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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.

It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.

There was our granddaughter Raina, running with excitement to show us her copy of We’re Going on A Bear Hunt.  We watched her flipping the pages as she told not read us the story, going over and under and through with great enthusiasm and animation- all to her  storyteller/grandparents great joy!  And then… the bubble burst.  She finished the story, reached for the computer screen and said, “ Abba, Abo, (that’s Liz and me) I’m going to touch you.”  But of course she couldn’t touch us and we couldn’t touch her, for this after all was a Skype call.

A few days later, adding insult to injury, I read a compilation of posts about story hours from children’s librarians around the country.   Extolling the virtues of “new media” during story time, there were photos of librarians, doing book talks by holding iPads aloft to the facing children.  It shivered my timbers. I felt a rant coming on.  I’ve simmered down since then, but the feeling lingers that something is terribly amiss here. iPads for book talks?

I can already hear the digital fingers pointing right back at me.  You are, after all, reading this on a ‘device’ of some sort, and yes, I am typing this from my computer. And yes, I do use Skype to “see” and “talk” to my granddaughters- so this rant must be tempered.  But allow me to invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson’s admonition that, “ A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  I’ll stand by my troglodytic , Luddite  (Lite) sensibilities and ask…why in the world a story from the Ipad, when the book is at hand? Consider what is gained against what is lost.  For what is gained please ask someone else- it eludes me.  For what is lost?  Among other things, presence, touch, conviviality, humanity, relationship,  and life.  Naturally as a storyteller I’m ready to forgo the book too and go straight to the story- mouth to ear and then introduce the book.  But even a book has a link to life through paper and trees, and light and soil.  No so the flickering screens as far as I can tell.

imagesWhen Willian Blake wrote, in Auguries of Innocence-
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand 
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour,” he was holding a grain of sand not an iPad in his hand. If we can’t actually touch the tree that Rip Van Winkle fell asleep under- and if we can’t tell the story fresh from our memory or imagination, we can at least hold the book and hold the spell that way.  Or perhaps not.  Power up the IPAD- project it on a whiteboard and perhaps we’ll wake up 40 years later and have our Cyborgian friends over for a twenty dollar cup of once upon a time there was a rainforest blend coffee. ( I warned that this was going to be a rant)
13420024There’s a story about the Gubbaun Saor the Wondersmith of Celtic Legend.  He’s walking along one day when an anvil and hammer fall out of the sky and lands at his feet.  “Ah!”  he exclaims. “The tools have come to the man who knows how to use them.”  And use them well he does as the royal architect.  But It feels to me like we’ve had all kinds of tools drop into our 21st century laps, and though we might know how to use them we don’t always know when to use them, or should I say, when not to use them.

If a chain saw dropped at my feet while I was pruning roses, I’d stick with my clippers.  If I needed a few cords of wood for the stove that might be another matter.

If an IPAD falls from the sky and lands at my feet … sure enough, I’ll use it to Skype my granddaughters.  But the Bear Hunt will have to wait.  First we’ll read the book.  READ the book huddled close and together.  Then we’ll head to Jewel Lake. We’ll go under, and over, and up and around, and through, fences, walls, trees… we’ll get muddy,  we’ll look for tracks, and if we don’t find Ursus Horribilus himself, perhaps we’ll track down a wild Woolly Bear DSC04529caterpillar.

On our last outing together, we walked along a trail that brought us through a live oak and bay laurel forest that followed along Wildcat Canyon Creek in the Berkeley California hills.  Along the way we stopped to explore and named half a dozen places  way… Two Exit Tree, Straw Tree, Abo’s Not as Young As He Used To Be Tree (a redwood tree I can no longer clamber up!) Two Hole Cave Tree, and Moss Rock.  At Moss Rock, Raina put her hand on the soft green cushion, I put my hand on hers, and I remembered and I knew in my flesh and bones the truth that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  I read that in a book somewhere!  Later, I googled it to make sure that it was true.

 

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Recent events which seem to me to be heightening a national zeitgeist of fear of the “other” have prodded me to republish this post from 2014.  I was back in Alaska earlier this month and ran into an elder from Kake Alaska- the scene of both the personal and folkloric tales that follow.  I’ll write about that encounter in another post, but for now please consider ways in which we can break bread together and build bridges instead of walls.

As 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.(1970)

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.sacred-texts.com/nam/nw/tmt/tmt088.htmI’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.

imgres-1Tomorrow, as an American President visits Hiroshima for the first time since the atomic bomb was dropped, two stories bubble up for me.

Many years ago, I spent the month of October  picking apples in the Okanagon Valley in Washington State.  I’d spent the summer working as a seasonal employee of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, supervising a Youth Conservation Corp Crew, monitoring wildlife on a refuge near the Columbia River and I wanted to add a little to my winter grubstake.  I also had enjoyed the camaraderie of the orchards during two previous harvests- crisp early mornings around a small campfire to warm our hands for the work ahead, the Mexican migrants singing from the treetops as they picked, the assortment of hippy types sharing meals and swapping tunes in our small trailers at night.

A rare day off found me driving my old beater of a Rambler south down highway 97 from Tonsaket , a town by the Canadian Border.  Suddenly by the side of the road I saw a small wisp of a man, don’t think he would have hit the 100 pound mark, running in place with his thumb jerking repeatedly in the hitchhikers salute, certainly the strangest hitchhiking posture I’d ever seen.  Since I’d hitched thousands of miles over the previous years, I was prone to pick up just about any brother of the road who  didn’t look like he posed an imminent threat, so I pulled over and opened the door.  Before he gingerly hopped in,  my guest put his palms together and bowed deeply to me, and I could see that he was a Japanese fellow probably about in his mid- sixties.  I noticed right away that he was holding a large ziplock bag with an eagle feather, whose quill was beautifully beaded in a traditional peyote stitch.  He noticed  me looking at the bag and said,

“Ah…. Eagle Feather.  Must Not Have Eagle Feather!  Today, I am coming from court.  I am arrested for Eagle Feather.  ( At that point, it was not lost on me that it was my previous employer, The Fish and Wildlife Service that enforced the ban on possession of eagle feathers by non natives)  But I tell judge, that Eagle Feather given to me by chief  ___ when I walk from Alcatraz to Washington D.C. for peace and justice.   Judge let me go and keep eagle feather!”

“You walked 3000 miles across the country?!”

“Yes!  Walk across country for peace 3 times.  Now I walk again for peace again from Los Angeles to New York. But pick apples first for little money.  Picking apples very hard, but good… empty mind.  Walk across country easy!”

I had lots of questions of course.  What did he eat along the way?  “ Ah… Dumpsters and Dunkin Donuts!”   It turned out that this man, belonged to an order of Japanese monks whose lives were  dedicated to walking for peace.  “ I am survivor of Hiroshima.  Must never happen again. Never! ”  I have always remembered this day as an encounter with someone who walked his talk like no other  person I have ever met.

My friend J.K was among the first to arrive in Taos NM during what has been called ‘the Hippie Invasion.  Perhaps the most notorious of the communes that popped up like mushrooms at that time was the Hog Farm of  Merry Prankster fame.  This next is a story that John related to me about a fellow named Little Joe Gomez- an elder of the Taos Pueblo who took in on himself to help some of the new comers learn how to live and get by in their new surroundings.

Up in the Jemez Mountains in the 1940s Los Alamos NM was the secret cradle of the Atomic imgresBomb.  After the war, I’m not sure how much later, the town’s existence was revealed and the first tours were offered.  Little Joe was there for on of those tours.  When it concluded, the guide asked if there were  questions.

“Who is responsible for this?” asked Little Joe.  “ I want to talk to them.”
The guide seemed puzzled.
“What do you mean by responsible sir?”
”Responsible… I want to talk to the people who are responsible for this.  Now!”
The guide then suggested that Little Joe talk to his supervisor who was duly summoned.  Little Joe repeated the question and again was greeted with a baffled expression. “What do you mean by who is responsible for this?”

Joe was frustrated but kept his composure.  He explained.

campfire1In Taos… we have a tradition.  At a certain age, when the elders determine that a young man is old enough to be responsible for fire, we take him up into the mountains, we show him the different kinds of wood… we teach him which is best for kindling, which woods send sparks, which give the most heat. We tell him how to tend it, to keep it to an appropriate size… to be aware of the wind… We remind him of it’s power to give life , but also to destroy.  We come back to the village, and the boy lights his first fire.  We teach him to be responsible for it and then we celebrate with him..
Here at this place I have just seen… you created the greatest fire in the world.  One that can destroy worlds.  I have been asking and asking and yet I can find no one who will tell me that he is responsible for this fire.”

I thought I might simply wrap up the post here and let those stories speak for themselves.   But I experienced the a fire earlier today while trying to relax in the sauna at my gym.  I’m not referring to the electric heater and hot rocks.  As I sat on the bench I listened to a man and woman ranting  and raving to each other about “Mexican criminals” invading our borders.   It was quite clear to me that they were profiling their remarks,  well aware of the others in the room with them, including someone who was quite likely an Hispanic immigrant.   “ I know what I’d do, said the woman.  I’d line each and every one of them up against a wall, take a machine gun and kill them.  Kill them all and dump their bodies on the border wall were going to build.”   The fire of intolerance.  The fire of  anger and hatred. Reluctantly,  I have to admit that at that moment I felt the fire of my own anger towards them flare up and I wanted to lash out.  Yes, I did say something.  No I didn’t let it pass. But did I come from a place of equanimity?  Probably not.  Did I dampen the flames, their or mine?  Probably not.

Where does disarmament begin?  Who is responsible?  Can I even take one step let alone walk this way for a lifetime?  Who is responsible?  Who is responsible?  Let Peace Prevail on Earth.

Once again I was approaching the Canadian Customs and Immigration station on the Klondike Highway. Looking ahead I could see that the wait would be at least 15 minutes if not longer.  We  had just crossed the summit of the White Pass, and images-8I’d been telling the guests on my tour bus about the “one ton rule.”  During the 1898 Gold Rush, the Mounties required the Argonauts as the gold seekers were called, to carry an estimated one year supply of food with them as a condition for entering the country.  Now as we waited at the border I considered what story I might tell to pass the time as we sat there waiting to show our passports before proceeding into British Columbia and then into the Yukon Territory.

Then it occurred to me.  The border!  Why not give the Gold Rush a rest and tell a smuggling story!  “Folks,” I confided in a mock conspiratorial tone, “let me tell you…”

I introduced them to  Mullah Nasruddin, or the Hodja as he is also known, the often foolish but somehow wise hero of hundreds of tales told in coffee houses across the middle east and beyond.

Once a week Nasruddin crossed the border pushing a wheelbarrow heavily laden with merchandise.  One week the wheelbarrow was full of melons, the next week it might have been dates, or bottles of rosewater.  Come each Tuesday morning, Nasruddin would faithfully arrive at the crossing, produce the necessary  paperwork, the border agent would examine his cargo  then wave the Mullah through.  But the agent always suspected that Nasruddin was pulling the wool over his eyes and engaged in some kind of smuggling racket.  Try as hard as he could though to catch him in the act, the agent couldn’t catch him in the act.  Week after week, month after month, and then year after year, a wheelbarrow full of this, that or the other thing  and  the agent growing increasingly frustrated, sure that Nasruddin was having a great laugh at his expense.

Now it was many years later.  Both men had retired and one day they encountered each other sitting at adjacent tables at a coffee house.images-12

“Nasruddin,” you old rascal.  “You can tell me now.  I have no authority, You’re beyond the reach of the law.  All those many years when I would see question you each week, I suspected that you’d been smuggling something .  Admit it! Admit it now and ease my mind.

“Oh yes, indeed my friend.  It is true. Your suspicions were well founded and I profited greatly each week with my clandestine cargo.”

“Tell me, tell me,!  must know or it will drive me crazy!  Just what was it that you were smuggling?” the agent fairly begged.

With a great sly grin, Nasruddin replied, “ Wasn’t it obvious?  I was smuggling… wheelbarrows!”images-9

I would have occasion to tell it dozen’s of times over the course of the summer while waiting either to cross into Canada or back into Alaska. Once, I even told it to one of the U.S customs officials as we sat at a cafe at adjacent tables in Skagway.

“ That story is truer than you even think,” he told me, and then related that when he was working at the U.S and Mexican border, there was a guy who came across often with a bicycle heavily laden with merchandise.  Eventually the agent figured out that he was crossing into the U.S. with a new bike and returning with a beaten up one, and that he was smuggling… bicycles!

Sometimes it takes a long time to catch on to something ‘hiding in plain sight.’

In one venue or another, I’ve been telling the Nasruddin wheelbarrow story for years, but it was just the other day on the way to the Taos storytelling festival when I saw this story in a way that I’d never thought about it before.  This is not uncommon for storytellers.  .  Another layer of the onion peels off to reveal  a previously unrecognized  dimension of a tale. Here I am thinking that I’m bringing people to a wading pool, and unknown to me someone in the audience is off in the deep end of meanings and associations.

Storyteller as “Smuggler!”   Wittingly or unwittingly, we carry messages across borders and boundaries, stealthily slipping in meaning that is reveals later when the time or conditions are right.   I thought I was telling a story about smuggling wheelbarrows and lo and behold, I finally figure out that it can be construed as story about smuggling stories!

When they could afford it, the Klondike gold seekers would hire Tlingit packers to haul their good up the passes.  Their strength and endurance was legendary.
Still, all who watched one day were astonished when one Tlingit man strapped a cast iron stove on his back and without faltering proceeded to make the long ascent the summit.  As a crowd at the top looked on in astonishment, he put the stove down, then opened it’s door, and took out a 50 pound sack of flour!

Storyteller!  You approach your listeners with a story. You’re at a border. ( of the storyteller/story/listener)  Here’s the agent waiting for you with a question.  Just what are you packing in that story bag?

images-11(Fellow storytellers… what story have you discovered hiding in your stories?)

This morning here in Corrales, New Mexico,  a small flock of lesser goldfinches feed on the Maximillian Sunflower seed heads  growing on their giant stalks in my front yard.  And so blows a blogseed northward to another one of my talismanic moments on the Klondike guiding trail.

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Tutshi Lake Reflections

May 20th 2015, I pulled over at Tutshi High… a place to get a spectacular view of the 20+ mile long glacially carved Tutshi Lake.  My guests that day were all physicians from Thailand.  As always the far scenery evoked appreciative utterances, cameras clicked and I took lots of group pictures.  Then a woman noticed something closer to her feet.  “What  flower is that?  It’s beautiful!”  She was looking at a dandelion.  Apparently dandelions don’t grow in Thailand, because none of the other 20 or so folks had ever seen one either.  Good thing I didn’t say, “just a dandelion,” because what is so common to me was a source of wonder to all.  It occurred to me then that lacking familiarity with the flower, it was likely that no one there knew about making wishes on the seeds.  So I demonstrated.  I’ll just say this.  I had to skip the next stop because these doctors became kids again right before my eyes, and it took considerable time to pry them away from their delight.  Wishes flew on the wind!2015-05-20 12.35.19

Just a dandelion, just a crow, just a seagull?

Now, no one ever says just a bear.  Every time we’d encounter a bear, the bus became electrified.  I’ll write about bear encounters in another post, but at this point it bears mentioning that dandelions are a favorite food of ursus major and ursus  in the early spring, and grew in profusion by the side of the road.  If you consult the herbal books you’ll read that dandelions are a strong diuretic.  There’s speculation that a dandelion diet helps jumpstart the bears urinary system after their long winters sleep.  (No more dandelion wine for me before bed).

IMG_0565So here we were, still in May, the snow not that long gone, and already making wishes on the spent dandelion flowers.  How quickly from blossom to seed I thought.  And that’s when I first thought of holding my sex education seminar as part of my Klondike tour.  And what better group to initiate it with then a group of the doctors!

Before I even began, I swore the group to secrecy.  Don’t let my boss know that I’m teaching sex-ed here on tour.  (Okay boss… now you know.)

I began in the spirit of the Socratic method… asking questions.

“Do northern species or more southerly species of birds  have longer incubation periods?

“ What do you think?  Do birds up north or birds down south, once hatched take more time to fledge (grow their feathers)?

Arctic Tern Fledgling

Arctic Tern Fledgling

“What about time from germination to flowering and seed producing with plants?  Do you think that northern or southern species go from sprout, to flower to seed more quickly?”

Fairly quickly, the consensus came around to the conclusion that life cycles in the north were probably accelerated because of the short summer season. ( Two seasons in Alaska as the joke goes….winter and the 4th of July.)

That’s when I pointed out that all these questions were fundamentally about sex.  The need to reproduce and ensure the continuity of future generations.

“ What about humans then?” joked one of the quicker wits.  “ Do kids in Skagway grow up faster?”

What I was really getting at though (shtick aside) was the palpable feeling of the great urgency of life that one feels in the north.  To me it has always seemed that life fairly buzzes at a higher frequency.  The long daylight hours undoubtedly add to the effect.

fireweedHere’s Jack London, who of course was familiar with the route we were on,  taking the fierce urgency of life to another level…

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Fireweed gone to seed

“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”

So now, reflecting on Dandelion Day as I have come to call it, I conclude that

I would rather be ‘just a dandelion’ rather than an exotic orchid, so that flying on the wind and on the breath of children and grownups , I could be a hundred wishes, planting myself in the soil of wonder and love for our common earth, North, South, East and West.

coda:  A few hours after I posted this, my great friend Mike Seliger replied with a poem he wrote this spring.  Here it is…

Dandelions

I open the Book of Wildflowers,   randomly,
And there on page one hundred three,
My much maligned friend,
The ubiquitous Dandelion,
Scourge  of  lawn perfectionists,
But Friend of  Lovers  of Yellow Intruders
In the middle of shades of green…

“I am everywhere,”  she  says.
“Attend to me, and I can be
A Helpful Friend and Ally…”

The book calls her Common,.
But acknowledges her Power
As a wild universal Healer.
Every part of the plant Useful—
Root Potions for Healing the Liver,
Vitamin-rich Leaves for Salads,
Yellow Flowers good for Dreaming
And also for making Wine…
Seeds that feed the birds
While the  Seed Puffs  soar  skyward
Dancing on  Winds and Waving
To small children, calling
“Chase me, Follow me, catch me!
–and when you finally learn
How to Hold your Hands in Stillness
So I can be caught and held,
Your Breath, like the Wind,
Can send me skyward again…”

The Book shows, in yellow,
The parts of these United States
Where this “Common Weed” is found.
Yellow  fills the  entire Map…
—Mike Seliger, 4/23 15

It was early  April and I was anticipating and preparing for what I imagined it was going to be like to deal with the cruise ship passengers that would soon be on my tours out of Skagway. I did the math.  20 weeks, 6 days a week  2 tours a day, maybe an average of 18 people per tour.  Depending on how it went, I figured there would be between 3500 and 4500 people by the end of the season.  Where would they come from and what would they be like?  I would be responsible for their safety and comfort while educating and entertaining them on tours that  would last from 2 to almost 7 hours.

My mind turned to a poem by Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes,  and one of the sections that has become a kind of compass for me regarding human behavior.

“Drove up a newcomer in a covered wagon: “What kind of folks live around here?”
“Well, stranger, what kind of folks was there in the country you come from?”
“Well, they was mostly a lowdown, lying, thieving gossiping, backbiting kind lot of people.”
“Well, I guess, stranger, that’s about the kind of folks you’ll find around here.”
And the dusty gray stranger had just about blended into the dusty gray cottonwoods in a clump on the horizon when another newcomer drove up: “What kind of folks live around here?”
“Well, stranger, what kind of folks was there in the country you come from?”
“Well, they was mostly a decent, hard-working, law-abiding, friendly lot of people.” “Well, I guess, stranger, that’s about the kind of folks you’ll find around here.”

So this is how I generally approach situations.  I mostly expect the decent, friendly people, and I generally find them.

Still, with the numbers involved, I figured I’d be seeing some of the exceptions, and so this is how I prepared.

Cue the movie Taxi Driver. De Niro is rehearsing,  looking in the mirror, priming himself for a deadly encounter.  “ You talking to me?  You talking to me?”  Out comes the imaginary gun… bang, bang, bang!

I anticipated that the two most difficult situations I’d face would be,

#1… people in awe of scenery, gazing at the far horizons, and me with a schedule to keep.  It wouldn’t be easy or fun to interrupt their reverie…Hey Bob, Get back on the bus!

#2  complete jerks…. arrogant, demanding, and abusive.

I figured I could respond to each with a well practiced phrase.

For the awe-struck, it would be
“Will everyone kindly return to the bus.”

For the exceptionally bad case… the 1 in 4500
“ Get the “ F” off my bus!”

Maybe it was my own determination and upbeat introduction that soothed would be savage beasts. I’m not saying that there weren’t more than a few folks who seemed that they might have been dragged by their partners into a day excursion when they might have preferred to stay on the ship during rainy weather and played cards. There were a number, not many, who just couldn’t seem to get excited about anything. There was one, only one, and I found out about her at the end of the trip, who faked a diabetic emergency, causing me to shorten a trip, because as it turned out she didn’t like the fact, as her husband later told me, that there was a 2 year old on the bus making some noises.  But that was as bad as it got.

Now that the daily tide of passengers has come and gone I can honestly report that I never even came close to having to ‘Go DiNiro!’

Oh… and how did I handle “ Will everyone kindly return to the bus?”  I delegated!

Years ago I attended an Environmental Education Conference and went to a session run by a park ranger at Yosemite.  He shared a story that had always stuck and this year I put it to use.

He told us that parking cars at Yosemite Valley had been a nightmare.  “ I’d stand there in my uniform, with my shiny badge and official ranger hat… tell people to turn right and they’d turn left or just completely ignore me.  Then I got the idea to put a bear puppet on my ‘traffic hand.’  After that, when my bear puppet told people to turn to the left, they always turned to the left.  No one ever disobeys a puppet!”

IMG_2735And so when I had a kid on board who was between about 5-10 years old,  towards the beginning of a tour, I’d tell everyone that the hardest part of my job would be getting them back on the bus, interrupting reverie, etc.  Then I’d tell the Yosemite story, produce a wolf puppet and find a young volunteer, or several to share the responsibilities.  It worked every time!  Parents loved that I was involving their kids on a trip mostly geared to adults, and I had some mighty fine deputy guides!

So of the minions who shared part of their Alaska adventure with me, can I pick out my very favorite guests?

I’ve forgotten their names, but these two women ride on in my memory.  It was on a long tour.  All day they were beaming, enthusiastic about everything we were did and saw and very vocal about it, not at all shy about showing their excitement.  Several hours after the tour, we ran into each other on the street, and I learned a little about their story.

They were from New York City,  one Italian, the other Puerto Rican, and had known each IMG_3146other since 1st grade.  Here’s the part that blew me away.  In first grade they had made a pact with each other that some day they would travel to Alaska together.  (Where that idea came from I forgot to ask.  When I was in 2nd grade I was watching Sgt. Preston of the Yukon on T.V. maybe that was it for me!)  They made a second pact with each other as well.  They both wanted to be New York City policewomen so that they could help people in their communities.  (early advocates of community policing!)  And this trip was the culmination of that first pact.  They’d made it to Alaska!  And what made it possible?  They had both just retired after full careers with the New York City Police Dept.!  What a privilege to be their guide!

(Throw a log on the story fire.  What long held dream came true.  What long held dream will you see through?)

“Hey Bob, aren’t you too old for this?  I guess you didn’t get the memo!” IMG_1298

That was my friend Dave’s response when I told him that I was putting my storytelling business on hold and would soon be leaving for a guiding job in Alaska. Then with a laugh, he continued, “I guess I didn’t get the memo either!”  After a long career in social services, at age 67 he enrolled in a masters program and is now close to certification as a  psychotherapist.   Maybe we should both have our heads examined.

IMG_1383_2But then there is Captain William Moore, the first resident of Skagway. (formerly Mooresville) His crude log cabin in the center of town was one of the first stops on my tour. I’d tell people how along with his First Nation’s guide, imgresSkookum Jim, he had blazed the first trail from Skagway and up the White Pass, then staked out 120 acres, built a pier and warehouses and  confidently and correctly predicted that someday there would be hordes of gold seekers who would use his route.  As I pulled away from his homesite I would add that I was withholding an important part of his biography. Then, on the way up the pass, I’d stop at a pullout, point out his original trail clinging to the side of a long and difficult cliff face, and then fill in the missing detail.  He was 64 when he made that first trip and he was 74 when he won a contract to deliver the mail on the 600 or so mile route to Forty Mile on the Yukon River   So folks I’d say, “ It’s not too late for a career change.”

I guess Moore didn’t get the memo either.

Then there is the example of Pablo Casals, one of the master cellist’s of the 20th century who was still practicing for hours and hours every day.  When asked why, he responded, “ because I’m beginning to sense a little improvement.”

“I’m beginning to sense a little improvement.”  That phrase has become like a mantra for me, having passed retirement age and with no ability and even less interest in hanging up a career where it’s often hard to delineate where work ends and play begins. It also helped me through this interval where I took people up the same route over 200 times.  I prepared long and hard for this assignment, but by the time I’d finished my last tour, I still knew that there is still much room for improvement.

But I invoke Casals for another important reason.  He stands firmly in the lineage of elders of the tribe who have guided my own path and career.  Here’s how.

In 1961 (?)Casals came to California to teach a weeks long master cello class.images-1 People came from all over the country to attend  including an engineer from the Bay area, in his mid 50’s named Josh Barkins.  Because he was local and knew the area so well, Barkins often took on the role of local guide during breaks.  As he would tell me later, towards the end of the class, Casals took him aside and in essence said, “ Josh, you’re a good cellist, but you’ll never be a master cellist.  But in another way you are a master.  You’ve been a master guide.  Have you ever considered doing that for a living?”  The very next day, Josh quit his job, and applied for a job as a groundskeeper for the East Bay Regional Park Service.  He quickly worked up through the ranks and eventually became not only the chief interpretive naturalist for the regional parks but a legendary trainer for the National Park Service.

Here’s a quote from the NPS
“He practiced the best interpretation, both whimsical and profound. He was equally adept at interpreting for children, engineers, clergy, and fellow interpreters. He was equally at home giving “‘gutter walks” in the city and alpine meadow walks in Yosemite. He thrived on creative use of gadgets, puns and riddles, puppets, music, poetry, world religions, history, and philosophy in his programs. Not only was he unafraid of integrating ethical and moral issues in his programs, he often insisted upon it.”

Fast forward to 1977.  I was visiting Berkeley and Tilden Park with another mentor of mine Herb Wong, who was both a jazz and environmental educator.  Herb invited me to accompany his class to Tilden to witness Josh Barkins in action.  (Freeman Tilden, by the way is known as the father of modern interpretation.) Josh did it all that day, took us on the trail, brought out  puppets, children’s books, told Sufi and Zen stories, showed us small wonders with a magnifying glass, and recited poetry.  Poetry!  At the end of our nature walk we sat in a circle and Josh began,

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

“Ah… Walt Whitman!  Song of the Open Road,” I exclaimed.  ((How could I  not know the poem.  These words are carved in a huge glacial erratic next to a statue of old Walt in Bear Mountain Park near my boyhood back yard and Mecca overlooking the Hudson River) 20140715_104422_zps5wetrmnt

Josh looked at me, beamed, took off his Smokey the Bear style ranger hat, put it on my head and said,  “You recognized Whitman!  You can DO this!”  I count this as one of or perhaps even the most affirming and encouraging moment of my life. Trying to lead the life of a environmental educator,  storyteller,  and sometimes guide all these almost 40 years now has sometimes felt akin to walking that precarious and difficult path that Moore ‘found’ and the Klondikers followed, but I continue on, for after all, “there’s gold in them thar hills,” even if it’s fairy gold!

I’ll pitch my blog tent here for the day with this final quote from the Maestro Casals.

” On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old.  That is not young, of course.  In fact, it is older than ninety.  But age is a relative matter.  If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that ages does not necessarily mean getting old.  At least, not in the ordinary sense.  I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.”

I guess he didn’t get the memo either!

(As always, your comments are fuel for the fire and keep me going!  How is life growing more fascinating for you?  Can you remember a time when you felt truly encouraged by someone you admire?)

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