made a stab at a herring 50 or so yards off shore. The feeling was visceral and left me almost breathless. A few years later on a remote island where I was doing field research for the Alaska Fish and Game Department, I had another even more visceral encounter with our national bird. Perhaps it was the bright orange rain slicker that I was wearing. I was clearly something that didn’t belong. The eagle saw fit to editorialize by taking aim from about 500 feet, carefully calculating wind speed and current and anointed me with the remains of it’s fishy breakfast. But at least I was finally vindicated. Tennyson’s poem conveyed nothing of the immediacy of the impact or aftermath. Nor so the words of that other great master of poetry and the English language, Steve Martin.
Call it self serving or congratulatory but with an additional 40 years under my belt (and an expanding waistline to prove it) I clasp even more tenaciously to the proposition that experience mediates experience- that “been there, done that” deepens what I now look and listen for, how I reflect on and synthesize my experiences, what stories I choose to tell whether personal or folkloric, how I weave them together, how I tell them and how they have come to subtly shape how I continue to lead my life. In short and to borrow an academic term, my narrative intelligence has increased. To put it in terms I’m more comfortable with, more and more I am thinking like a storyteller and living a storied life.
Does this make me a better storyteller? It depends.
I can’t help but think of the sign I saw a few years back on billboard for a building supply company. (A modern way of keeping proverbs in the public eye)
Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.
It depends whether I choose to bring myself to the edge of the story, to the heart of the story, to create a bridge to the next story, and of course whether I do this judiciously and skillfully.
It’s harvest time here in the mid-Rio Grande Valley now, a time I like to tell a story that appears in various guises, but is best known as Tops and Bottoms. Rabbit gets the best of Bear in three negotiations about the division of labor and the division of the harvest for a plot of land they share. Rabbit generously lets Bear choose whether he’ll take his 50% from the tops or bottoms of the crop. Only after he makes his choices does Rabbit choose what to plant. (I love Janet Steven’s picture book of this story)
When I was about 8 I was obsessed with such things as seashells, fossils, skeletons and perhaps because of a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian Room, mummies. So when Tommy (name changed in a generous gesture in case the author, editor and judge of The Book of Life is keeping score and has not yet apportioned Tommy’s place in eternity) sold me a sight must remain unseen genuine cat mummy for a very hard earned 1956 five bucks, I gladly forked it over. It was with great anticipation that I reached into the brown paper bag Tommy handed me and pulled out a very flat, and not totally dried feline specimen of not so vintage feline road kill.
Do I tell this story as a preface or postscript to Tops and Bottoms? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Again it depends. But either way, the knowledge that I’ve been on the receiving end of an ill-considered deal, creeps into my telling.
Here’s a proposition fellow storytellers. We are more than our repertoires. Even with traditional stories, our willingness to bring more rather than less of ourselves into our tellings adds flavor, juice and sustenance to those three apples that fell from heaven.Take a bite of the most local apple you can find- chew on it for awhile and let me know what you think!
(This is the first in a series of posts on “You are More than Your Repertoire)