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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.

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Here is the first in what I intend to be a series of  posts about my recent 5 month stint working as a tour guide out of Skagway Alaska. I thought I’d be blogging that entire time, yet found myself so immersed and consumed in the venture that I was left with little time or energy for reflection.  So now that I’m back home in New Mexico…

Where to begin this? I   For me it’s not as simple as following the Kings Advice to Alice of Wonderland  “Begin at the beginning, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

I’ve chosen to begin at an ending.  In late August 1971 I dipped my kayak paddle into the Yukon River for a final few strokes and glided into the Bering Sea, having first dipped into the Yukon 2000 miles upstream in the river’s headwater Lake Bennett.  After a journey of 80 days, and a bush plane ride into a disorienting and kaleidoscopic reentry into the evening madness of the city of  Anchorage, I remember saying to myself… “I’m off the river, but this journey will never end.”Yukon map

44 years later (blink!) in April I found myself back in Skagway where the big adventure of my youth began. Though “you can’t step in the same river twice,”  my youthful conclusion that there would be no conclusion has proven the test of time.  The journey is of whole cloth and it continues.

Here’s the current short story.  Hitchhiking on my familiarity with Skagway from years ago, my Yukon adventure, and  my experience relating to people from around the world all these years as a storyteller, in a somewhat cavalier manner I tossed off an email inquiry about possible employment as a guide.  The next day the phone rang and I received more than a job offer.  It was a  full blown sales pitch, an entreaty,  a chapter and verse proposition complete with starting and ending dates salary etc.  “ Who are you talking to? “ my wife Liz asked, well aware of my suddnen mixture of bafflement and excitement.  And so it began.  A sudden and mostly unexpected, unplanned journey, a long absence from home,  from my soulmate and partner and from the work that has sustained me for many years.  I would be doing storytelling, but of a very different kind.

I’m sure I’ll be circling back to many details, encounters, and connections, episodes, but at this point I ought to provide at least a little more context.

In July of 1897 a ship docked in San Fransisco with a motley bunch of prospectors carrying with them a ton of gold, plucked from the Klondike in the Yukon territory.  These grizzled sourdoughs could barely carry off their  heavy sacks and totes of the precious metal.The reporters having got wind of their arrival were there to meet the boat.  The next day you couldn’t get a trolley car in the city.  The conductors had quit their jobs and were outfitting for the Klondike.  The rush was on. Over the next months, tens of thousands of others from around the world would trek north,
arriving in either Skagway or the nearby townsite of Dyea, at the foot of what would become the fabled Chilkoot Trail.

imagesHere in the words of Pierre Berton, author of The Klondike Fever, is what awaited them.
“… haul a ton of goods up the Dyea Trail and over the Chilkoot Pass(or White Pass out of Skagway) in the dead of winter, to construct a serviceable boat of green lumber whipsawed by hand on the shores of Lake Bennett, to tempt the swift river and it’s rapids  (of the Yukon River)for more than five hundred miles, and on arrival… to build a log cabin capable of withstanding temperatures of sixty below zero.”  Then of course the  back breaking work of mining lay before them.

My job as a guide was two-fold… meet cruise ship passengers 6 days a weeks early in the morning,  drive them through town to the White Pass Summit and a little beyond, interpreting Gold Rush history along the way. Then return to town, quickly meet another group for a second tour over the pass,  and further into the Yukon Territory, to Lake Bennett and slightly beyond in a 6 hour route that incorporated both history, natural history and simple breathtakingly beautiful opportunities to  see the country, take photos, and for many to fulfill a dream of making it to Alaska.  I guided roughly 250 tours and probably had somewhere between 3500 and 4000 people along  as my guests. IMG_4034

Details will be forthcoming.  But for now, here’s a question.  The question that many of my friends have been asking me.

Was it worth it?!

Before I left for Alaska I went to a coin shop and purchased an 1898 silver dollar.  I paid $35 dollars for it.  But how much is it worth?  The dealer told me that given the silver it contained, and given commodity fluctuation  it was ‘worth’ $14 and the balance of the purchase price was for ‘value’ as a collectible.  Is there a difference between worth and value? That’s something worthy of reflection I think.   I’ll attest to it’s collectible value, because almost every day, I passed that dollar around so that people could have a tangible, palpable connection to 1898.  “Maybe this very dollar circulated here in Skagway in 1898.”  I’d say.  “You could buy one egg, 1/50th of a cantaloupe(no kidding) or a quick date with Ethel the Moose or Molly Few Clothes.  Thousands of people on my tours had their hands on that dollar and I always got it back even when I was distracted and had forgotten that I’d passed it out.  My faith in humanity was always affirmed. What’s the value of that?!

Everyday I’d drive buy a local store that was selling a mounted mastodon tusk for somewhere near $100,000.  On my Yukon trip, I’d drifted past a place called the Boneyard, and seen  tusks sticking out of the river bank. (During the last Ice Age, the Yukon Valley was curiously ice free and there the mastodons roamed) A few bends  further down the river I passed an encampment where several guys were cleaning a huge huge tusk,  that they’d excavated.  I suppose we could have cut short our trip and become a tusk trader (it was still legal then).  We hadn’t started with this certitude of intention, but reaching the Bering Sea and as we put it, ‘going all the way,’ had become a commitment I’d made to myself and my three companions.  So we passed up an opportunity to ‘get rich.’ Now on my tours, I could tell the story of the tusks, and could attest as a first hand witness to one of the many great changes the land underwent over the eons. I can evoke and share an almost bodily sense of the passage of time.   How much is that worth?  Or better yet… what the value there?

So this time I spent in Alaska this year.  Was it worth it?IMG_1751
For some the question comes down to simple arithmetic.  Did I make money?  How much?  For the moment, the answer to that simple question is… enough.

As I’d pull into town and the conclusion of each tour, I’d usually say to my guests, “ The best things in life aren’t things, they’re experiences and I hope you’ve had a great experience today,” (In the spirit full disclosure, yes, I was simultaneously thinking about what the tips might be that day!)

So now, arithmetic aside, the question becomes, what is the value of the experience I’ve returned home with?  And in keeping with, ‘the trip will never end’ I have to remind myself that some of the value of my experience may not reveal itself for years to come.  (Maybe that silver dollar will be “worth” much more by then!)  But kidding aside, here for starters are a few things I’m carrying back in my prospectors poke.

I made it all the way!  I didn’t turn back.  I kept a commitment to myself, to my colleagues, and to my employer even though as I may later attest I had little respect for the way he did business with his clients and staff.  When I say, I almost turned back, that I could barely picture myself getting beyond the first couple of weeks, that is no exaggeration. I didn’t know if I could or wanted to hack it.  I had prepared mightily for this assignment.   I wanted to be the best tour guide I could possibly be… for my clients, and for my own sense of accomplishment and mastery.  Little did I suspect that boning up on Gold Rush and natural history was not the most challenging part of the job.

Here’s an insiders perspective.  Start at the dock and get back to the dock before the ship sails.  Failure to do so is the ultimate business catastrophe for reasons that can be imagined.  Along the way, adjust for number of people on board, what kind of shoes are they wearing when deciding where and when to stop,  estimate how long will it take to get on and off at stops, how many people will need to use the few and far between  stinky outhouses on the route, how long will it take to get through both U.S. and Canadian customs on any given day,    and weather the dog mushing begin and end on time.  Allow for the possibility of getting stuck behind an incomprehensibly slow moving ore or fuel truck.  Wonder if  will the fog be so thick I’ll have to drive at 5mph? What about road construction delays?  Meanwhile, the boss is telling clients we’ll be making stops every 15 minutes…which was not always possible… the boss is aslo telling people the weather will be better on the other side of the mountains… not always true… that there will be thrilling bear encounters… sometimes but not usually true.  I was a nervous wreck at night,  barely sleeping, but managed to keep my game face moving down the road.  During those first weeks and as I moved into the second month I was not having much fun.   Could I hack it?  Would I make it?

IMG_1500And then on a rare day off, I went to Mecca.  I drove 120 miles to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory and made a pilgrimage to the River…to Miles Canyon, which had been one of the stretches of deadly rapids that the Klondikers had to navigate.  It had been tamed by the one dam on the river by the time I floated by, but this was the first time in 44 years that I’d set eyes on and dipped toes into the river.  I was in tears, for so many reasons.  Tears of joy, tears of regrets, thoughts of time and opportunities lost, but perhaps more than anything else, came an epiphany… I had been by this place all those years ago… at the beginning of a different long odyssey that I didn’t know if I’d complete, and here I was again, the same person… that optimistic and naive kid was and still is the same person… older and maybe a bit wiser.  I was both at the same time! … a time traveler if there ever was one… a gift  message from the the river and the great cycles of life.  I HAD made it all the way, and at that moment, I committed to completing my contract no matter what.  I’d pull up at the dock on September 9th, let off that last guest, and it would feel like taking those last strokes and gliding into the Bering Sea.  What would that be worth?  What value?

I’m going to leave off here for now.  I learned once again the personal value of completing something difficult.  It’s often extremely difficult at times for me to write.  But now that I’ve once again dipped my paddle into the blog current I intend to keep going.  I hope some of you will travel with me and find what value you can!

As always, your encouragement keeps me going.  And as always, I hope for your thoughts and stories here in the comment section.  What for instance,  do you think about a distinction between worth and value?

I’ll defer to Albert Einstein for the last word.

“ Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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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.

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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

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mosquito signIt seems that it’s that time of year again.  People seem to be telling lots of stories about mosquitoes, much of which I suspect is exaggeration, hyperbole and even outright lies. Now I don’t want to come straight out and accuse anyone else of stretching the truth- take this sign that some folks in the Adirondacks put up for instance- I don’t know if it was to attract tourists or keep them away, but half a dozen of my friends who know just how much I’m a stickler for the truth sent me that photo and suggested that I might ‘go on the record’ and tell it like it really is.  They know about the years I spent in Alaska and my friends said that it is my civic duty to set some things straight, so that’s what I’m going to try and do, at least as far as the common Alaska variety goes.

 

People tell about how big Alaska mosquitoes are. My first year in Alaska an old sourdough bush pilot tried this one out on me thinking that I’d be gullible enough to believe nonsense like, ” I saw a mosquito land at the Fairbanks airport, and the ground crew  filled it up with jet fuel and changed it’s spark plugs before they realized what it was.”  What bull!
So now the truth. Alaska mosquitos really aren’t that big at all. The one that flew in my cabin window and snatched a #10 can of beans was at least two pounds smaller  than the turkey I cooked for Thanksgiving that fall.

Alaskans like to brag about how tough and strong their mosquitoes are. Believe me, they’re not that tough.  An hour after he flew off with my beans that mosquito had to come all the way back to get a can-opener.alaska state bird

 

But I did have some really bad trouble with mosquitos my second summer though.

You know, if you live in the wilderness it’s crucial to keep your tools sharp.  So one of the first things I bought myself that first winter was a grindstone for just such purposes. When the mosquitoes returned from their migrations that next summer, here came that same mosquito that stole my beans. I could tell it was him because he wasn’t just buzzing, he was farting up quite a storm. I guess he didn’t want to bother with can openers anymore and thought that grindstone would be just the thing to put a fine edge on his bill.  And off he flew with it.

 

For some reason that particular mosquito must have taken some kind of personal dislike towards me. Later that summer I was out in the yard washing my clothes. I didn’t have any electricity out there at my cabin and I was using a big old metal washtub.

I heard a deafening buzz and then just as clear as a bell I heard him say,  ”I’m  BAAACK! “His intentions were clear- he was on a straight course towards the top of my head. There was no time to think.  I just grabbed that washtub, dumped out the dirty water, and put it over my head for protection.

That’s when I heard a terrible hammering, loud as thunder. That blood sucker was drilling straight through the washtub.  And on account of him having my grindstone, his  bill were sharp enough to do the job in a hurry. In no time at all his bills was clear through the metal and starting on my skull.

But I was well on the way to becoming a sure enough sourdough myself, learning to live in the wilderness and prepared for just about any eventuality.  I always kept a leather-man tool on my belt, even when I was in bed, so I reached for it quick, unfolded the pliers, lifted the washtub just enough and to bent that deadly bill snug up against the inside of the washtub.  Now that little devil was stuck tight. I had him!

Or so I thought.

Well his bill was stuck but his wings were still free. I have to admit to a certain admiration for that little mosquito.  Desperate as his situation seemed, he didn’t give up. He began flapping his wings with all his might and before I knew it he picked up the washtub and me right with it and headed south.

I don’t know how he knew it was going to be an early winter, but he knew and he just kept flying non- stop for two weeks and a day until the finally ran out of steam and landed.

Fortunately, I knew just where I was. Spring Valley New York where I grew up.  That mosquito had deposited me right in my parent’s back yard on Willow Tree Road.  Right then though, I made my big mistake.  I guess I felt a little sorry for that mosquito , He looked just about plum worn out and he still had a considerable way to go to reach warm weather. Truth is, I’d grown fond of him during our passage. So I decided to straighten out his bill and set him free. I watched him wobble off looking somewhat dazed an confused.

mosquito-sculpture

I had a good visit with my parents.  I knew they worried about me and I did my best to reassure them that I was doing just fine up there in the Last Frontier.   You know what the best part of my visit was? Catching those late summer fireflies just like I used to do when I was a little kid.  They don’t have fireflies in Alaska.  I wasn’t quite  as fast as I had been but I still caught a good jarful.  Of course I let them go after I used them for some late night reading.

But this is where letting that mosquito go came back to haunt me. I reckon that an Alaskan Mosquito had never set eyes on a New York Firefly before, and the best I can figure it, when that mosquito set eyes on one of those lightning bugs, it must have been love at first sight.   Because a couple of weeks later, just as I was thinking it was time to get back to Alaska, I was sitting around late one night on the back porch  Here came a whole squadron of mosquitoes, and every one of those mosquitoes had bioluminescent green headlamps and bills to match.  I knew in a flash what had happened. My mosquito had mated with a firefly and these were the offspring.  I can’t say for sure whether it was nature or nurture  but it was clear to me that these Fire-Skeeters were looking for me and their intentions were not kindly. It was time for some more quick thinking.

“Quick Dad, throw me  the keys to the car,” I screamed. He could tell by the tone of my voice that this was no time to ask questions, so he tossed me the keys to the Rambler, I made a dash to the car, waved goodbye, and started driving North on the New York State Thruway. I was on my way home.  But and those fire-mosquitoes were on a mission and they chased me the whole way.  Somewhere near Milwaukee, they realized they could slow me up by puncturing my tires, so I had to stop about every ten miles and spray the tires with mosquito repellent to keep them at a distance.  That slowed me down some. By the time I got home there was four feet of snow piled up around my cabin.  Those mosquitoes were cold and discouraged and sat down together in a huddle to make plans for the winter.

Unfortunately, because I was gone so long, I hadn’t had time to cut firewood.  And it was cold. I quickly assessed the situation and realized that a great opportunity was right at hand. While those Fire/Skeeters were distracted with their deliberations I snuck up on them and snapped off all their bills and then stacked em up in the woodshed- must have been a good three or four cords. I remembered to leave a few intact for future purposes.  Whenever I needed fire for the rest of the winter I just thawed one out and stuck it in the stove or fireplace.They burned with a beautiful greenish flame.  I kind of missed the crackle of spruce and birch wood, but after awhile I got used to the buzzing of the fire.

Next spring when the mosquitoes came out I knew the “survivors” would be back for me and at me. Just about the time I figured they would arrive I took to sitting in the car as bait and waiting for them to show up.  I was watching the Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky one night when I noticed a matching light veer off and head my way. It was one of those green-eyed green -billed Fire-Skeeters and just like I planned I jumped in the car and waited for it to drill its way through the roof to get at my head.  I used my trusty leather-man, it had never left my side, and fastened him tight  just like I did with the washtub. Then I had him fly the car back to dad. He knew just where to go because what I forgot to mention before was that that original mosquito didn’t just fall in love with the firefly.  There was a menage-a trois going on with a homing pigeon that my parent’s neighbor kept. So that was a Homing Fire-Skeeter I sent on it’s way. The car got there in good shape. But Ramblers were heavy cars, and the mosquitoes were so tuckered out by the time they got there they were nothing but skin and bones.   Dad saved one of their leg bones and mailed it to me.  Got it right here in my pocket.  Ask me about it if you see me  and I’ll be glad to show it to you.

Well, that’s about all I can tell you about Alaska mosquitoes so I hope now you won’t believe any of those exaggerations that so many people indulge in.  Being a responsible storyteller, it’s important to me to stick to the truth. My reputation depends on it. mE7dpgJtjqtB85sYgaiE75Q

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Robby's first bookHi Folks… I originally posted this a year ago.  My mom died recently and I though it a good time to republish this piece…..

Although my somewhat dazed expression in this photo from 1950 may not reflect it, I’ve had a lifelong love of reading, which I attribute in no small part to my mother’s lifelong love of reading.  As of this writing, mom has been continually engaged with the same book club for well over 40 years!

I got my first library card when I was about three.  There I stood looking up at Ms. Heitman from her perch at the reference desk at the Finklestein Memorial Library in Spring Valley N.Y.

“ May I have a library card?” I asked (I’d already been instructed in the difference (between may I and can I?)

“How old are you?” asked Mrs.Heitman,

I counted on my fingers…”Three!”

“Can you write your name?”

“No.”

“You have to be able to write your name to get a library card at The FinklesReadingTogether-1tein Memorial Library.”

“I’’ll be back!”

And I was , and motivated as I was it was within a few weeks. I’ve been haunting libraries, and surrounding myself with books ever since.

Our son Chris has been visiting us this week, which among other things presented an opportunity to look through family photos.

This photo of Chris and Renee’s daughters, Maya and Raina is a treasure.  Maya is eleven, Raina is one and to see Maya reading to Raina is a treasure. Maya is reading a book we gave to her some years ago.

DSC00600Now here’s a picture of Liz and I reading to Maya when she was about 2+.  We’re reading  one of the Golden Book classics, Big Brown Bear, published in 1948  the year of my birth. It’s the first book I have a clear memory of and which in another post I’ll credit with pointing me to ten years of adventure in Alaska (that as they say is another story)

So there’s a lineage here of the love of books and reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy gifts recently and suddenly I pictured Maya and Raina, together someday far in the future, two venerable old sisters, poring over a family heirloom- this photograph of the two of them, and a rendering of the moment by my incredibly talented artist friend Peter Menice. Peter recently created this Dig Into Reading poster for me for my 2013 Summer Reading Library Tour.  I figured this could make a great Christmas gift for the girls and Peter was just the person to pull it off.  granddaughters reading peter

Let me just say that when I presented the idea to Peter it was a like lighting a firecracker with a short fuse.  Peter just about exploded with enthusiasm and burst of possibilities.  That’s Peter always ready willing, eager and ready to take an idea or concept, collaborate, create, and find an opportunity to express his passion and find a way to bring his core and essence to his life and work. (Find Peter at PeterMenice.com)

REVISED EDITION- Here’s how that photo of Maya and Raina became one of Peter’s interpretations and creations.

“The best way to to squeeze the wine out of good fortune is to dance on it with ready feet.”  So I have heard.  What good fortune to have a friend like Peter, What good fortune to have been given the legacy of the love of reading.  What good fortune to have    had an opportunity to pass it on.  What good fortune to watch my granddaughters grow,  and to be  truly curious kids and what greater good fortune can there be than to see their love for each other.

So here’s to the love of books and reading, here’s to families reading together, and here’s to the creative and collaborate spirit. I invite my friends and readers to follow as Peter renders this though his imagination, spirit and talent.

I really welcome and encourage comments, reflections, memories that this process may spark and would also be grateful to those who see fit to share this post/process with folks who you think might appreciate it.  Thanks!

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