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Welcome! I  hope you’ll find something here to warm your imagination and spirit, and spark some thoughts. What I  really hope is that you’ll ‘add a log to the fire,’ by way of a comment,observation, or a story!

Please visit my other web-site http://www.storyconnection.com where with my partner Liz Mangual we showcase some of the ways you can engage us with your school, library, or organization.

I know you’re all tired  and weary of winter and so I’m writing to let you know that there is hope.  If things don’t start thawing out pretty soon, you can call on me.

We had a long bad winter years ago when I was living in a little cabin up in the headwaters of the Tanana River, which is a tributary of the Yukon. Just before the 4th of July with those big flakes still falling I got so disgusted with the situation that I figured I would just have to take matters into my own hands.  Something was wrong up there in the sky and I needed to fix it if there was going to be any chance that I was still going to get a garden planted.  Getting out the door was  and to my tool shed was the first problem- once I managed that I’d had plenty of time to figure a plan to send myself skyward.  So I squeezed myself up through the stove-pipe onto the roof (I’d lost considerable weight having not much left to eat but some dried beans those last few months) and proceeded with the plan.images

What I needed was a mountain of wood shavings, an old moose hide, about a gallon of water and one match.  I tunneled from the cabin roof to the tool-shed and grabbed the sharpest tool I had… a knife I’d fashioned from the bill of one of the smaller mosquitoes that I’d shot while a couple of it’s larger compatriots managed to fly off with the best sled dog that I’d ever had.  I sure miss that dog.  But I was glad for that skeeter bill blade because it only took me a couple of hours to reduce a couple of hemlock logs I’d  been saving to build a sauna, to a mountain of shavings I calculated would give me just the amount of thrust I’d need.  I put an old moose hide on top of the pile (that same swarm of mosquitoes that took my dog had drained that poor fellow dry as he was browsing the compost pile and enjoying the last of one of those  puny 70 pound cabbages I’d thinned out. Thankfully it all happened so fast I don’t think he had time to suffer)

 

I figured I might be gone awhile, so I made sure everything in the cabin was ship-shape, grabbed a bucket of water and that one match, climbed to the top of the pile, doused the hide,  and used that one match to get a blaze going.  I pride myself on never needing more than one match.  I read To Build a Fire and it scared me so bad I’ vowed to master the art of fire building and I did.  Everything worked out exactly as I planned.  The shavings got hot, the water built up a head of steam, the hide thawed, and stretched and exactly two and half minutes later I was trampolined up, just within reach of a particular cloud I’d been studying the past couple of days.  To tell the truth, I actually overshot it by a couple of miles, so I guess it was just dumb luck I managed to grab it on the way down.

images-1Well, it was as cold and snowy on that cloud as it was down below, so I wasn’t surprised to find an igloo not far from where I came aboard.  But I was surprised to find a hostage situation going on, because there was Old Man Thunder and Lighting bound and gagged by the Snow Queen. This was way before Disney and Frozen- but I’d spent many a winter night reading Hans Christian Anderson Tales and I guess Disney did too,   so I knew who I was dealing with and I knew I had to act fast.  I still had the skeeter blade in my hand and I knew how to handle it.  I kept that cold hearted Queen at Bay just long enough to take a quick swipe at the ropes holding Old Thunder. I cut the bindings clear through and then I shut my eyes and hoped for the best because I didn’t have to guess what was coming.

There was an enormous flashing and crashing, and I knew that Old Man Thunder was  throwing down some serious lightning bolts.  I also knew it was too high for me to jump free of the cloud.  I’d rehearsed this before and it now it was showtime.  I wasn’t positive but I figured just like the seventh wave the seventh bolt would be the strongest.  They were coming quick so I grabbed on to #7, shut my eyes and before I could even blink them open, there I was on terra firma… except I was just slightly off on my calculations… it was terra, but not quite firma.  I splashed down and sunk down up to my chin in the muskeg swamp about a quarter of a mile from my place.  There was no wriggling out- I knew that if I even moved I’d be swallowed up alive.

I was only scared for the briefest moment though, because it quickly became apparent to me that I’d succeeded in my mission!  Spring was in the air.  Irises were blooming and few wild roses were just beginning to unfold.  The Sandhill Cranes were flying overhead, and I heard the unmistakable buzz of a hummingbird doing it’s crazy mating U shaped flight.  Then off in the distance I saw a couple of Trumpeter Swans flying in my direction.  It’s always a thrill to see these majestic birds in the north country, and the feeling must have been mutual because those two lovebirds circled me a couple of times and decided they’d found something sticking out of the swamp just right for building their nest on.  Right quick I was sporting a swan nest toupee and not much after that the female laid three eggs and made her self comfortable waiting for them to hatch.  Seeing as how I hadn’t thought about bringing along sunscreen or rain gear that nest proved to be a god-send for me… it kept me warm at night, dry in the rain, and protected me from the heat of day.

I’ve always had a keen interest in the life histories of birds and so it was with great anticipation that I awaited the arrival of the brood.  I was curious about how long it would take for the birds to fledge after they hatched.  But my scientific curiosity soon took a back seat to the more pressing issue of survival.  One day when the mother swan was away from the nest, a marauding wolf found the eggs and made short work of them.  Hoping to find more, it dug and clawed deeper into the nest and although it was egg shaped, it wasn’t a fourth egg it found, it was my noggin.   I shouldn’t have taken it personally, the wolf was just  exercising it’s nature, but I got mad, no more than mad, I got furious.  Furious at the slaughter of the innocents, and steamed at the impending loss of a piece of my scalp.  Back in those days I still had every one of my teeth and I used them all… I clamped down so fast and so hard on Lobo’s tail, he leaped up in surprise and horror and pulled me right along after him and out of the muck.  I let go of his tail just as he dashed by my cabin.  I found everything there ship-shape just as I’d left it.  I can’t tell you how happy I was to be back and to see the forget me nots and wild roses in full bloom, and the mosquito season not yet quite begun.

Ordinarily I don’t tend to talk to much about my accomplishments, I rather modest in tht respect,  but in this case I’ve decided to make an exception.   I want everyone to know that I still have that moose hide, I still have that skeeter blade, I’ve got a few more dry matches, and if you’ll provide the logs for the shavings and transportation to wherever it is that you sit snow bound and shivering…. I’m at your service.

What does an irascible 90 year old curmudgeon and a disruptive and seemingly thick-skulled 8 year old have in common? They have both have surprised me with deep life lessons they’ve imparted to me during the time I’ve spent with them telling, teaching and listening to stories together. Let me tell you about Alexi and Bill. Alexi is a student in one of our long running school residency programs. Bill is a resident at an assisted living facility where we’ve been volunteering to help with a monthly story swap for a couple of years. We’ve known Alexi since he was in first grade. I’ll start by revisiting something I posted 5 years ago that concerns him and then fast forward to the present.

January 13, 2010

images“With his hands trembling slightly, “The Listener” rang the Tibetan Bells and convened our class this morning. The care he took and the look of awe on his face might have led you to believe he was holding the Holy Grail itself. Alexi, is “The Listener. He’s a third grade boy who rarely speaks and when he does, often does so in a mumbling and not always coherent manner. He can be disruptive and often finds himself the object of his teachers frustration and even ire.

Last year, somewhat reluctantly, I let him join a smaller group of students who were practicing a story for our school-wide “Tellabration.” At first the goal was simply to have him in a smaller and more controlled group which might let the rest of the class proceed with fewer interruptions. When Alexi asked me what his ‘part’ in the story was I told him that he had one of the most important parts of all. He was the listener! From that point on, his demeanor changed dramatically. He listened with rapt attention to his classmates as they worked through their rehearsals. When performance day came, the storytellers took the stage. They were just getting ready to begin when Alexi, stood up from his place in the audience and took a place next to the tellers.
I was momentarily taken aback. What was he doing there? Alexi caught my surprised expression-and announced in a clear, confident and strong voice, “I’m the Listener!” No laughs from the audience, no snickers… the kids got it. This boy, so often the outsider, was there to remind us that without listeners, there is no living storytelling.

Who better than Alexi to ring that bell and call our attention to the need for deep listening ”

That was 2010. Alexi is now with a small group of 8th graders that we see once a week and we still ring the bell before every class. We haven’t had him in one of our classes since 5th grade. In the two years following the events described above- from all accounts Alexi pretty much continued to be a source of frustration for his teachers, but when he was with us he was a rapt listener though still pretty much ‘on the outside looking in’ when it came to other activities. To tell the truth, as much as I appreciated his presence with us, I’d come to think that he really didn’t have much on the ball or for that matter much of a future ahead of him. We lost track of him.

So here we are in 2015- working with an assortment of Aesop’s fables, Russian Wonder Tales, Spanish Fairy Tales and guess who our star student is? It’s Alexi who remembers story sequence. It’s Alexi who in a clear and confident voice can express the main idea of the story. It’s Alexi… still alert staying with the story from beginning to end. Alexi the “Listener!”

Every year we are surprised by students who seem to have come out of the shadows… kid’s who may not get as much attention as they deserve because they are quiet, or seemingly unengaged and who then amaze us- perhaps by announcing that they are ready to tell a story start to finish, or in other cases running down a long list of stories that they remember from years past. But surprised doesn’t even begin to describe my experience of Alexi’s transformation. Astonished is more like it. But here’s the lesson for me. I think of myself as someone who is tuned in and sensitive to kid’s potential. And I missed it with Alexi. Thick-skulled? Nothing on the ball? No future? Wrong, wrong and wrong! Alexi has taught me more about human potential then any class, book or seminar ever has.

Now, what about that nonagenarian curmudgeon Bill? What a pain in the ass he was at some of these swaps. He’s a fine storyteller, with a resonant voice, and a large repertoire to pull from. But what a contrarian he can be. One day there’s too much personal storytelling- he wants to hear more folktales. The next, it’s too many folktales. Sometimes his comments to others in the group- including the facilitators, seemed abrasive and designed to hurt. I’d find myself wishing that he’s stop showing up. And then one evening he told us that he was not coming back. Somewhere toward the end of a long story he’s been telling (and telling well) he lost the thread. It took him only perhaps 10 or 15 seconds for his memory to kick back in, but those seconds must have seemed like an eternity for him and this lapse troubled him deeply. It was the first time. Bill is a proud man and this laid him low. He was not about to let it happen in public ever again.

Exit Bill to the relief of the crowd? No! First of all his tales- and they were all folktales- were beyond question the most entertaining of all the residents. They didn’t seem as troubled as I was by his abrasive personality. Secondly, our co-facilitator had been counting on him as an anchor for the group. The facility liaison also encouraged him to stay. We all said what you might expect about all of us having our own lapses… about professional tellers having theirs, etc. etc. But it didn’t seem that we were getting through. And then the next session rolled around and as promised, Bill was not there. We had a decent night of telling but Bill’s absence was present.

But Bill did come back. Bill came back, having made peace with his own perceived shortcomings. And he seemed to come back in peace. He came back and told a personal and revealing story from his past about a failed marriage, and a place of sanctuary where he could heal.He asked people to think about that word sanctuary and tell the group what it meant to them. Not everyone spoke but everyone listened to Bill and those who did share, with as much attention and presence as Alexi shows now in 8th grade. We reached a place of conviviality and fellowship that evening that brought us unmistakably to a new level.

Here’s what I learned from Bill. Even at 90, if one has the will and the spirit… one can take chances, learn,adapt, grow and make a contribution. It took a lot of guts to return,to come back humbly,and share a leadership role… because that is exactly what he did. It is something I admire and aspire to.

So these are two of my teacher/mentors Thank you so much Alexi and Bill!

Dear readers… who are you learning from these days?

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I’m heading to Alaska again this summer to tell stories in libraries and at a festival and starting to think about a new adventure.  Here below is an article I wrote 44 years ago about a trip I took with 3 friends down the Yukon

‘A journey of 1000 miles begins with one step’ and with this in mind I began to  plan a float trip down the third longest river in North America, the Yukon. From the high country lakes of British Columbia and flowing northwest through the Yukon Territories, the Yukon was the water route for thousands of gold seekers in 1898. Seventy-three years later, this same area to Dawson and the Klondike gold fields is almost completely uninhabited. Except for a small mining community, this land returned to wilderness and wild animals, where the imagination can still run free. Not ending at Dawson, this cruise and exploration was to continue for an additional 1500 miles across the entire State of Alaska and finishing at Norton Sound on the Bering Sea.

Preparing a trip of this magnitude required two basic steps and involved hundreds of small detail preparations. First and most important I found able and willing travel companions in my friends Doug Stakes, Eric Skidmore and Ken Jones. Providing the best equipment and proper supplies was the other big step. My long experience with Folbots around southeast Alaska convinced me to select two Super folding Folbots for this great adventure. The four of us met at Ketchikan for a departure by ferry to Skagway. A day and a half later we disembarked at Haines to visit friends. Here we sorted out a veritable mountain of supplies, assembled the boats and to our amazement discovered that there was room for it all.  After we surveyed the lakes by air, complements of a willing pilot and found them free of ice, we proceeded to the headwaters of the Yukon via Railroad. ‘Nobody buys a one way ticket’ exclaimed the reluctant railway agent, but we did and got off the train at Lake Bennett, the first of a chain of lakes we’d have to navigate before getting on the river itself.

Under brilliant clear skies, on June 5th we assembled, loaded and eagerly pushed off our Folbots. We paddled into a light northern wind, which later turned into quite a tempest. Churning up waves from 4 to 5 feet, we experienced an exciting hour after which the weather returned to almost a dead  calm. By 9 o’clock we camped under clear skies and observed the first of many beautiful sunsets we would see during what would be a 80 day trip. Almost uninterrupted good weather favored us for he following three weeks. We alternated paddling with a little sailing, did some unexpected ‘ice skating’ over frozen stretches and enjoyed mostly carefree and unforgettable wilderness cruising. Three days after starting we caught up with winter. Rounding the windy arm of Tagish Lake, we were stopped by a sheet ot ice, clear across the lake. We had to make camp and wait. Despite hard winds all night, we awoke to the encouraging sight of an open passage across the mile wide lake. We paddled to the far shore and continued along open water on that side. We dragged our Folbots over many stretches of ice without harming them and felt rather elated over this experience. When we reached ice free waters again we benefited from good winds in our direction. We tested our sailing abilities with a home rigged sail for twenty miles across Marsh Lake. Entering the main current of the river we could afford to sit back and let the Yukon push us. Ahead of Whitehorse, the provincial capital of the Yukon Territory, we passed Miles Canyon, once the most dreaded section of the river, where men and boats were lost in their race to the Klondike. The canyon waters have since been tamed by the Whitehorse Dam. We procured last minute supplies during a brief stop in Whitehorse. Returning to the swiftly flowing river, we headed for the famous Lake Laberge, the scene of the cremation of Sam MgGee. For this occasion we made a commemerative bonfire and read Robert Service’s immortal poem, on the ‘marge of Lake Laberge’.

The next morning brought clear skies and fair winds as we sailed to the mouth of Laberge. We passed the rotting hulk of a long forgotten sternwheeler and entered the Thirty mile stretch of the upper Yukon. Turning around the many tortuous turns of the Thirty mile, we noticed a most awe inspiring array of wildlife. Within two short hours we watched a bobcat or lynx casually stretched out on a high bluff, a coyote running along the beach, two large grizzlies huddled near a log and a cow moose grazing in the underbrush. Above in a clear blue sky we noticed many ducks, terns and gulls flying profusely overhead. At that time we appreciated our smoothly running and silent Folbots the most. It would have been impossible to approach these animals closely with noisy motors or metal boats. We felt quite assured in seeing those big grizzlies from our Folbots rather than from land.

Following the way of the gold seekers we observed many relics and silent reminders of their one time presence. Now and then appeared old stern-wheelers washed ashore, parts of old dredges, a wheelbarrow by a creek and numerous tumbled down cabins. Our minds wondered and questioned. Would the men who broke their, backs, hearts and left families behind to trek across this primitive land, understand us young men, as we followed their path for recreation and to prove to a changing world, that we could still travel long distances on our OWN and without internal combustion engines.

Five Finger Rapids was the last major obstacle for the Klondikers. Three huge pillars of rock protrude in the Yukon to create five narrow channels of surging waters with tremendous turmoil of frothy waves and spray. Consulting our map we decided after inspection for the right hand channel. Our Folbots seemed tiny amidst these powerful masses of turbulent water, but they handled splendidly. We passed in perfect form without any trouble, only to regret that we could not repeat it. The challenge of these strange environments like a set of tough rapids is equaled by the joy of meeting a stranger in the wilderness.

Sitting over a campfire and sharing coffee, our new friend was Roger Mendell- son. He had just come down from Whitehorse in a freight boat in the company of two dozen sled dogs, huskies and malamutes. He was repairing an old cabin for a season of winter trapping. We shared food, drink, stories galore and helped placing moss on the cabin roof before we proceeded to Dawson.

We pondered over the matter of timing as we paddled into Dawson some 460 miles downstream from Whitehorse. We arrived on June 21st, the summer solstice and longest day of the year. That night we climbed with local folks a hill, known as the Midnight Dome. This is an annual ritual, watching the sun go below the horizon at eleven thirty and come back up at one in the morning. Traveling further north we would cross the Arctic Circle at Fort Yukon. If we had reached there around the 21st of June, we would have experienced the phenomenon of the midnight sun. However, we had an unexpected delay, as the Canadian Mounted Police appealed for our assistance. A forest fire was burning about 20 miles from Dawson and we were asked to lend a hand. Four days later we were back in Dawson, tired and grimy, but celebrating with gusto. We surfaced a few days later to return to our river.

From the peak of Midnite Dome we had already a good preview of the country and the course of the river. As far as visible the Yukon twisted its way between range after range of the Ogilvies Mountains. Leaving the Yukon Territory we re-entered the United States for Alaska, which greeted us with rain and lots of rain. Wet and miserable we discovered an abandoned looking cabin, which displayed the following note: ‘Welcome, feel free to use this cabin and the wood; we ask only that you keep things clean and replace any wood that you use.’ We learned of an unwritten code of this great land, as we warmed our bodies and raised our spirits by the fire of a welcome Yukon stove. This was the first of more cabins with similar invitations which we used overnight as our home.

Past Eagle, the first town on the Yukon in Alaska, the river spread out into the famous Yukon Flats. The water meanders for 300 miles over a broad plain, attaining a width of over ten miles in spots amid a veritable maze of islands. Our maps became useless because the rampant river cuts new channels, creates new islands and removes previous land areas in its restless advance. Thankful again for our preference to paddle cruising, we could carefully inspect and then follow the main channel at our relatively slow speed. We had the joy and benefit of being on our own, while motorized boats require a pilot for navigation. Near Circle at the beginning of the Flats we passed a sign: ‘End of the Road’ to mark the northernmost end of the American Highway system. With an air of glowing satisfaction we had passed beyond the realm of the automobile. Hereafter we pondered often over the silent atmosphere, which at first seemed overwhelming, but gradually became a welcome feature of our wilderness journey. Each sound that breaks the silence takes on important dimensions. The crack of a twig, the song of a bird, the splash of a fish and the echo of our names as it rebounds many times from the surrounding hills.

The Flats came to an abrupt end beyond Stevens Village, where we approached Rampart Canyon. Here the Yukon compresses its huge volume of water into a passage of barely 300 feet width. Extremely swift we advanced some 90 miles in 16 hours of an exhilarating run and then rested a day at the village of Rampart. Almost like clockwork the King Salmon were running and the big fish wheels creaking. The water of the Yukon is so silty, that fish can not see a lure and consequently we had been fishing along the clear side streams. Mostly we landed Arctic Grayling, Pike or Whitefish, but those Kings given to us by local fishermen added a delicious variety to our diet. We also bought more food and supplies at some villages. Although we could easily have subsisted on bear or moose we encountered, we refrained from wanton waste of life and meat, because we had only the four of us to feed. Yukon hospitality was not limited to the use of cabins, because in many villages we were befriended with offers of food and lodging. We appreciated these conveniences after three or more days on our own in the woods. Sometimes the villager’s hospitality is abused by “drifters or floaters’’ as they call them. One can only hope that outsiders will consider the extra strain that even a lone individual can bring upon the resources and graces of a small village in the North. By the time we reached Kaltag we had made and left behind many fine friends to be long remembered. From Kaltag the river turns almost due south for 150 miles toward the town of Anvik. The Yukon runs straight and wide along this stretch with a reputation for ferocious winds to cause high and choppy waves. Our Folbots had already established their ability to navigate safely in roughest sea. Without any trouble we met this challenge and pushed merrily ahead in spite of unusually rough conditions. However we found ourselves plagued by mosquitos, which were by far the greatest nuisance, if not hazard of the North country. Mosquitos shared our living by constantly appearing in our soup or tea. Some of the available repellents provide sufficient protection in all but the most severe conditions, when it becomes advisable to wear a head-net and keep the mouth closed.

The miles fell quickly behind us and we soon passed Holy Cross, where the Yukon turns toward the west at Devil’s Elbow. We experienced a complete transition of landscape and inhabitants near the village of Russian Mission. Instead of Athabascan Indians we met smaller sized Eskimos and their way of life as forests changed to tundra. It was August now and berry picking season. Our pan fried bread was enriched with blueberries. The Kings had stopped running and were replaced by Chum Salmon. With the fish wheels gone, the fishing method changed to set and drift nets. Timing continued to play an important part on our trip. Paddling was not only good exercise and our means of travel, but provided time and inclination for meditation. Just when we arrived at Russian Mission, the Orthodox bishop made his annual appearance by float plane. We witnessed a solemn and impressive Eskimo service.

Further downstream at St. Mary’s we arrived in time for the annual get together celebration of the people from the lower Yukon. We joined the merry making and renewal of friendships and watched the wonderful performances of latest Eskimo dances. Hereafter the days were getting shorter and the nights distinctly colder We had reached the Yukon Delta as we headed for Alakanuk, situated on the southernmost of the three main channels. Still thirty miles to go, we faced the most violent winds we had been prepared to expect. Unbearable conditions forced us to take refuge on a small island, where we spent two miserably wet and cold nights. Calmer waters returned on the third day and so we proceeded into Alakanuk  and then  paddled the ten more miles to the Bering Sea.

The last few miles of our long journey turned out to be beautiful, where the low land meets the sea in a hardly distinguishable way. Standing at the last point of land, surveying the vast Bering Sea to the west and looking back to where we had come from, our thoughts turned to many wonderful as well as trying adventures we had gone through. My friends and ! will never forget the moment of arrival at our journey’s end as we exclaimed in jubilation: “We have done it!” The echoes of the surfing waters and the triumph of this episode will often be remembered as the high time of our young lives.

We paddled back upstream to Alakanuk and bid farewell to our friends. Reluctantly we packed up the Folbots and hitched a ride on single engine Cessna plane to Anchorage. During the homeward flight we started making plans for our next adventure.

Bob Kanegis

 

What follows is a slightly expanded version of a message I sent to PUBYAC, a listserve discussion group for Public Library services for Young Adults and Children.  Many libraries (schools too of course) are looking for ways to tie their programs into the educational initiative known as STEM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)  STEM has been extended by others to STEAM with a well placed acknowledgement of the Arts!  PUBYAC librarians have been discussing how to provide relevant programming and particularly to the youngest of their patrons.

 

Reading the compilation of STEM related activities prompts the following musings…

imagesThe great environmentalist John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Everything is indeed connected and knowing this offers a reassuring compass when thinking about how to develop programs tied to STEM, STEAM and other science related themes.

I’d like to invoke another wise elder of the environmental tribe… Freeman Tilden,  whose Principles of Interpretation have guided Park Rangers, Nature Center staff, Living History, and Museum folks, etc. for generations now.  What Tilden passionately promoted was engagement with an audience.  It’s for this reason I’d like to share  3 of his 6 principles and then make what I hope will be an encouraging  comment or two.  Quoting Tilden now…

“The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. “images-2

“Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.”

“Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.”

I particularly like Tilden’s idea that provocation trumps instruction, and I think this is particularly true when we try and program STEM/STEAM activities for the youngest of our patrons or audiences.  Science in in broadest sense is about curiosity, observation, speculation, developing and testing theories about how the world works.  Pre-schoolers are almost all natural geniuses with all of these traits and tasks!  And because everything is connected, you can start just about anywhere… anywhere that is that in some way observes principle 2(within the experience of the visitor)and lead a scientific exploration.

YOu don’t have to limit STEM/STEAM to science or non-fiction books.  I just went to my shelves and pulled out a copy of  Chris Raschka’s Five for a little one. 1250242
It begins, “Noble nose, sniff and smell…you do it well… Contrast, compare… Sample scents of flowers and foods, oceans and woods…” SCIENCE!

Folktales are often full of references to  the natural world ….when I tell a story about how hummingbird got it’s colors… there are endless age appropriate opportunities to ‘provoke’ and relate to kids experiences with birds, flight, nests, behavior…Many traditional Native American folktales have very purposefully embedded important information and lessons about plants, animals, the weather and paying attention to their signs. SCIENCE!

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Note the direction of light, and the play of light and shadow in the illustrations of many of your favorite picture books and you have an opening to talk about the course of the sun across the sky, the reasons for the seasons… SCIENCE!

Well, I hope there is at least a little provocation and grist for the STEAM mill here!  It’s a wide world out there and you can find it “hitched’ to science at just about every turn!

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“What do a light bulb joke, your great aunt’s cold remedy, and a poem scribbled on the door of a bathroom stall have in common? If you know the answer, you may have taken a class from the late UC Berkeley professor Alan Dundes. Each of these, Dundes would have said, is an example of folklore—a category of knowledge that many people associate with the legends, old-wives tales and superstitions passed along by preliterate societies in the times of yore.
But Dundes taught that folklore, rather than being an erudite study of ancient ways, was alive, it was relevant, and it was everywhere. It was the jokes people told, the stories they shared, even the graffiti they wrote on walls. Every person, Dundes believed, was a walking treasure trove of folk wisdom.”
http://caa-web-prod-01.ist.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/just-in/2014-12-10/lord-lores-papers-berkeleys-famed-folklorist-alan-dundes-open
Though I was not a student at Berkeley, professor Dundes generously allowed me to sit in on his introductory folklore class.  That led to further investigations in the crowded room that at the time served as the repository of his folklore archives.
On the occasion of the opening of these archives to the public, and because my wife Liz is at this very moment en-route from the market with a chicken that shall soon be transformed into liquid Puerto Rican, Jewish penicillin as a remedy for the cold that is keeping me from work today, and because it is the eve of Chanukah, and the candles have just arrived via the deity Amazonia… I offer this memory.

 
Many years ago I had an opportunity to hear, for the first time, the brilliant and  often hilarious Northwest Native American healer and storyteller Johnny Moses Though I  certainly remember his folkloric stories of Octopus Lady, and Boogie Woman it was a family story that sticks  with me more than the rest.  After all these year, I may not have the details exactly right, but here is the gist of it.

 
Apparently a Catholic priest tried mightily and over a long period of time to convert Johnny’s grandfather- a Native American traditionalist and healer.  As Johnny told it, the priest finally wore Grandfather down.  After a due course of study, the day came when the cleric sprinkled holy water on the old man and said, “you were a Heathen, now you are a Catholic.”  Sometime later, the priest was out and about in the village on a Friday and got a whiff of roasting meat.  To his chagrin he found Grandfather roasting venison and was quick to make known his disappointment and disapproval.  Grandfather took the tirade in stride.  He removed the meat from the fire, walked to the river, sprinkled a few drops of water on it uttered these words… “ You were a Deer, now you are a Salmon!”   images-3

 
No sooner had I heard this tale then I said to myself, “Dad must have been right… the Native Americans ARE one of the lost tribes of Israel!  I’d heard that story before.  In fact I’d heard it quite a few times before.  It was one of Dad’s oft repeated tales when I was growing up in the 50s.  Well, it was mostly the same story.

 

As Dad told it, it was a priest in a suburban neighborhood… friends with his neighbor the rabbi, and again the priest worked mightily to convert the rabbi.  The rabbi too finally agreed,  went through with his studies, and he too was sprinkled with holy water.  “You were a Jew, now you are a Catholic.”  The priest was out for a stroll on, yes…Friday. This time he smelled barbecue chicken.  Again there were remonstrations of great disappointment, and again these were met with equanimity.  No doubt you see where this is going…. the Rabbi reached for a glass of water, dipped his fingers in and sprinkled a few drops on the grill.  “ You were a chicken, now you are a salmon!”

 
It was only years later that I realized that some of Dad’s jokes were actually teaching stories… this one of course was about identity. At that time, the Holocaust was a very recent memory and Dad set the hook of the lesson by reminding me that it didn’t matter what you said you were, if you had Jewish ancestry you were on your way to the camps.  It was a lesson about the dangers of assimilation.

 
After hearing Johnny tell his tale, I made my way to Dundes’ folklore archives and discovered close to one hundred versions of the story.  I still recall Johnny’s thunderous laughter after telling the tale.  As the soup cooks, I remember my father, who shared love through food and stories.

 
We put up a Christmas tree last night.  Tonight, we’ll light the Chanukah candles.  But sadly, there is more gruesome news today of barbarism and slaughter of the innocents under the guise of religious orthodoxy.

 
It’s time for  some more holy water.  You don’t need to give up your venison, your chicken, your hummus or tofu… sprinkle yourself and simply say… I was a drop… now I  am the ocean.  Now I am a human being.”
May the stories continue.  May we find and deeply know our common humanity  May peace prevail on earth. images-2

tumblr_neyavfON8m1s0sc01o1_500As we enter this particular Thanksgiving day, with the unfortunate pall of not just smoke but, mistrust, fear, anger and racial tension sparked by the events in Ferguson Missouri, I remember the time that I first experienced myself as a stranger in a strange land, a very obvious young, unexperienced, 20 year old white kid in the Tlingit Native community of Kake Alaska.

I want to share two stories from that time.  One, my own, which is how I cam to be there, and how I was treated.  And the other, a Tlingit folktale that I heard told many years after I’d left, and then found even many years latter in written form. This story has guided since it ‘found me’  but I have resisted telling it in deference to sensitivities about cultural appropriation.  But my personal connection to this story feels so strong, and now that I have seen numerous retellings in print and on the internet, my feeling is that this story is screaming to be told at a time like this, a time when we simply cannot remain as strangers to each other.
Off on an adventure, I’d landed in Petersburg Alaska in the early spring, totally broke and desperate for a job, any job.  In a small cafe, a Vista volunteer working in Kake, suggested that I take a boat to this island community and try a get a job as a deck hand on a fishing boat since the Halibut season was not far off.  The conversation was overheard by some of the locals who exhorted me mostly as follows…”Don’t do it kid.  Those natives will throw you overboard and you’ll be food for the sand fleas.”  They truly were trying to dissuade me.  I don’t know if it was providence, stubbornness, curiosity, or simply my desperate financial straights, but an hour later I was on my way to Kake.

Here’s how I was greeted.  After being introduced by that Vista volunteer to one of the prominent families in the village, I was offered a place to sleep on one of the village fishing boats and a place at the table to eat with the family every day for several weeks until the fishing season started.  Some inquiries were made and when fishing commenced, I had a job. I was the greenhorn and I mean true greenhorn on a halibut boat where the next youngest member of the crew was 80 years old. No doubt I was somewhat of a curiosity , but the point is that as an outsider, I was welcomed and embraced, and this proved to be just the first of many years of my experience of native hospitality.  Had I listened to the bigots, and yes, that’s what they were,  and not ventured to the village, my life might have proven to have been very different.
Now the folktale.  It’s important to remember that I did not encounter this tale, from this village until years after I left.

The Man Who Entertained the Bears

A man of the Raven clan living had grown very old.  His friends were gone, passed away and he felt sad to think that he was left alone. He began to think about how he might leave that lonely place or even end his own life.  He thought that he might paddle away to another village, but then said to himself, ” I will be a stranger there and if  the people there see that I am alone, they may think that I have run away from my own village,  or been banished for some disgraceful thing.

It then occurred to him to go to the bears and let the bears kill him. The village was at the mouth of a large salmon creek and there found a bear trail and lay down right in the middle of it.

“ Let the bears find me here at eat me,” he decided.

Soon after, as he lay there, he heard the sounds of twigs and bushes breaking and saw a large number of grizzly bears coming toward him.  The largest bear was in the lead,  a huge old Silvertip- the tips of his hairs were white as that old mans hair.  Suddenly the man imagined the sound of his own bones breaking and thought that perhaps being eaten by the bears was not such a good idea.

Very quickly now the bears were close upon him. He jumped up. The  Silvertip stoop so that they were facing each other.  The hair on the man’s next stood up.  The fur on Silvertip’s neck stood up.

“I  am here,” said the man,  summoning his courage,  “to invite you to a feast.” I have come to invite you to a feast tomorrow, but, if you are going to kill me,  I am willing to die. I am alone. I have lost all of friends,  my children, and my wife.”

At this, Silvertip grunted, turned about and led the other bills back up the trail.

“I think they have accepted my invitation,” the man thought.

When he got home he began to prepare for the feast. He cleaned and made his house a welcoming place,  then he told the  other people in the village about his encounter with the bears and invited them all to the feast.

“You have done a very foolish and dangerous thing,” they replied.  The bears are our enemies. We will not come!”

For the feast, the man prepared dishes that the bears would enjoy, salmon,  berries, and more.  The next morning he saw the bears coming from the mouth of the creek. The other villagers saw them too, peeking from their doors but afraid to come out. But he stood still to receive them. brought them into the house and gave them seats, placing Silvertip in the middle of the house and the rest around him.

The feast began with large trays of cranberries preserved in grease.  Then tray after tray of salmon and other foods were passed from bear to bear.  When they they were finished, Silvertip rose on his hind legs and began to address the man  for quite some time. Then he turned and led the other bears out towards the forest.  As each bear left, it licked the paint with which that the man had adorned his arms and chest with.

The next day, the smallest of the  bear came back, but it seemed to the man to be in almost human form and spoke to him in  his own Tlingit language.

“I was once a human being. I was a young baby, lost in the forest.  The bears adopted me, protected me, and taught me their ways. Now I am mostly a bear, but I still remember my childhood language.  Silvertip asked me if you understood what he said to you at the feast yesterday?”

The man replied, “I felt that he was thanking me, but no, I did not understand everything.”

“He was telling you,” the bear man said, “that he is in the same condition as you. He too has lived long and has lost all of his friends. Many are the ways in which we are the same.  He had heard of you before he saw you. He told you to think of him when you are mourning for your lost ones. or when you are lonely.”  And with that the bear man returned to the forest and his companions.

(Here’s a link to the original English version of the story. http://www.samstudies.org/anthology/library/periodicals/bae/b39

I’ve shortened and adapted it slightly but trust that the intent and spirit of the story has been conveyed.  Again, this is offered humbly and with thanks to those who have told and may continue to tell the story in and around Kake.  Please know that my time there was a turning point in my life, a time when I began to see and understand my place in the world in a much broader way,  way that opened up a whole new way of seeing, thinking and relating)

This story was narrated to Swanton by a man named Kasank, who added this commentary to the tale.

“From this we learn,” said Kasank, that when when we give a feast, no matter if a person may be an enemy, it is good to invite him to the meal and become friends just as this man did with the bears.”
This story began working on me as soon as I heard it.  I was early into my storytelling career and discovering that for me, storytelling was not so much about performance as it was about encounter and being together with people in an authentic and convivial way.  It lead me to work with my wife and storytelling partner Liz and a great group of friends to create community events we have come to call F.E.A.S.T!  Families Eating and Storytelling Together.  The intent has always been to bring people together – people of different ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds for a shared meal, and shared stories.

Food and stories are what I’d call the universal solvent of  differences and mistrust.  Break bread with each other, share stories- true stories, stretched stories, hard stories, folktales, jokes, jests, stories of fools stories of wise ones, love stories, reconciliation stories… and we find out, like the man and Silvertip, how beyond the knotty differences, just how much we have in common.

Finally for now, I’d just like to add, that it’s not just about sitting down with an adversary or an enemy.  Families have their daily, and sometimes drawn out stresses, arguments, and grudges.  We can start on Thanksgiving day of course, but any day, any meal can be a time to be together, eat together, and make peace with ourselves and each other.  And that would truly be a grace and a blessing.

IMG_1006Attention Walmart Shoppers!

There’s  an Aesop’s Fable where a dog, lucky enough to have found, a juicy bone, crosses a stream, sees his reflection in the water and thinks he sees another dog carrying a bigger better bone. He drops the bone, jumps at the dog in the river and has to swim like crazy to save his life.  A sad episode for Rover, but at least he doesn’t get trampled.

It has been said by a Siberian elder that if you don’t know the trees, you might get lost in the woods, but if you don’t know the stories you might get lost in life.
This Aesop’s fable might be a good one to help you stay found and keep in mind as Black Friday approaches.  If you don’t have a copy of Aesop handy… no home should be without one but they are not on sale… Google Black Friday Trampling and there will be no shortage of cautionary tales  to be found, lavishly illustrated by You Tube clips of frenzied shoppers and barbaric yawping.

No doubt someone’s handicapping the odds that there will be more mayhem and deaths again this year.  Place your bets ladies and gentleman.  Win big then turn around and buy the latest steroidal  HDTV screen that money can buy.  But wait, there’s more!  This year we don’t have to wait until Black Friday for a better bone.  We can trot home with our bounty beginning at sun-up Thanksgiving Day courtesy of Walmart, and a host of other American companies who are drafting their ‘associates’ to assist us in the Big Grab.

Yes, Grabitude has replaced Gratitude on the 4th Thursday of November.  Perhaps it’s only a natural next step in the evolution of Homo Corportus and I should put aside my dismay, and pick up my credit card.

But I will stay home on Thanksgiving.  I’ll be with friends and family enjoying the meal, the company, and the stories not the stores.  Same on Black Friday, but I’ll add a walk in the woods and watch the river flow, the cranes dance in the sky and the last of the cottonwood leaves flutter to the ground.

Some of the Sandhill Cranes that winter here in the Middle Rio Grande of New Mexico have migrated down from the Yukon Delta in Alaska.  They’ve been doing this for about three million years.  I used to make my own yearly migration to and from Alaska and one year while kayaking on the Yukon River I met an old- timer,  Meska Savage, and Athabaskan man who at the time was 85 but looked no older than sixty.  I was fortunate enough to have been invited into the village sweat bath and even more fortunate to have met Meska there and heard this piece of advice from him.

“Never rush, live long time!”

So what I’ll grab on the 27th and 28th this year is time.  Time with friends and family, time to chop and peel, and cook and talk and reflect, and time to appreciate every blessing that I can think and feel.

Time is NOT money.  Never was, never will be.  Not money earned or money spent.

Carl Sandburg had this say-so about time…
“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”

Barbara Bush said it well another way…

“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.”
Barbara Bush

To this I would add, you won’t regret missing that Night Bargain Super Quartz Analog Handyman Thingamajig Sale on Black Thanksgiving.

But if you are drawn to the Big Box Store, as inexorably as the crane answers the migration call, may I suggest this.  Don’t rush, you have all day, and when you get there, don’t buy a thing.  Just bring a gift, a treat or a thanks to the person who has had to give up their most precious time to keep their job and show up for the hoped for National Day of Grabitude.  Then go safely home in gratitude for the day that is given to you.

(This one, I’d love if you’d share.  Thanks!

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