Living Treasure and the Fat Wood Fairy

Just in time for the really first cold snap of the season, the Fat Wood Fairy left a burlap sack on our porch. One of the reasons I’m known as “One Match” is that whether it’s for the hearth, or on a camping trip, I’ve always got a supply of what  must surely be one of the best natural and surefire kindling in the world-fat wood (also known as lighter wood) Fat wood are hand split pieces of pitch pine stumps, almost dripping with sticky and highly flammable resin.
So I called to thank Sid Byrd, my Lakota friend in South Dakota, for what has become his annual gift to us. Each year, Sid sends fat wood, and we send him the makings of one of his favorite foods-posole- dried corn, and chiles, which can then be seasoned with meat.  Sid’s daughter Navassie, known to us  as The Kick-Ass Cooking Goddess (We miss you Navassie!)then makes Sid his much longed for posole.  Maybe Navassie will be making a pot this weekend since Sid is about to celebrate his 94th birthday with a big party.DSC04084

I have been so fortunate to have counted as friends and mentors, elders who well into their 90s remain vital and engaged with the world.  Every time we speak, Sid reminds us of how when he still lived in NM he, loved to sit around our fireplace and swap stories.  And  does Sid has stories.  In a few weeks, he’ll be traveling, yes traveling to Mankato Minnesota to take part in a memorial for the 38 Lakota braves who were hung in 1862 in the largest mass execution in American history. (Lincoln pardoned 265 but let the  38 executions proceed for what was called an uprising but was in reality a defense of their homeland. ) Sid has an intimate knowledge of this mostly unknown and shameful episode in U.S. history, having been asked a few years ago to translate the letters the unfortunate prisoners wrote home.  And he can tell the story of Wounded Knee as he heard it from those who were actually there. Sid was an apt and eager young listener around the pot bellied stove at trading post at Pine Ridge. Talk about being able to reach across time and appreciate living history!images-1

Just today, I learned about another remarkable 90+ year old elder, Lenora Ucko who is also telling stories, building community and healing others by convening them to tell  their stories through her wonderful efforts at  I sometimes wonder if I’ll still be traveling and telling if I am fortunate enough to reach that venerable age. Towards that end, I made a green kale and protein powder shake yesterday, but  later at the gym where I swim , I met a 90 year old who told me his secret is a shot of Scotch every day.

About 10 years ago when Sid Byrd was still living in Santa Fe ,I nominated him and he was honored as a “Living Treasure.” Now, sitting gratefully snug by my hearth, having kindled the fire with one small sliver of the newly arrived fat wood, I thought about my many treasured elder friends and drifted dreamily into a reverie about a treasure, and a story that has been told around the globe. Known as The Peddlar of Swaffham in England, or told as as a traditional Eastern European Jewish tale, the story goes back as far as the Arabian Nights and although I haven’t read it, appears in the plot of Paul Coelho’s novel,The Alchemist.

Here’s the gist of it.images-2
A poor and humble man, let’s call him Yankel, has a vivid and detailed dream of making a long journey to the  the capital city and finding a treasure buried beneath the foundation of a bridge. Nice dream he thinks, but alas, just a dream.  But after he has the same dream a for second and then a third night he can no longer dismiss what now seems like a call to action. HIs wife prepares humble provisions for his journey and off he goes to search of the treasure.  He’s never been to the capital before, and to his amazement, everything, down to the last detail looks exactly like it appeared in the dream, including the bridge.  Unfortunately, the bridge is guarded day and night.  Yanekl realizes that although he may risk having to share the treasure, or perhaps even lose it entirely, he’ll have to tell the guard about the dream.  When he does, the guard ridicules him.  If I went  traipsing about like a fool, following every dream I have, I’d make my way to the village where you came from, find a man named Yankel, dig under his hearthstone and find a treasure there.”  Ivan doesn’t need to hear any more. He turns on his heels, heads back to his village, digs under the hearth, finds the treasure, then uses his new found wealth to build a house of worship for the community.  The greatest treasure, so the story tells us can be found close to home.

Well, it’s now the season of gifts and giving so lots of treasure and shiny toys for old and young to dream of finding under a tree.  I once interviewed a number of people to find out about the best gift that they ever received.  One young waitress didn’t hesitate for a moment before responding eagerly.  She told me that her father had been in an accident and couldn’t work for several years.  The family fell on hard times and so there was no money for gifts.  Her grandmother who was living in the household at that time told her, that because she was the one who had shown interest and asked questions, that she would take a weekend with just the two of them and tell her granddaughter her life story. That, was the  granddaughter’s best gift ever.

So… before you make that long and arduous journey to the mall or travel through cyberspace to the far off  Land of Amazon…If you looking for priceless treasure, here’s a clue.  Look close to home. Share your stories with the people you love and and ask them to share their stories with you.  Treasure each other!
(If you need any more encouragement for such efforts, click on the Endangered Stories Act page here)
And as always, I’d be delighted if you’d use the comments option to tell a tale about a time you received a treasured gift.)

Now it’s time to put another log on the fire… Just have to decide whether to reach for the kale or the scotch.



  1. In 2009 I was doing a 6 week storytelling course called “Healing Words” at Emerson College in England, which culminated in a two week visit to Israel to run storytelling workshops with Israelis and Palestinians. I had take a year’s sabbatical from my job to do it. In the first week my brother, who lives in France, developed blood poisoning and had to have two heart valves replaced. The operation took place on the night we were doing our final performance at Emerson before leaving for Israel. That night a fellow storyteller told the story of Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” and in the night I woke feeling as though there was a wall around my heart and realised that I had been hardening my heart against my brother in order not to feel the pain if he died (he had had serious health problems for years). The realisation changed our relationship. The following week while I was in Israel my sister in England had an emergency operation for a detached retina which meant she couldn’t fly and on the same day my 90 year old father in Mumbai was taken into ICU. At this juncture, as I prepared to fly to Mumbai, someone told me a story called, “This is good, this is good, this is very very good.” This story literally kept me going through the next few weeks as I kept repeating the phrase to myself trusting that everything would work out, as indeed it did. Both those stories still mean a lot to me.

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