Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Ground of our being

P1040896This Thursday night, I attended an event in a fine old house in Hackney. The house was Sutton House, a Tudor manor house that now belongs to the National Trust. The event consisted of two authors, Rob Cowen and Dominick Tyler, talking about their relationship with nature and landscape. Some of what Dominick said was personally recognisable to me: I’ve known him since his childhood in Cornwall. What both authors said about the impact of nature made me recall an important theme in story work I’ve done.

Rob Cowen’s book, Common Ground, is about the Yorkshire edgeland near where he grew up. One of those strangely absorbing places on the fringes of towns and cities where you can still find yourself immersed in the world of nature, he rediscovered his childhood edgeland as an adult. In Dominick’s book, Uncommon Ground, you see remarkable photos of landscape features and read about the terms for those features that have fallen almost completely out of knowledge. Finding the terms and the places which illustrate them was Dominick’s way of reconnecting with nature for behind his book, as with Rob Cowen’s, was his strong realisation of how much he’d lost in becoming urbanised as an adult.

And so to stories:

In story work I’ve done in schools, it’s always proved productive with pupils in the 10 – 13 age-range to ask them about places they value. I start with an invitation: ‘Think about somewhere you’ve enjoyed going to play, somewhere you like to lurk about.’

P1040900Then I invite them to make story maps of these places, perhaps noting down things they remember about them. As they work, there’s an observable sense of involvement. The story maps done, we’re off. The stories and experiences flow.

I won’t forget them.  

  • the boy who became so inspired talking about a kind of den he’d made on a bit of an island on Rainham Marshes
  • the girl who talked so lovingly about the dog she used to encounter and play with on one of her local Welsh  beaches
  • the boy who proudly imagined a Roman galleon cresting the brow of a Pembrokeshire hill where he and a friend were lying around in the sunshine after a summer day’s exploring.

Their experiences were incredibly moving. And perhaps it’s not surprising. Between 10 and 13 years old is a bit of a transitional time when, potentially, a new kind of awareness dawns on all fronts, physical, emotional and mental. It’s why I think it feels productive for young people in that age-range to think about places where they’ve had a conscious sense of discovering things for themselves, either on their own or with a very few friends.

The real thing:

Nature is essential to us as human beings. Reconnecting it if we’ve lost our sense of it can bring back those feelings of discovery, excitement and ownership of something personally found and appreciated.  Besides, Rob Cowan said that after returning from his edgeland to live in the city again, he feels newly aware of nature being all around us even in the city – in the buddleia that grows out of city walls, the ragwort that sprouts out of pavements, the sunsets over skyscrapers.

P1040891I agree, it’s there. Yet I don’t think a Brixton kid who doesn’t even get to Hyde Park, let alone Rainham Marshes, can ever get that real experience of nature that’s so vital to our consciousness as humans. You need to be surrounded by it, swamped by it, infused with it. You need to feel the otherness. You need to see life that’s not human, insects and animals and birds. You need to experience the wonder of being part of something that’s huge, beyond your control and – yes – sometimes frightening.

So we need to get urban children into the countryside (and country children into towns). We need to give them the experience of nature. We need to enable them to get a sense of themselves.  Stories are at least a way of doing this for children who’ve not even seen a sheep (and, yes, I’ve met plenty of children who haven’t). For adults likewise, stories have the power to connect or reconnect us with what’s so much more refreshing than TV, retail and the daily grind. Wonder tales, nature tales, local legends, myths: stories can not only give you a sense of what’s out there but make you want to go and find it. 

Common Ground …. Uncommon Ground … like nature and landscape, stories too are part of the ground of our being.

P.S. My photos today were taken on the RSPB’s nature reserve at Rainham Marshes. We went there a couple of years ago after hearing about it on the radio. It’s a great place,  truly an edgeland.

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