Finding Stories in Nature

When I was a little boy about 4 or 5 years old, my dad and I came upon a small patch of wood sorrel at the edge of our yard in Maryland. My dad called it sour grass. He had learned it as a child in Louisiana. “It’s good to eat,” he told me. It was probably the first wild green plant I ever tasted. We nibbled the sour leaves there for quite a while. The intense tartness teased my young palate with a hint of the stimulating piquancy and richness of the natural world.

Wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.) is a distinctive plant. It looks somewhat like a “three-leafed clover” except that each of the three leaflets is heart-shaped. They are joined at their points so that together they form a heart-circle with smoothly scalloped edges. There are various species of wood sorrel all over North America, and in other parts of the world as well. There are at least three species in my yard in North Carolina. It was one of the first wild plants my son, Todd, ever tried. He in turn has shown it to his friends.

Once I was wandering in the North Carolina mountains with Ron Evans, a Chippewa Cree Indian from northern Canada. I was asking him about the various plants we encountered but most of what we were seeing were southern species that were unfamiliar to him. Then I spied a wood sorrel. “How ’bout this one?” I asked. He smiled. Yes, he knew that plant. One like it grows up north, he told me. He used to gather it by the basketful when he was a child. His people often eat it mixed with other greens in salads. The sour flavor works like a salad dressing.

“What do you call it?” I asked. He answered with a softly rolling collection of syllables that sounded like “cah-see-yo-ta-sko-si-ya.” When I asked him how that name might translate, he thought for a moment and said, “It means, ‘It’s all there’.” And then, as if he had never really thought about it before, he said, “I wonder why we call it that?” And we continued on our way. A little while later he stopped and said, “Ah, I know why it has that name. We consider the number six to be a representation of completeness, in the same way the six directions– North, South, East, West, Sky and Earth–represent completeness to my people. When you look at this plant, you can see that each stem has only three leaves (leaflets) so it seems incomplete. But when you look a little closer you will see that each of the three leaves is divided into two lobes. The complete number six is there, after all. So when we see this plant we say, ‘It’s all there.’ This plant teaches us that if we look closely enough within our own selves, we will see that we, too, are complete beings.”

It took my breath away to realize the deep truths that a common weed can provide when viewed from a mythic perspective. (I looked around me. “What does that plant teach, and that one, and that one?” I wondered as I looked at the oak tree, the honeysuckle vine, the wood fern and the goldenrod. ) Wood sorrel’s message is a broader one than just that of personal completeness. It is about the wholeness and completeness of nature as our source. It IS all there — not only food, clothing, and shelter, but personal answers, mythic lessons, profound stories, and deep spiritual truths are there, too; though sometimes it takes a peculiar squint of the eye for us to see and realize all this. Finding stories in nature is about squinting — or about opening our eyes up wide. It is about adjusting our way of looking at the world and trying to rearrange and broaden our perspective in order to see nature with new and different eyes that just might soften our rigid concepts about the way things are as we shed new light on ourselves and the beings that share our world.

Every being that shares the earth with us can have a lesson, a teaching or a message. Every being embodies real truth. We are all a part of the natural world and our lives are profoundly affected by nature. Even those of us who live modern, urban, insulated lives have to acknowledge our biological roots. We are biological organisms and we are intimately connected to and ultimately dependent upon the natural world.

The natural world provides a common meeting place as well as a source of inspiration for storytellers. How do we find that common ground, that human /nature connection? How do we incorporate the natural world into our stories?

Many traditional folk and fairy tales use animals and plants in a metaphorical way, where various human characteristics attributed to animals and plants are used to teach lessons to humans about their own behavior. These tales have been an effective and viable medium used for centuries to impart insight and values. They can make great stories with profound commentary about human nature revealing many metaphorical truths, but this kind of story offers little in the way of (in terms of) describing and illuminating the natural world in which we live and the truths of nature as they really are. These natural truths are part of ourselves and bringing them to light is more and more important in today’s world where our modern society attempts to turn its back on it’s own natural roots.

To a scientist who is interested in fact, metaphorical nature tales commit one of the deadly sins of science known as anthropomorphism — attributing human characteristics, motivations and qualities to non-humans/animals. (“…and the fox said, “Oh those grapes were probably sour anyway…”) A metaphorical animal fable can make a wonderful story with great wisdom but little in the way of scientific truths.

But of course we do observe the world through human eyes. A naturalist/folklorist friend of mine once said about observing nature, “If you can’ t anthropomorphize, what fun is it?” (What’s the point if I can’t use what I know about being human to understand and relate to the world around me?) There stands the dilemma. How can one turn accurate scientific fact into a rich flowing and enlightening narrative?

I certainly see the natural world through human eyes and I also may be guilty of anthropomorphism, however, upon closer examination I think my approach to finding stories in nature is really the opposite. (of anthropomorphism.) Rather than attempting to attribute humanness to the animal world, I am learning to see the naturalness/ animalness/ the wildness in us humans. In this way I think the natural world if studied carefully can teach us about our own humanity and thereby help us come to better know ourselves and our place in this world. . Carefully crafted stories are a means to this end.

So how do you find a story in nature (or anywhere else for that matter)? I often start with an incident, an encounter, a problem or a question.

Here are some examples from my repertoire:

(1) I was climbing up in the loft of an old abandoned barn in north Georgia when I heard an ominous hissing snarl… (2) I opened the door to see my white haired neighbor Lyge standing there in his well-worn denim coveralls saying, in his thick mountain drawl, “Doug, I brung you somethin’. Somethin’ you been a’ wanting…” and he flopped a dead groundhog on my door mat… (3) I was walking to the mailbox and there beside the driveway was a pile of dog poop… It was moving!

This is your hook, not only to your listeners when you are telling that story, but also to yourself as an explorer and an investigator. The incident sets a time and a place. A time and place is something that we all occupy. The incident may be exotic or familiar to the listener and either way it works. The listener is hooked or engaged, either because it sounds so different from anything they would be doing or because it is something familiar. Either way they are engaged.

Then I let my curiosity be my guide. I start asking questions. Any journalist will tell you your ability to get a good story is often directly related to your ability to ask good questions and ask the right resource people. The first and probably the ultimate resource is yourself. How do/did I relate to that incident, encounter, problem or question? How did I feel? .

Examples:

(1) The snarl was coming from a dark corner where the barn roof met the attic floor. My heart started pounding Most of my whole being just wanted to scramble down that rickety ladder and bolt out of there. “But what is it?” my naturalist mind demanded to know… (The listener pictures a barn loft with a ladder, identifies with your fear but also wants to know.)

(2) I racked my brain trying to think of why he would have thought that I wanted a dead groundhog…

(3) ” Moving dog poop?” I wondered? I forgot about the mail in my hand and sat right down there and watched that pile of poop….

The listener is engaged again, wondering, “What would I do in this situation?” A tension is building. Here is a good opportunity and place for humor. Our first human reaction is often unexpected. Unexpected things are often funny. Surprise is one of the cleanest and finest forms of humor. You can tap other forms of humor as well. In the third story, the image of someone sitting contemplating a pile of poop might be humorous for other reasons besides surprise. We humans do like to laugh at others’ foolishness. It is always a good strategy to portray yourself as naïve, foolish, ridiculous or the brunt of a joke. It makes others more at ease about their own naiveté or foolishness if they can laugh at your bumbling, human foibles. The image of someone contemplating a pile of poop might be humorous also because it is slightly taboo to talk about something we usually flush away and never mention in public. Alluding to taboos is another thing we humans think of as funny. That’s why so called “dirty” jokes are popular; because it (brings us together acknowledging) allows us to acknowledge sexy intimate things that we are not supposed to talk about. Under the guise of natural history you can talk about all kinds of scatological and sexy subjects and because we are all scatological, sexy creatures, we humans identify and we laugh. Humor itself is also a great hook and the sooner you can work it into a story, the sooner the listener gets the idea this story is going to be fun–pleasurable. We humans do love to be pleasured.

After you describe the incident and your reaction you might think about other times in your life that you might have had a similar encounter and what it meant to you. In my opening story about wood sorrel I started out in my own back yard with my dad. Later in the story my son and his friends are included. This gives me a past, a family, and alludes to a future. Whether your family experience was similar or very different from that of your listeners, mentioning your own past and your family connects you to your listeners’ past, their families and their hopes for the future.

The next step might be an initial resolution concerning your opening incident or a preliminary answer to the question you have set up.

Back to the examples:

(1)When my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see it huddled in the corner… it was a baby bird… with downy white feathers… but it wasn’t like any baby bird I had ever seen before. This baby bird was as big as a chicken. It was huddled in that dark corner cowering… and snarling like a rabid pit bull. This was a baby vulture…. (2) Then I remembered being up at Lyge’s house a few weeks before listening to his family reminisce about eating groundhog and telling me how good it tasted. I had said, “I’d like to try that sometime,” thinking I might get invited to dinner. Well it looked like dinner had just come to me! (3) I watched in astonishment as the pile started heaving and throbbing. A shiny black beetle, about an inch long, emerged. It was rolling a carefully crafted, perfectly round sphere of compacted dog poop. This was a dung beetle…

Simply seeing or experiencing something and figuring out what it is can be an interesting vignette but it is rarely enough to make good story. This initial vignette (incident, encounter, problem or question) becomes what Joseph Campbell refers to as the “call to adventure.” [where through] ” a herald…often a dark, loathly or terrifying thing… [or] a blunder …the individual is drawn into relationship with forces that are not understood. …apparently the merest chance [encounter]–reveals an unsuspected world, … ripples on the surface of life produced by unsuspected springs…[which may be] as deep as the soul itself.” Your challenge becomes, how to find and tap those hidden springs of meaning.

After you have explored your feelings and reactions and probed your own background, you have to find others who might have something to say about what you are investigating.

This subsequent investigation — your reading, research and your conversations with other people — becomes the adventure– the backbone or plot line of the narrative. Some of the various bits of information you gather or anecdotes and tales you hear can possibly stand on their own, but ideally the stories and information will be used as sub-plots to develop your entire piece. Rather than delivering a natural history lecture you end up with a classic mythic hero’s journey, where the hero (you, most likely) answers the “call to adventure” and wherever the investigation takes you becomes the journey. These facts, tales, and lore become stepping stones on a quest in search of truth and meaning. Rather than delivering a bunch of facts about the critter or phenomenon, we tell a story.

How do you embark on the investigative, story gathering journey?

Start reading everything you can find. I often start with scientific sources. Scientific writing can be very dry and technical but it gives you basic information and attempts to be objective.

The scientific names and terminology used can be somewhat off- putting unless you can see the humanness and occasional humor in them. (A dung beetle specialist sees a pile of poop as a “patchy ephemeral microhabitat”.) Scientists are not unlike many anthropological subcultures. They observe closely and are deeply involved in their own worldview. They have their own peculiarities, rules and limitations which can be as humorous and interesting as any ethnic group. Scientific names and terms often have interesting roots and origins.

Ask your neighbors, friends, and acquaintances (ideally from various subcultures) if they can interpret what you saw or tell you anything about it. Look in the indexes of folklore collections or motif indexes from cultural groups who live in the area. Are there any songs or stories that relate?

Check historical sources. Investigate what the early naturalists said about this. The journals of early explorers are often rich sources of information, stories and lore concerning the natural world in a larger context of history and exploration.

Anthropological sources, journal articles and old reports from the Bureau of American Ethnology (in the government documents section of your library) can often be a treasure trove of info. What do native groups say about this plant, animal or phenomena? Is (was) it part of their subsistence? How does it tie into their view of the world and their spirituality? Studying a native people’s worldview is a great way to shift or broaden our own perceptions of the natural world.

Can you find your subject mentioned in ancient sacred texts from any of the world’s present or past religions? How does that tie in to your own personal mythology /religion/ spiritual beliefs — can you find any synergy there? Can you find any universal truths or personal lessons to come back with and share from this journey? If so, great! If not, keep trying. I have a huge reservoir of incidents, encounters, problems and questions on my “back burner”. These things are right there simmering away. I regularly pull them onto the flame and stir them around a bit. I’m always looking for just the right ingredients to add for just the right flavor, so it will come out right. Occasionally a story comes together rather quickly, but most of my best pieces have taken years to develop and mature. Many are still in process.

So now I’ve teased you with the intros to three stories –three hooks and three “calls to adventure”. There is not enough space to finish all the stories here but I can summarize the plots, give you an idea of where my investigations have led me:

(1) Once I realized it was a vulture my curiosity was satisfied. Not wanting to further traumatize the little critter, I backed on down the ladder. It’s lucky I did. I found out that even a defenseless baby vulture, as helpless as it seems, has an ultimate weapon: If you get too close it’ll puke on you! Buzzard puke, what a concept! (Maybe the creator does have a sense of humor.) Vomiting in vultures, as gross as it may seem, is really part of a divine plan. This ability serves the vulture in allowing it to lose weight quickly for an emergency escape since it is built for soaring and not for quick takeoffs… Native Americans call the vulture “peace eagle” because unlike other eagles it doesn’t kill. It brings an element of peace to a tribe of warriors. Some tribes think of Vulture as a totem animal for a medicine person because death and disease are not its master. Many native healers wear a vulture feather. Here Buzzard is transformed into a symbol of peace and healing. Then there is the story of two boys who tried to fool the vultures by playing dead and a story about why vulture has a naked head. In this piece I used material from bird books, ornithology texts, early anthropology treatises, as well as conversations with native Americans from three tribes, a raptor rehabilitator, field biologists and a number of country folks.

(2) Lyge instructs me in hilarious detail how to prepare and use all the parts of the groundhog– the meat for food, the hide for a banjo head or shoelaces, the grease for medicine and in the process a troublesome varmint is transformed into a source of food, medicine, clothing, and music. Then we get into an investigation into early European mythological origins of Groundhog Day. We learn why the groundhog is considered a medicine animal by Native Americans. We hear a story about me intervening in a fierce dog -groundhog confrontation. And learn how animals and humans relate to stressful confrontations with similar behaviors. Then this is all related to psychology, sociology and world politics. I display my groundhog hide shoelaces, play a groundhog hide drum and sing the traditional song, “Oh Groundhog” as part of the story.

This groundhog piece, entitled GROUNDHOGOLOGY, Of Whistlepigs And World Politics, comes out of years of observing, hanging out with and yes, even skinning, cleaning, preparing and eating groundhogs. I reviewed lots of scientific and popular literature and talked to farmers, mountain folks, zoologists, ethnologists, and Native Americans about groundhogs for this piece.

(3) I follow the dung beetle as it pushes its precious cargo across the ground and buries it. Then I hit the books, learning that dung beetles lay an egg in the ball in this way providing food and shelter for the developing larva. I find a thick textbook called Dung Beetle Ecology written by “dung beetleologists” from all over the world. I learned about specialist dung beetles who hang out on the back of sloths and others who collect only manure from certain monkeys. I learn how introduced dung beetles saved large parts of Australia from being literally covered in cow manure from imported cattle. My friend Clint who was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm told me of “answering nature’s call” in Saudi Arabia at night and how the Dung beetles would come buzzing in from all directions to claim a piece of his precious offering. These beetles are the famous scarabs the ancient Egyptians considered to be sacred. They believed a divine scarab beetle rolled the sun across the heavens each day and buried it in the sand. The editor of Dung Beetle Ecology speculated the great pyramids might actually be stylized camel plops and the mummies might have been imitations of scarab pupae waiting to metamorphose. Whatever the theories, we have to acknowledge the wisdom of any culture whose spirituality honors the burying of manure in the ground as a source of rebirth and new life….

One of the best parts of telling these stories is the stories they evoke in others. After almost any concert there are usually people who want to share their experiences with you. Listen carefully because you might hear just the right ingredient — the story you have been looking for.

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4 thoughts on “Finding Stories in Nature

  1. Dear Doug,
    I really enjoyed your storytelling about storytelling…you are a wonderful writer…direct and circuitous at the same time. Un abrazo fuerte desde Puerto Rico de parte de otros cuentistas…Anita y Eduardo.

  2. Doug,

    My mother grew up in south Mississippi in the ’20s and ’30s where she learned so much from Choctaw friends. There were so many remedies and products that her family learned about from their friends. She’s gone now, and I regret so much that I don’t remember everything that she told us. Even after she went away to college and became an English teacher, wife and mother, she always remembered and used the natural products that she had learned. For instance, when her daughters had teething babies, she made a necklace for the baby out of the root of a bush that grew in her pasture. It actually seemed to ease the “teething” process! I just wish we could preserve and use these wonderful methods. I know your knowledge is much more sophisticated than a simple woods person, and I hope that there will always be folks with your knowledge.

    • Hi Helen, From my conversations with Native Americans from southeastern tribes I think the plant whose roots were used a necklace for teething babies was bull nettle (Solanum carolinense) also know as “tread soft” or “tread saft” . It apparently was a pretty well known tradition. Keep me posted Doug

  3. Doug, thx for keeping me in your network about nature. I read your whole article above about storytelling with natural topics and human meaning. It’s excellent info. Each summer for the last 4 years I’ve been teaching 12 fifty-five minute periods a week about nature at Camp Highlander in Mills River, NC. The pay isn’t much, nor has it been what brings me back each summer. It’s the fascination that the youngsters (ages 8 to 10, 11 to 13, and 14 to 16) demonstrate thru their questions and actions that thrills me. Example: twice in 2008 two different eight year olds came up to me at the end of their activity where we’d started off eating wood sorrel (I talk with all of them about the dietary/health importance of salads and healthy bowel movements) and then moved to wild blackberries (I talk with them about birds eating berries and vectoring the seeds around) for dessert. Anyway, the humorous but profoundly important comment from each of the 2 youngsters was, “Dr. Bob, did they name those berries after the telephone?” Wow! Camp Highlander’s rule of no mobile phones and no computers is really important for these young people — 300 plus kids from all over USA are getting real outdoors experiences in each of 3 summer sessions. I know that you know that NC mountains abound with similar camps. I just thought that you’d like to know that your info is grist for an important mill. BobA

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